A funny thing happened on the way to the thrift store

Apr 10, 2015 by

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Not really. Nothing all that funny actually happens on the way to the thrift store. Sometimes something mildly amusing might happen and then the little anecdote could be woven into an edifying sermon, but never anything rip-roaring funny. Mennonites do not fall over laughing in the aisles on a Sunday morning.

That isn’t to say that we don’t think about humor from time to time and ponder about our apparent humorlessness. Usually in earnest little essays or editorials that seek to explain away our earnestness. I had some hope when Geez magazine started out, what with its tagline being about “holy mischief.” Turns out, it’s not really the funny kind of mischief. Looks like they’ve dropped the tagline, anyway, perhaps admitting defeat. Every now and then someone will protest loudly that we’re not as not funny as everyone thinks we are. A guy named Matt Falk is making a film on that theme as I write. Good luck to him. I mean that earnestly.

There are some kinds of funny that actually are, if not widely prevalent, at least not frowned upon among Mennonites. The youth and activities geared towards children are generally given some leeway. Writing and performing skits and songs that gently poke fun of our foibles while also holding firm to sound biblical and/or theological stands are good wholesome activities to keep the kids out of trouble.

When I grew up, the Mennonite men who had any sense of humor at all, had a sparse dry sense of humor, arid as a Manitoba afternoon. They liked to make jokes without actually smiling, and with the least possible number of words. Women had a livelier humor that consisted of mundane stories and anecdotes made outrageous in the telling that, if done well, could take up the whole of an afternoon in the kitchen. There’s also a Low German sense of humor that crosses genders but not generations as I repeatedly learned from asking time and again for my parents to explain the jokes that had them in stitches. They appeared to me to be all variations of farmyard humor and not all that funny.

Screen Shot 2015-04-10 at 8.40.25 AMOnce every generation or so, someone tries on some satire to see if it’ll fit. In the 1980s, a spoof newspaper called the Mennonite Distorter lampooned the precursor of the Canadian Mennonite, the Mennonite Reporter. It didn’t last long. If you search, you can still find a few nuggets of satirical funny out there, like the short-lived Mennonot that included a reprint of a “news” item describing the controversy brewing over whether to allow same-sex singing in Mennonite churches. Even Youtube, comedy’s priesthood of all uploaders, has only a meager offering of Mennonite humor. Sure, if you type Mennonite comedy into the search bar, you get more than 2,000 results but only about a dozen of those are Mennonites actually trying to be funny. A few even succeed. And anyway, 2,000 by Youtube standards is nothing. Mennonite singing gets more than six times that many results.

And then there are Mennonite jokes. For many years I thought that Mennonite jokes were a real thing that distinguished us as a people from other peoples. Turns out, no. Most of them were stolen from other cultures and just Menno-ified by throwing in a Mennonite last name and a goofy Low German or Pennsylvania Dutch accent. For the most part, these jokes, hilariously, revolve around Mennonites as cheap, puritanical, simpleminded, and/or bureaucratic. And hypocritical. There’s everyone’s favorite joke: take one Mennonite fishing and he’ll (it’s always a “he” in this joke) drink all your beer; take two of them along and they’ll drink none. There is also that delightful subset of Mennonite humor that is all about Mennonite women being ugly. But we’ll get to Mennonite misogyny another time.

Every now and then, a joke does manage to pull together a few of our particular peccadilloes and speaks to something core about us, something worth laughing about. You can even get a bit of a sense of the Mennonite zeitgeist by looking at how the jokes have changed.

For instance, here are five variations of the light bulb joke in chronological order of my hearing them:

Q: How many Mennonites does it take to change a light bulb?
A: 27. One to change the light bulb and 25 for the potluck for afterwards (c. 1975).
A: 31. Ten for the committee to nominate the changer; 10 for the committee to arrange for disposal of the old lightbulb; 10 for the committee to purchase the new light bulb; one to change it upon being discerned for the task by the congregation (c. 1985).
A: It takes the consensus of the congregation, or, failing that, a two-third majority vote (c. 1995).
A: Change? (c. 2005)
A: That depends. Our congregation is not currently of one mind on the need to change the light bulb. Although the majority wishes it changed, a sizable minority is in loving disagreement. We are, therefore, entering into a yearlong season of discernment during which we will prayerfully study the scriptures to seek guidance in our decision-making process. We will also be in dialogue with our area conference at this time to assure that any light bulb switching does not threaten the unity of our denomination. If we discern that the congregation’s will is, indeed, to switch the light bulb, we will then establish a task force to implement the bulb-changing directive. So, yeah, we’ll get back you. (c. 2015)

Are you laughing yet?

Sherri Klassen is a writer living in Toronto, Ont., where she is a member of Toronto United Mennonite Church.

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