Month: November 2019

Where have all my punchlines gone?

I should have seen it coming. Twenty-five years ago, I was a marketing manager and leading a department meeting when the first sign unexpectedly reared its head. All my direct reports were under 30—I was not. During cross-talk, one of them said she had never been to Spain. Of course, not one to let an obvious opening close without comment, I piped up: “But I kind of like the music.”

My remark was met with confused stares and a long stretch of awkward silence. I was thinking they just didn’t get it; they were thinking I was showing early signs of mental decline.

And therein lies the rub: how does someone navigate in a world where nobody understands his or her reference points? What happens to a lifetime of handy pop cultural callbacks that no longer resonate? Let’s face it, it’s not as if you can easily drop a Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney or Sonny and Cher reference and replace it with Beyonce and Jay Z. Okay, maybe the Sonny and Cher swap would work. But that’s an exception.

The truth is, all those wonderful and witty comebacks you’ve saved over a lifetime of making smart-ass comments are about as useful as Monopoly money in a casino. So, the next time you’re with your grandchildren — or with anyone from a post-Boomer generation — try using Maxwell Smart’s “He missed it by that much” or Sergeant Schultz’ refrain of “I see Nothing. I know Nothing!” or Desi Arnaz’ trademark “Lucy! I’m home!” and see where that gets you.

Sadly, when you have to start explaining your punchlines, it’s time to settle in a comfortable armchair and turn on a game show. Case in point, my mom’s mother loved game shows. In her late 80s, she was watching a TV game show. The question asked was embarrassingly simple: “Who’s buried in Grant’s Tomb?” My grandmother blurted out: “Gary Grant.”

What brought all this to mind was indeed a game show. I enjoy watching “Jeopardy” but found a recent episode disturbing. The three contestants, many years my junior, were shown an image of the star playing Mister Rogers in the new movie “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” They were asked to name the movie star.

Not one of the contestants answered. I was stunned. They stood there with blank expressions and empty tablets and watched as an equally stunned Alex Trebek told them the answer. But before he could, I jumped up and shouted at the screen: “Tom Hanks. You idiots, Tom Hanks!”

Suddenly, I felt untethered and adrift. It was as if Francis the Talking Mule had quit talking to Mister Ed.

Now try explaining that analogy to a millennial. Go ahead, make my day.

If music be the food of insomnia

Where have you gone, Sheb Wooley? I suppose every generation venerates the music of its youth. As a Boomer, I am particularly grateful for the music I grew up with. We had folk songs and surfer music, Country and Motown, not to mention the British Invasion; gentle pop tunes from the 50s eventually gave way to more radical songs of the 60s. An embarrassment of riches for growing minds.

Even before we fell in love with the poetic songs and wretched voice of Bob Dylan, we were fed a steady diet of inane lyrics: “The Purple People Eater,” “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini,” and just about anything by that genius of silliness Allan Sherman.

And therein lies my problem. I have what’s known as an earworm. Fortunately – or unfortunately — I am not alone. Something like 90 percent of us suffer through the pangs and arrows of an earworm on a regular basis.

In case you fall into the 10 percent group and are unfamiliar with the concept of an earworm, it’s simple: an earworm is a song that gets stuck in your head. Sounds harmless enough, until it happens to you, especially when you’re trying to sleep and can’t because your mind plays that stupid song in a loop, over and over and over, and you have an important presentation to make at work later that same day and know you’re going to feel crappy during the presentation and most likely blow it.

Researchers, of course, can explain an earworm. They even have other names for it: cognitive itch, sticky music, stuck-song syndrome. Most often, the culprit is a song you recently heard. It might replay itself because you’re under stress. Or, as one theory holds, it’s directly tied to the human oral storytelling tradition, where memorization was critical to survival. As a human you’re stuck with this earworm thing, like it or not, as if it’s some kind of vestigial remain, and must learn to take your lumps and roll with the lyrics.

I’m sharing this information with you because, innocently enough, a couple of evenings ago I was streaming Amazon Music in the comfort of my home. I wanted something upbeat and uncomplicated, so I chose an album of the top 100 songs from the 1950-60s. That was my first mistake.

My second mistake was listening to “The Witch Doctor” by David Seville. I first became familiar with that song when I was almost ten, in 1958, sixty years ago, and I don’t recall hearing it much, if at all, since. Now if I had my wits about me and better reflexes, I would have raced over and put the remote on mute before the song started. But I didn’t. All night long, unable to reach inside my head and turn my brain off, all I could hear was: “Ooo eee, ooo ah ah ting tang / Walla walla, bing bang.”

I guess it could have turned out worse. Seville also gave us “The Chipmunk Song.”