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.

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