Sometimes You Just Have to Laugh


The mere thought of liberal humor in Texas will remind many of that photo that ran for years in Esquire magazine, of Richard Nixon laughing hysterically, over the caption, “Why Is This Man Laughing?†Well hell, as that great philosopher Jimmy Buffett observes, if we couldn’t laugh, we would all go insane. Besides, crying and throwing up are bad for you.

Next to cops and doctors, Texas liberals have the darkest sense of humor I’ve ever come across. But like everything else in the beloved state, it comes with a twist. Like normal Texans, Texas liberals love good stories and love language with flavor and bite to it, like a good chili.

A scholar of humor (they have such Up North) once told me that the storytelling tradition I used to consider part of Texas culture is actually a function of the fact that so many of us were, until fairly recently, either rural or just one generation off the farm or ranch. Rural humor, said the good Professor Herman, is a function of the fact that life moves more slowly in the country. People have time to sit around on their front porches telling stories while they shell peas or snap beans or whatever quaint rural pursuits are pursued on porches. You can see some of that legacy in the Texian fondness for jokes in which the rube comes out on top, as in: “Y’heard about the Aggie who went to Harvard? Yeah, he went up there and asked one a them Harvard men, ‘Where’s the liberry at?’

“Fella says, ‘My good man, don’t you know you must never end a sentence with a preposition?’ So the Aggie says, ‘O.K., where’s the liberry at, asshole?’â€

Rural humor also tends to involve shit, since there’s a lot of it around farms and ranches. This factor has definitely stuck.

The storytelling tradition clusters in certain callings—politicians, trial lawyers, and newspaper folk. Since Observer writers tend to get a triple dose of this, we have also recorded a lot of it. Preachers and salesmen, in my experience, go more for set jokes. I infinitely prefer true stories and on-the-spot responses, since most real humor lies in character. Think about the family stories you tell, or stories about your friends that are so much funnier because you know the people involved.

Here’s an old political story that depends on the listener knowing that Lyndon Johnson’s political career was largely funded by the construction firm Brown & Root (now KBR, subsidiary of Halliburton, of Iraqi contract infamy—some things never change). It was told before the 1960 election and also reflects the anti-Catholicism then common in Texas:

So Kennedy and Johnson win, and shortly after the election they’re settin’ around the Oval Office and the phone rings. H’it’s the Pope a Rome on the phone. . Pope says, “John, my son, this is the Pope callin’. We’ve got a problem over here. The roof of the Vatican is leakin’ somethin’ fierce. We been runnin’ around settin’ the sacred vessels under the holes, but they fillin’ up fast. Y’all reckon you could come over here and fix the Vatican roof for us?†“Sure, Mr. Pope, sir,†says Kennedy. “Just let me consult with my vice president here. Lyndon, it’s the Pope on the phone, wants to know if we can go over there and fix the Vatican roof for him.†Lyndon drawls basso, “That’s fine with me, John. Just make sure Brown & Root gets the contract.â€

Urban humor tends toward the one-liner, the quick quip, and is often sardonic, sarcastic, or a put-down. I know tons of Texans who are superb at one-liners, but they rarely have the storytelling gene as well. Ann Richards is one of the rare ones who can do both splendidly.

The greatest storyteller I ever knew was the late John Henry Faulk, and he in turn was the protégé and friend of J. Frank Dobie, our greatest Texas folklorist. So there we are, back in the rural roots again. As often happened with Texas progressives, Faulk’s humor was far better appreciated Up North, so he moved to New York City and had a nationally syndicated radio show, “Johnny’s Front Porch.†I was later struck by how many of his stories were macabre black humor. People in John Henry’s stories often died in bizarre ways—for example, getting blowed up so bad they settled over an entire field in kind of a pinkish mist. Causing great problems for the funeral directors.

Many of Johnny’s stories were political, but as he pointed out, he never said anything controversial in his own voice. It was always Cousin Claude, the unreconstructed racist, or some other loony from Johnny’s vast invented family who sounded off. Try one of Cousin Claude’s rants from the Vietnam era and see how timely it is:

So Cousin Claude said, “Hell, yis, I believe in the right to dissent. H’it’s in the Constitution. What I cain’t stand is all this criticism. Criticize, criticize, criticize. Why don’t they just leave Lyndon alone and let him fight his war in peace? “Now lookahere at these Veetnamese people. We send our best boys over there. Flyin’ million-dollar airplanes. Wearin’ pressed uniforms. You know what them Veetnamese do? They come out at night. On they bicycles. Wearin’ pyjamas. Not even Christian. “If they don’t like what we’re doin’ for ’em, they oughtta go back where they come from.â€

Another element of Texas humor is a kind of verbal machismo. Many Texan sayings—the unusual similes and metaphors we cherish and pass along—involve a sort of macho one-upmanship. The stronger and the saltier the language, the more points you get for it. Of course, one always gets extra points for a completely original metaphor or simile: That is true Texas speaking.

Bob Strauss developed a great reputation for wit Up North by using old Texas sayings, whereas Bob Bullock used to make up his own. When you think about it, that says a lot about their politics. I believe Bullock originated the classic ’70s description of a city fella: “His pants was so tight, if he’d a farted, it woulda blown his boots off.â€

I am particularly fond of a Gary Cartwright metaphor I often use. I think it’s from an article about the stripper Candy Barr: “She couldn’t have been more surprised if she’d opened the refrigerator and found Fidel Castro inside.â€

Liz Carpenter is another Texan with a gift for original comparisons. In 1972, upon hearing that John Connally was forming a group called “Democrats for Nixon,†she observed: “If John Connally had been at the Alamo, he woulda started Texans for Santa Anna.â€

The perverse relish of what is most outlandish and tacky about our state is also a Texian trait. The Redneck Hall of Fame has extremely high entrance requirements. Priscilla Davis, for example, is in the Hall not because of the whole unfortunate episode with her ex, T. Cullen, trying to murder her, or the subsequent trials. Could’ve happened to anyone. But she also had a diamond necklace that spelled out “Rich Bitch,†and she dyed her pussy pink and shaved it into a heart-shape. Outstanding.

Here’s one of those standard “You’re a redneck if…†jokes: “When your momma gets stopped for speeding, she does not take the Marlboro out of her mouth before telling the highway trooper to fuck off.†That’s funny. Texas rednecks actually are not funny. They are guys who use spotlights for deer-hunting and kittens for shark bait and they’re as funny as a .44. You hear these nincompoop right-wingers pompously lecturing liberals for their supposed “cultural condescension†toward our rugged, salt-of-the-earth brethren here in the Red heartland. I yield to no one in my fondness for most Texans, but wouldn’t you just love to introduce Ann Coulter to Butch, Bubba, and DeWayne? They’re not girlie-men. If she liked DeWayne, we could take up a collection to get his teeth fixed.

One of the obvious origins of Texan humor is the frontier tradition of humor by exaggeration. The classic is Davy Crockett’s brag:

Colonel David Crockett, fresh from the backwoods, half horse, half alligator, a little touched up with snapping turtle; can wade the Mississippi, leap the Ohio, ride upon a streak of lightning, and slip without a scratch down a honey locust; can whip by weight in wildcats—and if any gentleman pleases, for a ten-dollar bill he can throw in a panther—hug a bear too close for comfort, and eat any man opposed to Jackson.