The Tale of My Mother’s Failed Joke

Sometimes, missing a punchline only improves a joke and makes it memorable.

I had the pleasure of visiting with a woman who will be 96 years old next week. She told tales over and over about her and her husband and the tremendous things they accomplished in their SEVENTY-FIVE YEARS OF MARRIAGE.

It was amazing (and I don’t say that just to say that, listening to this woman talk about her husband and marriage was truly incredible. I mean, 75 years of marriage…and he served three active years in the Army during World War 2!) to watch this woman’s face light up as she spoke of the times she and her husband shared. One of the things they did from their early 70’s through their mid-90’s was organize bus excursions for groups of seniors. They would get a luxury bus together and charge anyone who bought a ticket just the cost (no profit), and the bus would always fill up. This was most likely because of the lengths this woman and her husband would go to in order to make the bus trip fun. Sometimes the trips would only be local day-trips, but these excursions could be as long as a week. Each trip came with a goodie bag filled with home-baked items, various trinkets provided by local businesses, decorations, food and drink, prizes, sing-alongs, and comedy…all provided by this woman and her husband. It all sounded like a blast, and since these trips were only at cost for the bus ticket and any entry fees to wherever they went, it was no wonder why these trips always sold out.

What got me was the comedy. This woman would stand up in front of a bus full of people and tell jokes for hours. Naturally, I asked for a joke. She couldn’t wait to tell me her “favorite joke.”

She then proceeded to attempt to tell a joke about someone ordering a BLT at a diner, but somehow there were extra letters involved spelling out various “bad words.” She was laughing as she told the joke, but she was forgetting the actual acronyms involved in order to make the joke work. The delivery kept starting and restarting, but all attempts ended in failure, yet she still laughed. In the end, she decided to give it all up, but assured me that it was the best joke she knew. She was 96 after all, and just watching her light up while trying to tell the joke was worth more than hearing the joke itself, I’m sure. Nevertheless, I gave her my phone number and asked her to call me with any jokes she wanted an audience for, especially the BLT joke, should she remember it.

It seriously made my night to watch her reaction to the joke, even though I didn’t get to enjoy the punchline. She was enjoying both her memory of telling the joke and her failure in remembering it. I loved seeing her smile as she failed in her comedy, as it reminded me of a great story about my mother.

This story harkens back to the time when my mom was new to the Akron, Ohio area and trying to make friends (sometimes by giving strangers the middle finger).

My father brought my mother to a company party and was introducing her to many of the people with whom he worked. Many of these people were high up in the ranks at his job. My mother was as charming as usual, and she gathered much attention in conversation. To add to things, my mother had a tiny bit more to drink than usual, which wasn’t much because she was never much of a drinker. Long story short, having gained the attention of many important people at my father’s new career, my mother’s fairly inebriated mind decided it was time to tell everyone her favorite joke.

Roughly speaking and with obvious embellishment, the joke goes as follows:

A man with no arms walks into an enormous church, demanding to see the head priest. As everyone thinks he is ill and requires immediate spiritual attention, they fetch the head priest at once. Much to everyone’s surprise, however, the armless man pleads with the head priest to be the bell ringer for the church. He says he comes from Falmouth, a town several hundred miles away, and he has been rejected by every church between here and there, as no one believes he could be a bell ringer due to his lack of arms. The man begs and pleads with the head priest to give him a chance to prove that he is the greatest bell ringer anyone has ever heard. Moved and curious, the head priest agrees to hear the man ring the bells for the next noon hour, just so he can witness the man’s abilities and make a decision based solely upon his skill.

Soon enough, noon draws near. The armless man takes his place atop of the bell tower, right next to the enormous iron bell. The entire town has gathered to watch, as word of the high priest hiring an armless bell ringer has spread like wildfire. At last, noon arrives, and with hundreds of people watching, the armless man finally gets his chance to prove his worth.

Much to everyone’s shock and awe, the armless man bangs his head against the enormous bell once. The resulting BONG! from the church bell is beautiful. The church bell has never rang so clearly. The man bangs his head against the bell a second time, and the resulting BONG! is even more lovely than the first, yet no one has noticed the blood starting to seep from the top of the armless man’s forehead.

BONG! BONG! BONG! BONG! 

Halfway through the essential twelve rings of the church bell to signify noon, the crowd is entranced by the new and echoing beauty this armless bellringer has brought to their oft-ignored bell chimes. No one is questioning the bellringer’s abilities at this point. It is obvious that he has a natural, albeit unconventional, talent.

BONG! BONG! BONG! BONG! BONG!

The seventh through eleventh rings of the bell only cause the townspeople to start tearing up in overwhelming emotional joy. That’s how amazing the armless bellringer’s talents are. Entranced, no one notices that the bellringer’s face is streaking with blood and he is wavering atop the church steeple. Everyone is awaiting the final twelfth ring, but it never comes.

The armless man succumbs to his injuries and falls several stories to the ground below. He dies instantly in the fall. His lifeless body wears a smile, as he was able to fulfill his lifelong dream of being the bellringer for a church.

All of the townspeople are in shock. The man who just brought most of them to tears with his bellringing has just died in attempting to accomplish that very task. Many cry out for an immediate blessing and memorial. The high priest agrees that the man should be honored, yet he is distraught, as he failed to get the man’s name prior to assigning his bell-ringing trial. All he knows is that the man is from Falmouth.

Using this only identifying piece of information, the high priest addresses the crowd, begging anyone who has been to Falmouth recently to step forward and try to identify the dead, armless bellringer.

A man in the back of the crowd steps forward. He says that he has family from Falmouth, and he would perhaps know of a man without arms, as long as he can get a good look at him. Naturally, the crowd parts to let the man through.

He examines the bellringer’s body from top to bottom while the crowd waits in hushed anticipation. Finally, the man stands straight up, and with a smile, he says…

(This is the actual punchline:)

 I do not know this man, but his face sure rings a bell!

Only, this is NOT what my mother said in front of everyone my father relied upon professionally. Instead, with complete confidence, she said:

I do not know this man, but his face looks familiar!

Instantly realizing her mistake, my mother burst into a great fit of self-induced nervous laughter. She blew a joke after an extra-long setup, and now she was laughing at how badly she blew the punchline. The fact that literally no one around her was laughing only made her own laughter impossible to contain. She was caught up in the fact that what she had just accomplished was ridiculous and embarrassing, yet her natural reaction was to laugh at herself, which only made everyone around her believe that she believed that what she had just said was funny.

The fact that she cocked the whole thing up in front of the undivided attention of some of the most important people in her husband’s career only made her laughter continue in a seemingly endless manner until she regained enough breath to apologize and tell the appropriate punchline, which was long lost at that point.

At the end of the night, both my mother and father were cackling into the night together at how glorious the error was. They bonded over the failed joke in such a seemingly important situation. The failed joke ended up funnier than the successfully told joke ever could have.

And this ended up a story both my father and mother enjoyed telling for decades after the fact.

Because of this, the “his face looks familiar joke” will always be one of my all-time favorites.

And to think, if my mother had executed the joke properly, the joke might have caught a few laughs and then promptly disappeared.

What is actually important is never required to be perfect.

In fact, perfection should be discouraged, shouldn’t it?

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