A Head Waiter’s Crucible

“I don’t get it,” the faculty at the table told me.

What do you mean you don’t get it, I thought. That joke was pure gold. How could you not see its ingenuity?

The others at the table traded uncomfortable glances, the same hesitant and worrisome faces one makes when their parents discuss the taboo. They, along with the faculty, stared at me with looks that demanded an explanation. Frankly, I should have taken this as a warning sign.

“Oh, come on,” I said. “It’s an anti-joke. It just is funny.”

That was the flawed logic I offered.

I laughed to myself, a slight unease taking hold, and moved on to the next table.

There are two types of head waiters at Thacher: the ones who bear the burden of taking attendance —scurrying from table to table while they try and fail to remember the names of underclassmen— and the ones who give announcements that end with the iconic ‘directly after formal in room whatever’.

When a head waiter has no announcements to make, their peers eagerly pester them for a joke, and they are obliged to conjure up a corny gag that will most always end in an unsatisfying and lame pun.

That night, there were no announcements, and I had studied long and hard  (all of five minutes) alongside my fellow waiter and other dining hall heroes, using the d-hall iPad to scan the likes of reallycorny.com and humoropedia.com in search of the perfect joke.

We settled on one, read it aloud, and all burst into laughter, a sure sign that the joke will perhaps be one of the few decent ones told throughout the year. To confirm its legitimacy, I told it to the master waiter, who laughed and said, “Hey, that’s pretty good.”

That was all the confirmation I needed and as the throngs of students and faculty shuffled in to take their seats, I bumped knuckles with my partner and set out with an uncommon air of confidence.

The formal bell rung. It’s showtime.

I made it to the third table. The table before remained silent but fortunately, my own isolated laughter provided the self-assurance I needed. Now I’ll get some laughs.

“Do you have a joke?” the table asked in unison, their eyes locked on me in eager expectation.

I told them.

Like the first table, they gave me looks of uncertainty as if I had missed the point of their question. Some waited a bit longer, tapping their fingers against the table’s wood until they eventually realized that my response was the joke. In a tone that bordered on impatience, a student asked,

“Do you have another joke?”

My face burned. I imagined a scenario in which my personality brimmed with charisma. In which I would respond with the perfect blend of hilarity and self-awareness, surprising the table with a sincere quip. I would brush the dirt off my shoulders as if this feat was nothing but another day’s work.

The table leaned forward in anticipation. I opened my mouth halfway, hoping that the joke would take care of itself and despite my loftiest fantasies, it didn’t.  When the table realized I had nothing, they slouched in their seats in disappointment, some throwing their hands in the air like their favorite sports team had just lost the championship game. The faculty looked at his plate, pursed his lips, and waved me away.

To my dismay, that excruciating moment marked a string of traumatic encounters in which I would foolishly embarrass myself. I tried to hold my confidence together, but each subsequent table was an exercise in walking through the fires of humiliation.

While some students cringed, others winced in pain. Some simply stared in astonishment, expecting answers for the crime committed by the sad head waiter before them. As I walked to the next tables only a few feet away, students shook their heads in dismay. Several tables laughed— more so at me than the actual joke.

“Who do you think you are?” some asked, nearly prompting an identity crisis on the spot.

My only saving grace arrived at Mr. Mulligan’s table when he laughed, pointed at me endearingly, and mouthed, that’s smart. Ms. Mulligan, along with the rest of the table, looked at him in confusion and doubt.

One student pulled me aside and said tersely,

“Wow, Rico, you just ruined my night.”  The  suggestion being that had I not told my joke, the rest of their wild evening —study hall, nine-thirty to ten, and check-in— would have otherwise been a fulfilling experience. Clearly, I had robbed them.

Nonetheless, their words destroyed any semblance of a head waiter, and I immediately ran face first into a melodramatic, moral quandary; could I actually be ruining people’s nights?

I stood there mortified but took consolation knowing it could not get worse.

It got worse.

My confidence was long shattered, and I awkwardly began to qualify my joke, “Hey guys, so other tables haven’t liked this joke, but I think you might be the one”. Sometimes, I just settled with, “The joke you are about to hear is the Ipad’s fault.”

What. Was. I. Thinking.

Moreover, I began to deliver the already broken joke incorrectly, slowly deteriorating into a dysfunctional mass of stutters and nervous coughs. I remember apologizing to a few tables, the ones who looked at me in the way one looks at a stray puppy.

As I neared the end of the gauntlet of grimaces, scowls, and sneers, I encountered a table with a faculty member I am particularly fond of. When the students asked the inevitable question, the teacher nodded encouragingly and for a moment, everything was ok.

The moment passed quickly, however, and once I told my joke, the teacher sighed and told me,

“Rico, your sister would have never done this.”

As I began to sweat profusely, I couldn’t agree more.

The last few tables, I lied (Nope! Sorry folks, no joke tonight!)  and sadly waddled away.

As I left the dining hall, people approached for the sole purpose of reminding me that I was an incompetent let-down.

“You lacked wit and satire,” a friend told me.

“Yeah, that was garbage. Pure trash,” another chimed.

“You had one job.” one declared with their arms crossed. “And you blew it.”

I offered flimsy excuses to this student, telling her that, in fact, half the tables had laughed while the others lacked the emotional intelligence to understand. Deep down, as she looked at me in pity, I knew she was well-aware of my lies and considered pleading guilty on the spot— perhaps the JC would straighten me out.

After the fact, I sat in my best friends’ room recounting the story as one recounts traumatic experiences to a therapist. As they laughed at that trainwreck of a night, I began to consider the nature of the announcement head waiter. You just ruined my night.

Being the waiter who shoulders the joke is an uphill battle. According to formal tradition, you are expected to tell a joke that ends in a pun. Regardless of its wit or satire —two things these jokes can never have— you will always leave your audience dissatisfied at what is ultimately a stale one-liner. In any case, there is no instance in which a head waiter’s joke can rise beyond its own inanity. The best you can hope or is some wise student to flail their arms while exclaiming I’ve heard this before! I’ve heard this before! I’ve heard this before!

This is a fact.

For this reason, the announcement waiter faces a no-win scenario. You tell a joke, you ruin people’s nights. You tell no joke, you ruin people’s nights. You tell a bad joke, you suffer a lifetime’s worth of shame that will sabotage all of your friendships and dismantle any dignity you may have left while keeping you up late nights in deep bouts of introspection as you contemplate a simple question— where did it all go wrong?

After finishing the story, my friends naturally insisted I tell the joke.

I told it.

They laughed. I laughed too.