A few weeks ago, I was telling a story to a group of friends. It was after a church service and we were stationed to one side of a buffet table trying unsuccessfully to discourage kids from shoving handfuls of cookies into their pockets.
Since my friends know that most of my stories incorporate off color, self-deprecating humor or blatant exaggerations, they probably had good reason for anxiety as our pastor approached. The story I was telling had to do with the night of my 40th birthday, when my husband thought it would be funny to remove his shirt in a crowded gay club before coming to find me. As is probably true of most stories that have to do with drinking and stripping in gay bars, there were moments of poignant humor, and nuances that, left out of the tale, would dramatically alter the narrative.
Our pastor is a pretty cool guy, so is my husband, and I have this weird aversion to altering a story so as to be less offensive. So while my brain may have speedily assessed the wisdom of continuing with such a potentially embarrassing tale depending upon the audience, there was no awkward pause on my part, nor any twitch or indication that I assessed the situation and deemed it acceptable to continue in mixed (holy and not-so-holy) company.
“And so then he said ‘hey, I’m up here,'” I said, pointing at my chest and then to my face. That’s it. Story finished.
There was one beat … two. Someone laughed politely.
Two kids elbowed their way to the table and attacked a plate of snickerdoodles.
Since that moment, the story that’s remembered and retold among members of our congregation is not about Mike’s inebriated shirtless wanderings through downtown Boise, but my retelling of the tale in front of our resident man-of-God.
Okay, it wasn’t the most genteel moment of my life. In fact, I’d be hard pressed to recall ANY genteel moments. Rather, my timeline on this earth is highlighted by spectacular instances of questionable judgement, usually relating to the poorly-timed, off-color comment or patently offensive story.
There was the time I was sharing a moment from the life of a court-reporter friend of mine. She had received a call from a colleague who was transcribing testimony and needed grammatical advice. Midway through my tale, I realized that my story’s bawdy punch line might not fly with the well-healed ladies of the Junior League, but what the heck? The story isn’t funny at all without the last little bit, and so what if it made me come across as a sailor?
“And so my friend called to ask ‘does the term ‘butt-f–ker’ have a hyphen?'”
Well, my anal-retentive, shirtless husband tells me hyphenation in this case is proper when the term is a compound modifier. And yeah, that story was a flop in that particular crowd. On the inside, I’m sure everyone was cracking up, but Junior League ladies don’t often belly laugh unless they have a lot more wine in them.
You can feel however you want about this, but I value a good story over a whole bunch of other stuff, including coming across as well-mannered, or fitting in. If that story incorporates bad language, well, one cannot sacrifice narrative in favor of leaving out a well placed expletive, or embarrassing moment. It doesn’t work. Ask any fan of Battlestar Galactica reruns if they aren’t still brought up short by the shows’ copious use of the word “frack” as the futuristic, FCC clean, curse of choice.
It sounds, well, fracking stupid.
Some stories you just can’t tell well by cleaning them up. And there are times when a well-placed expletive is really funny.
Take the case of the 5 foot tall metal chicken. Not a story you can tell without the F-word. Can’t be done.
That’s not to say one can’t easily overuse expletives. Calling everyone else on the road a jackass is so nonspecific as to render the insult rather pointless. It diffuses the impact and makes you come across as unimaginative. Insults, like humor, should be unexpected, creative and delivered with exceptional timing.
And if that exceptional timing happens to be when your local man of God joins in on the conversation, well the Big Man himself knows you can’t stop a speeding story train.