Bar Joke, Arizona
by Sam Allingham
Issue #97 • August 20th, 2007•Sold Out!
Edited by Hannah Tinti
A man walks into a bar. He walks over to the bartender and says, “Can I get a drink?”
The bartender looks up from the fan he’s been tinkering with and says, “Sure. What would you like?”
“Well,” the man says. “The problem is, I don’t have any money.”
“I see,” the bartender says.
“But I do have...”
The man starts, then breaks off, hesitates, and begins again.
“I have... oh... wait... hold on...”
The bartender shakes his head and starts washing some glasses.
“Look, I have—you know,” the man mumbles, gesturing in the air.
“Oh, I used to remember this one. Gimme a second.”
Finally he gives up and starts staring at his hands.
The bartender finishes washing the glasses, throws the rag over his shoulder, and gives the man a hard look. It’s a stifling day, the bar has no air conditioning, and with the fan broken the heat’s starting to bother him.
“You forgot the punch line, didn’t you?” the bartender asks.
Sam Allingham grew up in rural South Jersey and Northwest Philadelphia. He is a graduate of the Oberlin College Creative Writing Program. He currently works as an Administrative Assistant at the Kelly Writers House and lives in West Philadelphia, which he strongly suggests you visit if you happen to find yourself in the United States. This is his first published story.
Q&A by Hannah Tinti
HT: Where did the idea for this story come from?
SA: A friend and I were talking about the idea of jokes, how they’re sort of an outmoded form of humor. I mean, who actually tells a joke—with a set-up, dialogue, a punchline—anymore? The only time I ever heard them was from men in bars when they were truly soused. Bar jokes are a really insular form: drunks telling stories about drunks for the benefit of other drunks. A hermetically sealed world.
HT: What was the most challenging aspect of writing this story?
SA: My natural tendency is always to overwrite. But you can’t do that with a bar joke, and so I had to hack and hack and really be merciless with myself. The initial draft was so fast—I was giddy writing it, because the process was so much fun—that I didn’t do my usual meticulous editing as I went along. The first full edit was a small massacre. The dialogue was wooden, sentences were borderline incoherent. It was a slash and burn affair.
HT: Was it difficult to include so many characters? How did you choose which jokes to use?
SA: When I started out, I only knew a handful of bar jokes. Through the course of writing the story, I picked a lot of new ones up; my poor girlfriend got a mixtape in the mail that was lousy with them. During the final editing process, when I added a few new characters, I actually stole a few from people I knew. The bartender/manager of my neighborhood bar told me the one about the sperm whale. By and large, I tried to stick with tropes people knew: priest, minister, rabbi, the guy who tries to walk into the bar. Except for the animals. I went a little crazy with the animals.
HT: Did you find it difficult to sustain the conceit of the story?
SA: Luckily for me, the story kind of expanded of its own accord and allowed me just enough room to include a broader emotional palette so that I didn’t get bored. Little details, like the moth drinking sweet liquor, got me through the middle. And once the duck showed up, I felt like I could just do whatever I wanted. I mean, a fox? The orchestra? Buddhists? That part was just so much fun to write.
HT: Why did you choose the bartender and the first man to be the bookends/guides through this piece?
SA: Well, that’s what a bartender does, right? One of the strange pleasures of being around a bar at two in the morning is that you get to see the bartender shaping conversation. Drunks are terrible storytellers, and half the time its the bartender who has to give shape and coherence to their rambling fragments. Friends of mine sometimes complain about the extravagance of bar tipping, but when you consider that a bartender has to be an editor/psychiatrist/bounce/priest most nights, it starts to make sense.
HT: The duck is great, and really takes the story to a whole new level when he walks into the bar. Why did you choose to write the longest part of the story from his point of view? And was it hard to write from the point of view of a duck?
SA: Thanks! That was the point where I thought the story was really taking off, where I felt like I could pretty much do no wrong. So, really, it’s so long because I started having so much fun writing. I kept stumbling from scene to scene as I got more excited. They’re in a big city—New York, I imagined—so why not have a jazz club? Or an orchestra? If he craves silence, why not send him to a Buddhist retreat? And if they’re in Arizona, why not have him whispering his secrets into a canyon? I had been holding back for the whole story, and I guess I just let loose. He ends up saying what the rest of the characters can’t quite express.
I mean, the duck isn’t really a duck, obviously, which is the funny part for me. He’s based in part on some of the old men I used to serve when I worked as a bartender at a tennis club. These guys were really emotionally stunted, but you could sense in some of their stories that there was something there, something they could never quite get to. I would always try to write them off in my mind, but then they would give off these bits of wisdom despite themselves.
HT: Why do you think all of these jokes are so unhappy?
SA: It’s that kind of bar. There’s a bar like that in every town, I think, where you come in at 5:20 and there are already five guys lined up at the counter, staring off into space. They’ll always be there. You might as well give them a cot.
Bar jokes themselves just remind me of sad old men. OuItmoded jokes bring to mind people who seem to be left behind by the rest of society. That’s why it seemed to make sense to have all the characters’ wives leave them for men who worked in advertising, or on the internet. Can you imagine one of the drunk regulars at your local bar becoming a successful web entrepreneur?
HT: How long did it take you to complete this story?
SA: The initial draft was the fastest thing I ever wrote. I cranked it out in about five hours. But like I said, it was a mess. The first half was horrendously overwritten. It took another three months of editing before I sent it off to One Story. And then the second round of edits suggested by the One Story editorial staff took another week or so, writing about three hours a day. Originally the story was in past tense, and it had to be overhauled into present tense. Really, everyone at One Story was tremendously helpful, and their excellent editorial suggestions made it a much better story. It took so long for so few pages. When I consider the amount of work a longer story would have taken, it makes me seriously depressed.
HT: What is the best bit of advice about writing you have ever received?
SA: I was lucky enough to go to Oberlin College, and the other students in my workshops were scary talented, especially for undergraduates. Plus, they were my friends, and we were always showing each other our work, sharing our thoughts. Sometime around my senior year I developed a complex about my own writing. Everyone else was writing such interesting, weird pieces, and it seemed like my stuff was dull in comparison.
So I basically started flailing. I was producing some pretty hackneyed stories, and one day my advisor, Dan Chaon, just sat me down and said, point blank, “this is bad writing, what’s happening to you?” And when I admitted to him that I felt like I was struggling to be more original than I naturally was, he just sort of shook his head and told me to stop trying to measure up to my classmates and just keep working. Stop worrying, keep working. The best advice I ever received. It applies to everything.
HT: What are you working on now?
SA: Same old thing, more stories. Whenever I read an amazing collection—I just finished Jim Shepard’s “Love and Hydrogen”, for example, so that rearranged my head a little, and before that it was John Haskell’s “I Am Not Jackson Pollack”, and who knows what the hell that collection is—it reminds me of why it’s always my favorite kind of writing. It’s such an amazing form, you know? You can do anything with it, but you can fuck it up so easily, too. I read once that Updike used to rent an office for his writing and go there every morning, like it was a regular nine to five. That’s what I’d do, if I had the money; go about it like a job.