Good Essay on the No-Joke Zone at Airports

Joe Bennett in New Zealand:

An officer frisks me with hands like questing butterflies. Up my legs they flutter, then over my buttocks, my back, my chest and along my arms, but not, I notice, over my crotch. So there’s the answer. When my anger at being pointlessly searched in airports finally reaches such incandescence that I feel compelled to act, I’ll tape a bomblet behind my scrotum with the detonator clenched between my cheeks. It will kill no one except myself and I won’t make a pretty corpse, but I will make damn sure I take out a particular notice. You know the one I mean. It’s the only notice in human history to forbid, on pain of imprisonment, the making of jokes. I am not allowed to crack a joke about bombs.

Jokes are essential to mental well-being. But all authorities hate them because jokes pierce to the truth. Jokes see through bogus seriousness and say, “oh come off it”. The instinct to make jokes is a natural reaction to overweening authority.

The authorities have an obvious response. Airport security, they will say, is no laughing matter. Do I want planes to be blown up?

Posted on November 2, 2007 at 6:41 AM39 Comments


John R Campbell November 2, 2007 7:24 AM

The hell of it is that highly-stressed people– and I work with some, who are on salary and have, for up to a month at a time, put in 96 hour weeks– often have little patience for humor, even for humor that isn’t pointed at them. I’ve gotten complaints that “I shouldn’t have the time to think of jokes”… but most of my humor does pop out of my subconscious instantaneously. The stuff I have to think about isn’t as funny, darn it.

joe November 2, 2007 7:42 AM

You make a good point, but I would hardly call this short blurb an essay, let alone a good essay.

Tom Welsh November 2, 2007 7:42 AM

“It’s the only notice in human history to forbid, on pain of imprisonment, the making of jokes. I am not allowed to crack a joke about bombs”.

Hmmm, previous generations may not have had – or needed – notices, but they knew damn well what jokes not to make. My mother, who visited Germany several times in the 1930s, told me of the time she was walking on the sidewalk with one foot and the street with the other. Till her friends anxiously told her to stop. “It looks as if you are imitating Dr Goebbels”, they explained. (Goebbels was lame).

Superficially, the point of the “no jokes” rule is to make the security process more efficient. At a deeper level, it is part of authority’s instinctive hatred of humour in all its forms, and the pathological need to establish absolute control over the citizen (or “serf” as he might more properly be called).

Amusingly enough, repression breeds its own kind of humour – as seen in the USSR, for example. Thus the story of the Muscovite commuter on the underground train, who finds himself next to a big, heavy man with a grim expression. “Excuse me, sir,” stammers the commuter, “but do you work for the KGB by any chance?” “No,” replies the big guy. A few minutes pass, then the civilian tries again. “Excuse me, sir, but are you sure you do not work for the KGB?” “No!” replies the big man curtly. After a while, the same thing. “Excuse me, sir, but are you quite sure you do not work for the KGB?” “No I don’t, and why do you keep asking me the same damned question?” “Well, sir, if you are quite certain you don’t work for the KGB, would you mind getting off my foot?”

John November 2, 2007 7:59 AM

“Jokes are essential to mental well-being. But all authorities hate them because jokes pierce to the truth. Jokes see through bogus seriousness and say, “oh come off it”. The instinct to make jokes is a natural reaction to overweening authority.”

Indeed. There was a NYT article on a Burma comedian the other day who was a leader of a traditional Burmese comedy that poked fun at the authorities for centuries.

He joked that he crossed the border into Thailand for dental work. The Thai dentist asked him “Don’t you have dentists in Burma?” The comedian replied “Of course we do, but we are not allowed to open our mouths.”

The comedian has disappeared, presumably imprisoned, but fate unknown. Sorry, I don’t recall his name.

Ian Mason November 2, 2007 8:00 AM

Humour, like politeness, is one of the social lubricants. An observation that a serving officer (from Heathrow airport, no less) made to me some years ago was that any cop who hears a joke from a member of the public early on in their interaction knows that the person they’re dealing with is not going to be trouble, even when the joke may be at the cop’s expense or faux-mocking. Banning them, on pain of punishment, from a screening process actually removes one of the cues an experienced officer can use to tell the good-uns from the bad-uns.

Todd Peterson November 2, 2007 8:42 AM

Great essay. The airport security “window dressing” is a giant waste of time and money, and is just a part of the continous efforts of the government to make us all feel like criminals (“why do you want privacy – are you hiding something!?”)

moonglum November 2, 2007 9:04 AM

Tom Welsh: bullshit, not enough jokes and ridicule got hitlier into office in the first place.

seriousness is the first step towards facisim. Mook all athority as it all deserves to be mocked.

yeehaw November 2, 2007 9:16 AM

Todd Peterson: [mockingly] “why do you want privacy – are you hiding something!?”

Indeed. The real function of privacy is to protect a person’s moral behavior from all the idiots (and stupid religions) that would wrongly condemn him.

Privacy, for example, allows a parent in an Islamo-Fascist country to secretly teach his child about Christianity.

(Not that I agree with the particulars of that example… but you see the point.

Another Kevin November 2, 2007 9:22 AM

I’m one of those people who always gets SSSS on the boarding pass. The best hypothesis that I’ve found is that I got the SSSS for a one-way flight without advance booking — a ticket on another airline after my flight was cancelled, and once an SSSS, always an SSSS. (It is annoying, though, always getting a centre seat because I can’t do advance selection.)

But that aside, I’ve found that approaching the situation with a modicum of humour generally helps. The guards seem to respond to ,”you know, I might complain about this, but I can’t imagine that you enjoy groping my arse any more than I enjoy it.” or “you’re in luck today, my carryon is so heavy that you won’t have to pay big bucks at the gym!” Only a few times have I gotten a screener who pointed at the sign and said, “It’s forbidden to make jokes here, Sir.” (And those were the screeners who thought that they were Marine drill sergeants, and included the guy who took away my eyeglasses and then screamed, “Are these keys yours?” from across the room.

Anonymous November 2, 2007 9:41 AM

Another Kevin hypothesizes “once an SSSS, always an SSSS”

I was once deservedly an SSSS (one way flight, booked the night before; I was tempted to pay in cash just to hit the trifecta) but haven’t been since. I haven’t even been “randomly” selected for search.

Sympanthy and gentle humor works wonders. While some screeners are idiots, most just work in an idiotic system.

bzelbob November 2, 2007 9:43 AM


That’s a great article on Par Par Lay. Everyone should read it!

It points out how important jokes and humor are as barometers of the thoughts of the public (as Ian Mason was trying to point out above).

I would say more about humor and airport security, but someone else has already done it better than I.

Carlin on Airport Security 🙂

janders99 November 2, 2007 11:30 AM

Two points: (1) the macro view of the whole airport check-in scene is that the government wants to continually remind us that security is important and that a lot is being done. This might not seem necessary to readers of this forum but EVERY time I check-in, I see some astonishingly stupid behavior by passengers. (2) the “no jokes” thing is because the check-in people are asked to do enough that joking would seriously degrade their concentration. Humor is an intensely engaging human experience. It is a mistake to assume that TSA people are humorless or don’t get the huge irony of airport check-in. Best to endure this stoically or get a bus ticket.
The check-in line is not the place to debate whether the government’s anti-terror resources are adequately or rationally deployed. I never feel like a victim or a criminal there; I feel like a victim when Homeland Security allocates zero dollars to Port of Oakland security.

Alan November 2, 2007 12:14 PM


Thus again proving that no matter how obnoxious and vile the actions of people in authority, there will be some toady justifying it.

Andy November 2, 2007 12:24 PM

The big problem is that if someone says “Haha! I have a bomb! Hee hee!” the TSA needs to take it seriously. They don’t have the time to sort out if someone is making a joke or is the next Richard Reid, nor will the 100s of people in line behind the joker find it funny when they have to wait another hour or two because some asshat thinks they need to make a funny.

The writer of the “essay” is a tool.

Roland Hesz November 2, 2007 12:25 PM

Sorry moonglum, I agree with you, however let me tell you one joke from here which is not that old:

A judge comes out of court, and starts to laugh like crazy. Another judge passes and asks:
– What is so funny?
– I just heard the best joke ever.
– Oh, would you tell me?
– Are you daft? Just sentenced the guy to 8 years.

And that was not a joke.
So, it’s easy to say “mock the government”, however, when the black car stops in front of your house at 10PM, believe me, you are not in a mood to joke much.

Nomen Publicus November 2, 2007 12:42 PM

It’s notable that a politician that can tell a good joke is rare, however not as rare as a politician who can understand a good joke.

There is a Russian joke from the days of Stalin:

Q: Why do the police travel around the city in threes?
A: One can read, one can write and one keeps an eye on the two intellectuals.

In Poland, jokes used to called Tiny Revolutions and it seems that is now the view of the TSA. Telling a joke, any joke, when the VERY IMPORTANT TSA THING is happening implies that it is unimportant. This is interpreted as an attack on the validity of the procedure (see this weeks Ask The Pilot on Salon.Com for an example of how just asking why some rule exists can get you into trouble.)

Student Visiting Russia November 2, 2007 1:32 PM

So around ’92 I visited the newly re-formed Russia through People To People. Whenever going through customs, we were, of course, told to be quite and calm, etc. When we left, though, we drove from St. Petersburg to Helsinki.

When going through the Russian exit-customs, we were totally silent on our buss, etc. We were still highly frightened kids as we drove across the no-mans-land, and when we got to the Finland side of the border, another guard came on the buss to collect passports/etc.

About halfway through, the guard paused and said, “Hey! You’re not in Russia any more! You can laugh now!” I think the whole buss was laughing for 5min after that…

Yonatan Zunger November 2, 2007 1:33 PM

Well, I should follow this up with an old bit of advice from Poland:

Don’t think; if you think, don’t speak; if you think and speak, don’t write; if you think, speak, and write, don’t sign; if you think, speak, write and sign, don’t be surprised.

I find that Stalin-era humor is getting funnier and funnier, which can’t possibly be a good sign.

UNTER November 2, 2007 1:53 PM

Jokes take you out of context. They put the reality of the situation against our assumptions. That’s why the authorities, everywhere and always, hate humor – it reminds everyone that despite the funny hats they wear, the boots and the suits, they sit down every morning to crap, and sometimes get constipated.

The only way they enjoy it is when it allows them to show their magnanimity. Hitler used to love one particular satire of himself in Germany; the satirist hated him (the name slips me know), but it let Hitler show what a big man he was. It was never so cutting that the comedian disappeared.

Remember Colbert’s presentation at the roast? A little too cutting makes all the difference. Fortunately for him, comedians haven’t started disappearing.

Stephen B November 2, 2007 2:19 PM

This is old. I knew a very senior police officer in the mid-nineties who worked in counter-terrorism: The scary, clever, ruthless PIRA-kind.
He told me that during his introduction lecture, the nice Army chappie from the Intellegence Branch invited members of the audience to search the second speaker for explosives or IEDs. More and more items were found over an increasing period of time, as more and more prospective members of the audience had a go. Eventually, three members of the audience finally concurred that the prospective was “clean” and no further items were to be found.
The demonstrator Army chap then went around the lecturn stand (naked, apart from underwear), and extracted (litterally) some semtex, two CRC batteries, an electronic timer, and a pencil-thin detonator from about his person – what was left of it, that had been unprobed.

The lesson? Only under a thorough
medical examination can you correctly determine if a prospective target is clean or not. Anything else is just show. The potential inconvienience-factor may infer some fear into a more obvious, less well trained terrorist – such as the Shoe-Bomber from Blighty, but if the terrorist is dedicated enough – they’ll most likely pass inspection. Next defense? I don’t know – maybe some sort of clever terra-hertz scanners that can be focussed to varying depths of tissue?

I still think the anomoly-detection by human-watchers is a better bet, particularly if you profile properly with absolutley no adherence to Politically Correct societal protocols: You screen who you suspect, and be damned with the outcry.


markm November 2, 2007 2:47 PM

“But all authorities hate [jokes]”

Just the stupid ones. One thing I learned in my time in the military is just how effective jokes are at making a bad situation tolerable. My impression is that, at least after Stalin died, Russians were circulating thousands of jokes at the expense of their masters, and as long as they were discreet about it the Soviets pretended not to notice. It probably kept the evil empire going an extra decade…

Skippern November 2, 2007 6:05 PM

I have often questioned airport security, and much of it is pointless. You have to remove belts and shoes at some airports, but laptops, cellphones, keys and various other items are let through the scan. There is really more easily to make dangerous weapons and bombs from the items that are let through the scan without question that to get a belt buckle through.

Anonymous November 2, 2007 8:48 PM

You know you’re on a left wing blog when … people seriously think the function of humour is to denounce authority.

(Hint: go read a little about the psychology of humour before spouting such hogwash. In reality, as markm pointed out, humour is more likely to dissipate tensions not provoke resistance.)

The idea that the “no jokes” sign is an attempt by the TSA to undermine resistance (what? just within their tiny demesne?) is absolutely hilarious in itself. No one who believes could possibly have any real experience of the workings of government bureaucracies. In reality, it is almost certainly a response to some past over-reaction to a joke — or even to criticism of a reasonable reaction to a very poorly judged joke. A bit of public criticism, CYA mode appears, they flurry around helplessly until someone comes up with whatever idea will show their Assistant Secretary they are “doing something” about the problem. Like banning jokes.

NoeValleyJim November 3, 2007 12:43 PM

“Left-wing” at this point means anyone who is not completely batshit insane. I have one fellow who told me that The Economist was a left-wing magazine. I am sure that the Editors of that august publication would be amused to find out that the most consistent pro-capitalist publication for the last 100 years is “left-wing.”

partdavid November 3, 2007 1:16 PM

I’m sorry, but what kind of lame-ass jokester thinks it’s funny to be the millionth person to say “Oh, I’m really dangerous, I must be carrying a bomb, tee-hee!” in an airport screening line.

Do you also ask tall people what the weather is like up there? On hot days, do you ask other people if it is hot enough for them?

Making a joke also means having a feel for the social situation and your audience. Tiresome bullshit that wastes everyone’s time is not “incisive”, it does not “puncture authority” or “make tough situations tolerable.”

Believe me, if you make a funny joke in the TSA line, people will laugh and you will get into no trouble.

Tom Welsh November 3, 2007 1:38 PM

“Tom Welsh: bullshit, not enough jokes and ridicule got hitlier into office in the first place.

“seriousness is the first step towards facisim. Mook all athority as it all deserves to be mocked”.

moonglum, I assume you’re American. You people take it for granted that you can “mook” authority and get away with it. In many countries (including Germany in the 1930s) that was literally suicide. You just disappeared one night. So far, in the USA, you still have that right. Make the most of it while it lasts. (It would make sense to keep an eye on Scott. If he suddenly vanishes, start keeping your head down and your mouth shut).

averros November 3, 2007 8:26 PM

As if real terrorists would ever joke about bombs…

The airport security is a joke… well, scratch that, for it is not funny. If you ever want to show your kid how the real, live, police state looks like – take her to an airport.

Paulbar November 4, 2007 2:42 AM

But jokes break the self-importance felt Joe Security Guard and his illusion of power. Poor Joe.

Did like an airport worker in Australia. She’d been told to stick those ridiculous red security stickers all over peoples’ carry on baggage. Pure theatre and she knew it. As she worked her way down the line explaining “They told me they wanted stickers. I’ll give them bloody stickers!” 🙂

Erik November 4, 2007 1:33 PM

I had written a logical and reasoned response, but I deleted it, and I’m just going to cut to the chase. Everyone knows that humor is important, but it’s equally important to know when to be serious. Joking about having a bomb before getting on a plane is stupid, and defending such jokes makes you an idiot. The reason the rule is there is because if it wasn’t, just about every day you would have a moron who when asked if he had a firearm or a bomb, would respond “YES, LOL” and not realize that he didn’t sound like he was joking at all. And yes only a crazy person would truthfully answer yes to such a question, but a) I don’t want crazies with bombs on my plane either, and b) the whole point of the question is to see how you respond to the question, and you failed if you answer yes.

Kadin2048 November 5, 2007 1:03 AM


I guess the real question is, why do they bother asking those sorts of questions, when they can’t very well trust your response?

It’s one of the things that’s always really irritated me about security procedures — if the type of person you’re protecting against wouldn’t answer truthfully (meaning that you have to have some sort of other test), why not just save everybody’s time and not ask?

It’s like the questions they make the postal clerks ask when you mail a package, about whether it’s hazardous. If I was going to mail a bomb, would I say “yes”? Of course not. But if I don’t have a bomb, I’m not going to say “yes,” either, so we’ve thus established that the question doesn’t serve to actually discriminate between packages with and without bombs. So why ask the damn thing in the first place?

Of course, I think we all know the answer — it’s because a nonsense ‘precaution’ that fools people into thinking they’re secure is often cheaper than real security, and thus a political winner.

Julian November 5, 2007 3:38 AM

@Paulbar… the red stickers at Aussie airports! My favourite bit about those was the way they fell off the bags as soon as they turned the first corner on the conveyor belt, and all piled up there. Within sight of where they were stuck on in the first place!

Bill P November 7, 2007 12:04 PM

Does anyone remember this?

…shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech…

Does this exclude airports?

How about…

The right of the people to be secure in their persons… and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Does this exclude airports?

If we are going to ignore and allow exceptions without properly amending this foundation of our government, then it’s purpose is meaningless.

Another interesting excerpt…

… to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

Does anyone believe that the US Constitution is just a list of suggestions? Recommendations? Useless words? Or is it based on the experence and wisdom of our fore fathers? Does it define and control the powers, responsibilities and rights of Congress, the President, Judicial system, the States and the People?

Right, left, conservative, liberal, Republican, Democrat — shouldn’t we all “…preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States?”

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