The Deeper Meaning of “Oy, am I thirsty!”

Once again, we analyze a joke for insight into life’s deeper questions. Apparently it’s an old joke, but I only first read it in the June 2010 issue of Commentary Magazine. There it appeared, along with a contest, officiated by Joseph Epstein, to see who, among the magazine’s readers, could offer the best exegesis. The contest’s winner was a certain Manny Sherberg. His interpretation then appeared in the July issue.

What follows is not from the article in Commentary Magazine, but a more contemporary version of the joke. It appeared on an internet website, several years ago. I hope that I am citing the source correctly:  posted by BitterOldPunk http://www.metafilter.com/user/12903 at 3:45 PM on December 8, 2008 http://www.metafilter.com/77219/Some-Jewish-Humor. I have revised the wording very slightly.

So I get on the plane and settle into my seat and as soon as we take off, the old guy next to me starts talking.

“Oy, am I THIRSTY!” he says.

A moment later:

“Oy, am I THIRSTY!”

Every fifteen seconds, like clockwork.

“Oy, am I THIRSTY!”

Finally I can’t take any more. As soon as the seatbelt sign flickers out, I get up, go to the back of the plane. I get two of those cone cups, fill them with water. I walk back up the aisle and wordlessly hand the man the two cups.

He brightens. “Thank you, young man!” He eagerly drinks both cups of water and smacks his lips in satisfaction. He’s silent for a moment.

Then he says, “Oy, was I THIRSTY. Oy, was I THIRSTY.”

OK, why is it funny? According to Mr. Shriberg, Jews are enjoined to remember grievances. The Jewish holidays commemorate them. Mr. Sherberg makes the point that there is a conflation that occurs between grievances to the Jewish people and personal grievances, such as being thirsty. Mr. Sherberg’s perceptive analysis offers us insight into the premise of the joke, but he doesn’t explain why it makes us laugh. After all, where’s the humor in the fact that Jews remember grievances?

The Fundamental Contradiction

There’s a key to discovering why any joke makes us laugh. All humor is founded on an incongruity, or contradiction. Therefore, to discern why a particular joke is funny, one must detect the particular contradiction at its heart. Let us see if contradiction is the key that can unlock the mysterious risibility of this joke…

It’s often funny when what initially appears to be a significant change turns out to be no change at all. It points to a fundamental discrepancy in our lives between what we seek to effectuate and the actual result. Sometimes we are rewarded by our labors, but oftentimes well laid plans and assiduous efforts come to naught. That is the bitter truth that the heroic Simone Bolívar experienced. He said that all if his efforts had been like “plowing the sea.” Sisyphus also comes to mind as an image of futility. We struggle to roll the boulder up the hill and down it comes. Elsewhere, we had discussed the Conservation of Suffering Principle. The basic idea is that suffering, like energy or matter, can neither be created nor destroyed. Only its form changes. For example, we solve our problems. The result? Instead of being anxious, we become bored. In that sense, human suffering is eternal.

Of course, there’s neither anything intrinsically humorous about labors that prove to be Sisyphean, nor about the conservation of suffering. They seem redolent of tragedy rather than comedy. It’s only when we gain an emotional distance from contradiction that we are able to let go and laugh.

Consider some instances of this phenomenon from classic comedies. The film “The Treasure of Sierra Madre” (1948)  is a case in point. After an enormous effort to bring the gold down from the mountain, a dust storm comes and blows it back to where it came. The same sense of “back to square one” is the case in the plays “The Front Page” (1928) and in “The Man Who Came to Dinner.” (1939) Laurel and Hardy were masters of the art of depicting futile efforts, in a comic way.

The perception of the ultimate hopelessness of human endeavor — seen from the emotional distance that comedy invokes — releases us, if only for a moment, from our overly-serious effort to make significant changes in our own life.

Of course, there is a change in the water situation. The old man has gone from saying “Oy, AM I thirsty” to saying “Oy, WAS I thirsty.” What is constant is his preoccupation with suffering. If he isn’t suffering, then he is reflecting upon suffering. It makes sense that this should be a Jewish joke, for the Jews, as a people, have certainly suffered these past few millennia. It would seem that most of the Jewish holidays celebrate how the Jews survived. Indeed, it’s been said facetiously, although with much truth, that all Jewish holidays have the same premise: “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat!” Mr. Shriberg is, therefore, correct in respect to why it’s a Jewish joke.

Youth Versus Age

But the joke really has a universal appeal, in so far as suffering is a preoccupation of all people, although particularly older people, as they have usually been through a good deal more than younger people, especially in terms of physical ailments, but really in terms of all suffering.

One could object, though, that in the version of the joke that appeared in Commentary Magazine it was not an old man who says “Oy, am I thirsty!” On the contrary, a woman says it. We do not know her age. But when reading the joke I couldn’t help infer that it was an older woman, one who was at least middle-aged. A young woman would, more than likely, have gotten up and got herself some water. And a young woman would be less likely to say “Oy.”

Those who are young look forward to life with enthusiasm, as does the fool in the tarot deck, who is just about to walk off a cliff. The energy of youth is predicated on that naïveté. And it’s just as well, for otherwise they wouldn’t attempt anything and wouldn’t learn anything, and human evolution would come to a standstill. That is why there is much wisdom in Erasmus’ praise of folly.

But those who are elderly view life in a different light. They see it as a series of beatings, assaults, and trials. So it is not surprising that they pride themselves in how many diseases they survived, how many family conflicts they endured, how many tragedies they made it through — indeed, how many of life’s arrows they either dodged or managed to endure.

Thus, if they aren’t suffering, they are reflecting on how they had suffered in the past. When together, they even compete in a kind of tsuris Olympics: “You think you’ve had it bad? Well, I survived cancer, three heart attacks, gout, stones, gingivitis, the Black Death, AIDS, beriberi, tuberculosis, rickets, chronic stink foot, an impacted molar, tennis elbow, and acne! Furthermore, my left leg hurts when I dance the Hora!”

Implicit here is a sense of moral purification for suffering. Dostoevsky often presented characters whose suffering constitutes a kind of moral catharsis. “Sweet are the uses of adversity,” as Shakespeare tells us. It is sweet, for it tells us who we are, as it exorcises pride, hubris and egotism in its many form. Adversity is grounding, in that regard.

Consider, by way of contrast, the superficial optimism of youth, with it’s denial of old age and death. To quote the Bard again: “Men turn their backs on the setting sun.” That has always been so, but it’s even more true today, due to our youth-oriented culture.

The joke is as symbolic as a dream. The young man thought that by relieving the old man of his thirst, he would no longer be reminded of old age, suffering and mortality. Alas, the young man finds himself subject to the Conservation of Suffering Principle. More specifically, instead of having to endure the sight of suffering, the young man must now hear suffering memorialized. “I WAS thirsty” is just as bad as “I AM thirsty.”

We laugh along, for we too are subject to the conservation of suffering. And here, again, we are for a moment — due to the emotional distance that comedy engenders — released from our problematic and exhausting efforts at selfhood, as everything we take most seriously explodes into laughter.

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