I wrote recently about my “victory laps.” I started counting when I hit 80 and every year thereafter is a victory lap. One of the reasons to call the additional miles something special is that it gives me a chance to reflect on “the race” (getting to 80) itself and decide that I have been doing too much of something or other and too little of something else. In the context of running a course I will be running over and over I can decide to make changes next time.
I knew when I began writing a blog that was aimed specifically at the things that intrigue me that I was going to have to confront gravity—a persistent pressure toward seriousness—and I determined to resist it. I have lost track of that intention in the last few years. Today, I’m going to try to remind myself of it.
I’m going to do that by appreciating a Happy Birthday song I heard for the first time this week. Then I would like to poke at it a little. That doesn’t make it any funnier, but, for me, it does make it more fun. Maybe it’s just me.
Here’s the song, to the tune of the Happy Birthday song we all know.
May you live a thousand years
May you drink a thousand beers
Happy birthday to you.
I have enjoyed that every day since I first heard it. A fellow resident at the senior center where I live—she described herself as having “an ecumenical background” by which she means she has done a lot of different things in her life—taught me this. She actually sang it to me as we were standing in front of the elevators. That night I taught it to the church choir at our practice.
So why is it funny?
Here’s where I lose most people. They hear it and laugh at it and they are done. When I am done laughing at a joke like this, I am just getting started. I think the “May you…” beginning cues up something poetic and traditional. I think of the Irish Blessing—“May the wind be always at your back…” and so on. If your mind starts to prepare for this kind of sentiment, you are going to get smacked in the face two lines later.
Max Eastman, in The Enjoyment of Laughter, says that when we prepare for one thing and then another thing happens (in a context where they difference can be taken playfully) we think it is funny. I think that the traditional style of the first line suggests that this song is going to be that kind of thing and our minds prepare to hear it that way.
The second line begins to cast doubts. It has the same structure, but somehow “thousand years” and “thousand beers” don’t point in the same direction. We begin, at that point, to adjust our expectations. Not from one thing to another, but from “I know what this is” to “I not really sure what this is.” And just in time, too.
Lines three and four are where the fun comes. “Get plastered” is fully colloquial. There is nothing traditional about it. And the reference—the good intentions are assured in the way the song is sung—to the celebrant as a “bastard” fit perfectly with “plastered.” So the emotional tone is kept but the form of it is changed abruptly.
And not only that, the rhythm of the second two lines is entirely different than the first two. There is something faintly trochaic about the first two lines. They suggest lines line “Till Burnham wood remove to Dunsinane.” That line is a standard iambic pentameter. So I tried to make the first line of this song fit some known meter. No luck. The result is that the change of accents corresponds with the change of social tone. It goes from formal sounding to informal and from long and liquid to short and punchy. And it goes there really fast. It’s the speed as much as the change that gets you.
And finally, we get to what pretends to be the governing sentiment. “Happy birthday to you.” But everybody knows that the sentiment isn’t really what the song is about.