“A Bounty Hunter walks into a saloon…”
That’s how the joke starts, one of those shaggy dog stories with a weak ending that I go weak at the knees for. I love jokes that end in a sort of amused groan – the laugh out loud ones seem to be beyond my grasp… and in fact, the Brown Paper Cowboy joke is – with the exception of a few pathetic knock-knock jokes – the only one I can ever remember.
I first heard the Brown Paper Cowboy joke back in 1987. At a wedding. As told by a drunken Welsh wedding guest, with a terrible American accent and a million twists and turns in the tale. We were falling down, wetting our pants, holding our stomachs and begging him to stop. At the time, I thought it was the funniest thing I’d ever heard – but it wasn’t the joke so much as the telling, and it wasn’t the teller so much as they way he told it: he was committed to that joke in a way that carried us along, helpless with laughter, gurgling like drains. The perfect example of the kid within – and we became kids too.
We were told that this Bounty Hunter rides into town, ties his horse up at the rail, repositions his sweaty cowboy hat, drags the back of his wrist against his mouth to wipe off the dust of his journey and pushes through those swinging louvered-type doors that all decent saloons come equipped with.
So he walks up to the bartender (polishing a glass, natch) throws two bits down on the counter (never a quarter, or some other combo of change – always two bits) and orders a whiskey in a voice as cracked and dry as the skull of a steer parked picturesquely in the Arizona desert.
It’s at this point that the Welsh wedding guest began to really pour it on by describing how he drinks the drink and orders another and rolls and lights a cigarette and pays up his other two bits and other little dribs and drabs of barroom detailery, but now that I tell the joke I like to get to the sheriff’s office as fast as I can – this may be my only joke and I may have told it a thousand times, but I tell jokes so badly, I want to get it over and done with as soon as possible. I’m always racing ahead – trying to get it finished before my audience begins to suss me out and hurriedly arrange their faces into expressions of polite amusement, wondering when the nighmare will end.
So I introduce the ‘Wanted: Dead or Alive – The Brown Paper Cowboy’ poster tacked up on the wall behind the bar, and get the Bounty Hunter out of the saloon and down to the Sheriff’s office as quick as (insert something old-westerny here: a rattlesnake’s shake, a silver bullet through butter – whatever) and get the two of them talking about the Brown Paper varmint so I can get to the papery deets ASAP. (On his head he wears a brown paper 10 gallon hat, he wears brown paper Levi 501 jeans, brown paper boots with brown paper spurs, a brown paper neckerchief knotted above a brown paper shirt, brown paper six-shooters, and so on… there are endless variations right down to brown paper boxers, or, if you prefer, brown paper briefs.) The result – I lose whatever momentum I may have had and race toward the end lickety-split, squeaking out the last line in the dictionary definition of a whimper not a bang: “So the Bounty Hunter says: ‘So what’s he wanted for, this Brown Paper Cowboy?’ and by the time I get to the punchline, anyone over the age of 12 has long since left the building laughter-wise.
Ha ha – oh my aching sides…
But luckily, the joke and my speed at getting through it is absolutely perfect for the 10-12 year old set; they’re not into pure filth yet, they’re bright enough to make the punny connection, and kind enough to enter into the spirit of the thing. Tweens are helpful that way. Grown ups? Forget about it; tweens – my favourite demographic.
And what an interesting age to be alive: just old enough to not need a babysitter any longer, just young enough to keep watching cartoons on Saturday morning…
… Just old enough to be able to behave in a grown up restaurant (and begin to get the point of behaving), just young enough to still stuff yourself with stale Halloween candy when you get home… and still weigh 85 pounds.
…Just old enough to promise on your life – please, please, PLEASE – that you will look after the puppy, and walk it and feed it and clean up after it, just young enough and thrilled enough to actually do it.
… Just old enough to start thinking of the benefits of being a grownup, just young enough to reject it completely out of hand and go listen to music or watch TV or play with your X-Box.
… Just old enough to get serious homework, just young enough that a lot of it involves colouring in maps and diagrams.
… Just old enough to be aware of drugs and alcohol, just young enough to still HATE the smell and besides, be able to get perfectly dizzy by just spinning yourself round and round.
… Just old enough to be vaguely aware of government and politicians and the fact that there are a bunch of completely different types of worlds out beyond your front yard, just young enough to conclude that it doesn’t matter and nothing will ever change.
… Just old enough to begin seeing your parents as individuals rather than servants or cyborgs, just young enough not to be embarrassed at being seen with them in public.
Just old enough to be aware of the passage of time, just young enough to be frustrated that it takes soooo looooong.
Long shaggy story short, I think I’m a little like a tween; I believe not having children has kept me in the sort of emotional and intellectual place where I don’t have to be responsible in a way that means I’m not too grown up or grand to watch the Simpsons or read Lemony Snickett, or enjoy the sour kind of candy that absolutely KILLS your typical grown up. It seems to me there’s a silliness or playfulness quotient in any life that needs to be kept topped up, and in the absence of children I quite happily fill the void myself.
I’m sillier now than when I was a tween. (And you’d never recognize the teen me, so focused on fitting in and being cool and looking right and dying with envy and heartache a million times a day was I.) But I remember the ghostly tween me who was still playing pretending games and felt completely safe from harm and had no idea how lucky she was to have her health and parents who loved her and enough to eat and just enough wit and zing to attract her share of positive attention. She was a good kid.
So I go to the children’s hospital, and I hang out with my friend’s kids and I attract a crowd of pretty silly (nominally) grown up friends and watch The Princess Bride and South Park and re-read the Narnia stories and try to keep just a hint of that innocence and hope and faith that is the hallmark of the fortune-favoured tween.
And I keep telling that joke. And some day, even the adults will laugh.
“So what’s he wanted for, this Brown Paper Cowboy?” demands the Bounty Hunter.
The Sherrif pauses, squints up at the Bounty Hunter, weighing his answer with sherrifly authority... then hawks out a wad of chewing tobacco into the nearby spitoon - Ptang! - before replying: