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Drunkenness Isn’t as Funny as It Used to Be

by on November 01, 2017 5:00 AM

Stroll around campus or downtown long enough and you’re bound to hear a drunk story.

As in: “I (or so-and-so) was so drunk last night that I (or he) …” What follows is an “exploit” – some ridiculous thing that the drunk said or did.

Poke around on YouTube and you can find compilations like “Top 10 Hilarious Movie Drunks.”

Drunkenness has always been played for laughs. Falling down or walking into walls is funny in a slapsticky way. Gibberish is funny. There are even jokes about the verbal challenges of speaking while intoxicated. As in:

I’ve just had tee martoonies and the drunker I sit here, the longer I get.

Drunkenness is funny as long as the worst thing that happens is a hangover. There’s no joking about drunken rapes or rages, drunken driving crashes, drunken spending of the grocery money on more booze (as happens in “Angela’s Ashes” and “The Glass Castle,” among other memoirs of life with an alcoholic father).

During the 16 years I lived in the student-saturated neighborhood adjacent to downtown State College, home invasion stories were among the staples of street corner chitchat -- my neighbors’ tales of finding a drunken student asleep on a sofa or in a guest room, or crashing around in a basement, or banging on a door seeking refuge from the cold. The stories were told for laughs, primarily: oh, those wacky college kids!

When I began recording those stories with a view toward writing about them, though, the incidents were darker than I remembered.

For one thing, the first reaction when you hear or see a stranger in the house isn’t “oh, those wacky college kids.” It’s fear.

For another, you never know when a drunk emerging from his stupor is going to come out swinging.

It’s only afterward, when the invader has left the premises and it has become clear that he entered without intent to assault or rob, that one begins to see the comical aspects of the situation.

Still, I thought the relatively tolerant attitude of college townies toward home invasions would surprise and interest city dwellers who, I’d wager, would take a much dimmer view if it happened to them. So I wrote a light-hearted feature and sent it last May to the editor of the Education Life section of The New York Times.

She liked the piece, but this was three months after the death of Tim Piazza. Piazza wasn’t the first college student whose death could be attributed, in part, to over-consumption of alcohol. But the existence of security camera footage of his last hours, and of texts exchanged by the members of the fraternity he was joining, made his case high-profile. Which meant that The Times editor knew about it and expected Times readers to know about it. Which meant a light-hearted approach to student drinking in this place at this time might look pretty clueless.

A summer of back-and-forth emails, phone calls and rewrites followed. The story’s online now and will appear in print on Sunday so you can decide for yourself if we struck the right balance between acknowledging the seriousness of the problem and giving the neighborhood folklore its due as a way for residents to share and make sense of and yes, smile about, untoward experiences.

But the big takeaway for me from the experience of collecting these stories, writing about them and reading about the death of Tim Piazza is that it is harder and harder to ignore the toxic aspects of undergraduate drinking culture, just as it’s harder and harder to say “boys will be boys” when confronted with tales of sexual harassment and assault.

During my search for drunk scenes on YouTube, I came across a 50-year-old clip from “The Lucy Show” in which Lucille Ball, playing a secretary, is supposed to take a letter from a stereotypically debonair Frenchman during a working lunch. Naturally, the debonair Frenchman materializes a bottle of Champagne. Naturally, Lucy gulps it down and the Frenchman turns on the charm. Soon he’s taking her hand, kissing it and calling her, if I heard correctly, “a delightful little pixie.”

Her response: “You sure know how to treat help.”

Lucille Ball plays a drunk brilliantly and there’s some snappy writing (“I’ll be all right if you just hold the room still”), but from the vantage point of 2017, amid the barrage of revelations about the casting couch behavior of Harvey Weinstein and other powerful men, the scene plays more creepy than funny.

Around here we know all too well that the two linchpins of this sketch, sedation and seduction, often go hand in hand. Neither is as funny as it used to be.

For the victims, they were never funny at all.



A collection of Russell Frank's columns from the past 20 years, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won second place in the Humor category in the 2018 National Society of Newspaper Columnists writing contest. The winning columns: One Day at the Zombie Apocalypse Poultry Auction, Deux Nuits à Paris: A French Farce and A Shaggy Dog Story. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania for 13 years. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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