The View From Away: The unfunny truth behind the '3 biggest lies' joke

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When I was doing standup, I would get corporate gigs, which often began with the guy from marketing telling the “three biggest lies” joke. 

The corporate world was more rigid then, and marketing was where the rebels hung out. It wasn’t unusual to see a marketing guy wearing a sport coat instead of a suit, even if it wasn’t Casual Friday. I’m serious. They were that crazy. When I was in business, the regular workers viewed them with a combination of suspicion and envy. How could these guys get away with drawing a salary and also keeping whole areas of their personalities intact? It was witchcraft. Or maybe the big bosses didn’t want to interfere with the people responsible for bringing in the revenue.

So one of these corporate live wires would introduce the comic (me), but not before he showed off his own joke-telling prowess. A surprising number would tell some version of the “three biggest lies” joke. It was a sure-fire laugh-getter in a business crowd: you ask the crowd if they know the three biggest lies in the world.

Depending on how informal the meeting was – i.e., how many women were in the room – the first two lies fell somewhere on the continuum of frat boy vulgarity from puerile to unpublishable, but the punch line was always the same: “And the biggest lie of them all: ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help you.’”

The joke seemed innocuous enough, a way of blowing off steam about the inconvenience and expense of governmental compliance. Every great joke, however, is rooted in a fundamental truth. Over the years I’ve come to appreciate the deeper dysfunction this joke exposes: a sinister campaign to coddle workers with pay scales approaching enough to live on and working conditions that don’t threaten their lives. This conspiracy, at all levels of government, has forced our courageous job creators to create jobs in other countries, where more enlightened leadership refuses to knuckle under to Big Brother. Places where they treat every worker like an adult. Even the children.

It’s only recently, since Congress itself has become so opposed to big government that it has virtually stopped governing in protest, that I’ve been able to see the truth behind the laughter. More disturbingly, the current political climate has made me take a long hard look in the mirror. To my horror, I’m realizing I am a product of the problem. To paraphrase the immortal Walt Kelly, I have met the enemy and he is me.

Not directly. I’ve never been a government employee. But big government made me what I am today. You see, my father was one of those smug, do-nothing bureaucrats. He spent his whole adult life feeding at the public trough while what my friend Mark calls “poor dumb saps” like you paid for it.

I can’t pinpoint the exact date my father turned his back on the system that made this country great. He was probably a crybaby right from his first job, at the age of 4, carrying the milk and cottage cheese his cousins were selling door to door off a horse drawn cart in Elwell, Mich. Could have been when he talked the local grocer into letting him drive the delivery truck standing up because, at 9, he was too short to reach the pedals. The robust unemployment market the Depression was providing his father made that job possible, but did my dad ever thank the system? Not on your life. He was already showing all the earmarks of a future tick on the neck of society.

I blame the unions. He had to join one when he went to work at an auto plant after high school, and you know what happens when those union goons get their hooks in you. They must have hammered him with their propaganda relentlessly, because finally he was either so frightened of hard work or so disgusted by being a capitalist tool that he quit his draft-exempt job in 1942 for his first sweet government dodge, bomber pilot and intelligence officer in the U.S. Marine Corps. Three squares a day at Uncle Sam’s expense, not to mention an all-expense-paid boondoggle in the “occupation forces” in Japan.  Some “occupation.” They mostly sat around on the base.  

They say that once a lion has tasted human flesh, it never goes back. Getting one of those soft-touch government jobs is like that, if my father is anything to go by. He couldn’t get off the gravy train. A couple of little welfare programs you may have heard of got him a college degree and a house, with time out for a sweet vacation from marriage on a carrier in the Sea of Japan during Korea.  Eventually he hit the jackpot: probation officer.

Why there’s never been an expose on these layabouts I’ll never know.  Check this out: for 25 years all my father had to do was keep people out of prison, get them off drugs, talk businessmen into hiring convicted felons, drive them to work because they lost their licenses, get them to pay their victims back, check on their families when they were in rehab, and take guns away from them (after talking the cops out of shooting them) when they were threatening to kill their wives and children because hopelessness had driven them insane.

And for this he had the gall to rip the taxpayers off for almost as much in a year as I made in a week writing jokes.

“I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.” Yeah, right. You don’t have to tell me the three greatest lies joke. I lived it.

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Portland resident Mike Langworthy, an attorney, former stand-up comic and longtime television writer, is fascinated by all things Maine. You can reach him at mikelangworthy@me.com.

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