June 17th, 2014


LJ12: Barrel of Monkeys

Working on the technical side of theater is surprisingly high-risk.  You’re often in high places, dealing with power tools or electricity, and because the actors also need to rehearse onstage you’re usually working at odd times of the day.  There is a hard deadline for any show – opening only moves if you’re a multimillion dollar musical on Broadway – so everything has to get done, somehow, before the first audience arrives.  Usually this means a lot of late nights.  And that’s when sleep deprivation becomes an added risk.  When you’re overly tired it’s easy to lose focus or the ability to do fine detail work, and not even notice that it just took an hour to do something that would only take ten minutes if you were well rested.  For that reason we didn’t allow anyone to work late nights in the theater alone, and everyone kept an eye on each other.

One theater I worked at developed a simple test to be able to tell when people had crossed the line from sleepy but still functional, to needing to leave right now.  It was a joke:

Q: Why did the monkey fall out of the tree?
A: Because it was dead.
Q: Why did the chicken fall out of the tree?
A: Because it was stapled to the monkey.

If you are in a normal state of mind chances are good you rolled your eyes, or chuckled for a moment, or groaned.  But when you are sleep-deprived and self-delusional about how much you are still accomplishing at 2am – this joke is hysterically funny, laugh until you can’t catch your breath funny.  And if it’s that funny, it’s time to go home.

I remember one night at the theater with a late electrics call when we came to the realization that we should leave.  Everything was funny, not just the joke, and we had stopped really accomplishing anything.  We all made it to the parking lot when someone asked “Why stapled?  Is that really the funniest way to attach the chicken to the monkey?”  A half-dozen of us ended up there for another two hours very seriously debating attachment methods for the theoretical monkey and chicken.  Hey, at least we weren’t on ladders or using power tools.  Tape, masking or scotch was dismissed pretty immediately, though duct tape stayed in the top five.  Someone suggested safety-chaining the monkey to the chicken which is hugely funny if you were just clambering through the grid at an electrics call, but doesn’t really translate out of that specific situation.  Tie-line, hot glue, crazy glue, sewing or knitting, screwing, nailing, welding, and um, coupling were all suggested.  Each new idea would send us into gales of laughter, and then we’d quite seriously break each idea down for overall funniness.

In the end, staples won.  Hard consonants are funny, everyone has access to staples, and it was randomly incongruous enough to be perfectly ridiculous.  Satisfied that we had achieved maximum silliness, we scattered to get ourselves home.

The joke became a bit of lore so ingrained in the company that we no longer needed to hear the whole thing.  Someone would shout out “Why did the monkey fall out of the tree?” at a late night call and several of us would grin and give a thumbs up to show we were fine, while newer crew folks would look around confusedly wondering what they had gotten themselves into.  After the joke had been in use for several years one of the lighting gals made me a present.  It was a small plush Curious George doll face to face with a 6” rubber chicken.  They were glued, tie-lined, duct taped, and yes, stapled together.  I love it, even if it causes a lot of odd looks when folks see it sitting on my desk.

So if you’re ever at work late and a coworker seems to be sliding over the edge, tell them the joke.  If they chuckle or groan, they’re fine.  If they start to giggle maniacally, or ask why staples; get them away from anything sharp and keep your distance while suggesting maybe it’s time for them to get some sleep.

***Here's my take on "barrel of monkeys" for this week in LJ Idol.  To read more go here, and enjoy!***