My brother Brian once encouraged me to tag along on a social call that did not appeal to me. My reluctance was born from a previous visit that lasted much longer than I had anticipated. Even though Brian assured me that we would leave for home whenever I liked, I wasn’t convinced that I would have the opportunity to express that desire without offending our host. Somehow we arrived at a clever solution: a code word, one unlikely to come up in normal conversation yet not so obscure as to raise suspicion, would be my subtle signal that it was time to go.
“What’s the code?” asked Brian.
“Put-In-Bay,” I declared instantly. Why the name of a village on Lake Erie’s South Bass Island should spring to my lips remains a mystery, though I suspect my brain subconsciously fetched the handiest noun that might elicit a laugh. Indeed, it did bring forth a chuckle from my brother, partly because the phrase Put-In-Bay is naturally funny and also due to the potential awkwardness of inserting the unwieldy moniker into casual conversation.
“I hear the fish are bitin’ up in Put-In-Bay,” one of us remarked as we guffawed our way through town.
“My idea of heaven?” the other of us offered. “Put-In-Bay.”
So it continued the whole way there. I don’t even remember how I ultimately managed to use the phrase to signal the end of that evening, but to this day, I cannot encounter the words Put-In-Bay without mirthful amusement.
Such is the funny side of the multifaceted discipline of geography. There are places that, thanks to humorous associations that often have little or nothing to do with the locations themselves, can make us smile at the mere mention of their names.
Case in point: Scranton. If you have just now reflexively grinned, then either you once had a memorable time in northeastern Pennsylvania, or you are regular viewer of The Office. Whereas the locale of Dunder Mifflin’s most profitable branch would once conjure in my mind nothing more than the name of nearby Wilkes-Barre, I am now incapable of avoiding an Office association. I envision the dancing forms of Michael Scott and Dwight Schrute chanting, “Ain’t no party like a Scranton party! Ain’t no party like a Scranton party!” I suppose authentic Scrantonites have long since tired of the joke, but we Office watchers find it hard to take the city seriously. Ditto for Scranton’s nickname, the Electric City, which merely summons the memorable hook of a ridiculous Scott/Schrute rap.
Yes, comedy has a way of permanently tainting our perspective. Much of England is automatically funny to me as a result of repeated exposure to Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Bolton, Ipswitch, Luton, Leicester, Uxbridge, Minehead – should I ever visit any of these places, I’m sure the martial strain of Sousa’s Liberty Bell march will be my mental soundtrack. Even Weston-super-Mare, never mentioned in the Pythonic canon yet nonetheless the notable birthplace of John Cleese, cannot escape my amusement.
The great radio comic team of Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding had an ear for humorous places, taking dry satisfaction in placing their characters everywhere from Mystic Seaport, Connecticut to the Dry Tortugas. Whether it’s one of the many stops of the Bob and Ray Trophy Train (as reported by Wally Ballou) or any of the numerous destinations of Mary Backstayge and company, the places mentioned in their skits will forever have a silly connotation for me.
Sometime a place name is just intrinsically funny, even without any prior jocular association. For a high school world studies class, I had to memorize the entire continent of Africa, which introduced me to the tiny nation of Djibouti. As an adolescent male, the mere pronunciation of this country was hilarious to me, as it had a vaguely suggestive ring to it. Add to that the fact that its capital city is also named Djibouti, and you have instant funny. You can just see Frank Sinatra crooning away, “I want to be a part of it…Djibouti, Djibouti.” My friends and I were so enamored of the name that, naturally, we formed a band and called ourselves Djibouti.
Years can go by without your average, well-informed American hearing any news from Djibouti. One New Year’s Eve, I happened to be watching the evening news, which featured footage from various international locations where it was already the first of January. “And in the Horn of Africa,” intoned the announcer, “revelers in Djibouti welcome the new year.” Though its musical namesake had disbanded decades ago, the sound of Djibouti still rang a funny bell.
Really, I suppose that a penchant for juvenile humor helps if you’re looking for laughs in an atlas index. In the summer of 2007, I was at the wheel of our minivan as we cruised along I-70 on our way back home from a long vacation out west. Tired and hungry, we decided to stop for lunch at the nearest sign of civilization, which turned out to be Effingham, Illinois. There were cries from the back seats for a good Chinese buffet, but I couldn’t resist the obvious joke.
“Maybe,” I teased, “but I’m not really in the mood for Chinese. What I’d really like is to find a place where I can get an Effingham sandwich.” (I’m sure my remark was inspired by an incident that occurred during a church band rehearsal in which I participated. There was some dispute over a chord progression, to which the band leader wryly retorted, “Just play the F and C!”). It lightened the mood for a few miles as we tried out other possibilities. Effingham salad. Effingham bones. Effingham radio. Of course, it is now difficult for me to hear the name Effingham and keep a straight face.
I suppose you would expect nothing less from a guy whose trip to the Outer Banks was punctuated by giggles over the small community of Wanchese. What can I say? It sounds like a place right out of the surreal wit of Bob and Ray.