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What's So Funny?

To honor more than a century of handmade student publications, we’ve created our own, mining Swarthmorean humor in the most obscure corners. (Quaker rubber chicken, anyone?)

Take your pick: 







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Water Ballet

by W.D. Ehrhart ’73

How many ex-Marine sergeants do you know who completed four years of water ballet?

When I was asked as a freshman to be in the water ballet show, I figured, what the hell—I didn’t have any worries about my masculinity. That’s how Brad Lemke ’70, Allen Boni ’70, and I did a water ballet routine to “The Stripper” while the ladies caught their breath. It was such great fun, I kept coming back every year.

As a junior, five other fellows and I did a six-man back-chain dolphin—you’re all floating on your back in a line, and each one hooks his feet under the chin of the next guy. Then, basically, you make like one big tank tread where, one after another, you go under the water and then resurface, all in one continuous motion. I was a smoker then, and the fact that I didn’t drown was a miracle.

My senior year, at the women’s athletics banquet, all the water ballet ladies got a little silver pendant with a garnet “S” on it. They gave me a plain ol’ tie tack. Over the years, I thought, This is sexist! I did four years of a women’s sport; I should get the women’s award. So in 1981, I wrote to the department head, Eleanor Kay “Pete” Hess, and by damned, she sent me one.

I took it to a jeweler and turned it into a lapel pin. In fact, it is on the jacket I am wearing right now. I teach at the Haverford School and wear a coat and tie to class. I am very proud of the pin—there can’t be many guys who got a four-year award from the women’s P.E. department, and now that Swarthmore has combined the men’s and women’s departments, there aren’t going to be any more.







by Celia Caust-Ellenbogen ’09

Quakers aren’t known for their humor—despite hopes raised by a misleadingly titled ’90s sitcom, Friends—but they’ve used it to build community and express themselves.

For example, as related in Laughter in Quaker Grey, “in 1739, at a meeting at Chester, U.S.A., John Salkeld, jovial and sometimes eccentric, saw several members overcome with drowsiness. He suddenly sprang to his feet and shouted ‘Fire! Fire!’ Everyone was then awake and asking, ‘Where?’ He responded, ‘In hell, to burn up the drowsy and unconcerned.’”

Quaker artist and Philadelphian Cassius “Cash” Marcellus Coolidge left an even larger comedic footprint. In 1873, he created the “comic foreground”: those carnival cut-outs where you stick your head through a painted scene to be photographed as a muscle man, mermaid, or, well, anything. (Even John Salkeld!)

Coolidge’s legacy was sealed, however, by his iconic oil paintings of pooches—you guessed it—playing cards. (Poker Night sold for $658,000 through Sotheby’s in 2015.)

We might not have any Coolidge originals, but Friends Historical Library does have plenty of Quaker quips from the 17th century on—come see if any bring a smile to your lips!






by Beau Vine

Birds do it, bees do it, even educated cattle do it. Pursue knowledge at Swarthmore, that is.

You may have heard of the famous 1929 Halloween prank, where mischief-makers coaxed a local cow to the women’s dormitory on the second floor of Parrish Hall. (It wasn’t the first time Second West was thrown into commootion—Lew Darnall, Class of 1911, pulled off the same elaborate trick on Jan. 17, 1908.)

The Phoenix reported the cow “had been peacefully dreaming of clover patches” before being “abruptly disturbed and driven along … to Parrish.”

The above is all true. Perhaps less so is new evidence from the barnyard beat revealing this account to be, well, bull.

Here’s what we heard. Concerned about the Wall Street Crash days earlier, Elsie Van der Milk (of the Crum Van der Milks) set off for McCabe Library to research economic policy solutions when she became lost, due to Swarthmore’s lack of building signage, and entered Parrish Hall by mistake.

“The udder chaos was so dreadful—and the subsequent press coverage so slanderous—it behooved me attend school elsewhere,” Van der Milk revealed in her mooooo-moirs. “So I became the Purple Cow of Williams College.”






by Douglas Miron ’81

in costume, I sip grog and walk along the dock like a latter-day maritime madman, reciting a poem on the wreck of the Palatine aloud. I start joking with children, photo-bombing tourists, and getting to the place in my head where people think, Is this guy drunk? and He’s hysterical. I’m sure glad I decided to come on the tour.

In the four years that I’ve been dressing up and talking like a pirate, I’ve never turned down a tour because I was in a bad mood, or exhausted, or reeling from divorce. The show—history-based performances and tours—must go on. My most popular is “Beaufort Ghost Walk,” in which I walk around our quaint seaside town in North Carolina, telling local ghost stories and finishing up in our famous “haunted” graveyard.

A ship called the Crissie Wright wrecked right off our town in 1886. One man after another died just a few yards off shore. As I start to explain these very true details, I say that the Crissie Wright was actually carrying 300 tons of one single commodity.

I tell the most stony-faced tour-goer: “You thinkin’ you larnin’ ’istory from a pirate, it’s most likely a lotta shoight, roight? Ain’t that whatchoo thinkin?” He or she invariably denies thinking, It’s a lotta shoight, so I will ask if anyone thinks it’s a lotta shoight, among major giggles from the children who are finally understanding what “shoight” is. Then I will say: “That’s too bad, cuz the Crissie Wright was carrying 300 tons of guano to fertilize old fields that had been burnt out by cotton plantations, because on the coast of Maine, in 1886, like city halls in Raleigh today, ‘the shoight run deep.’”

Humor relieves tension and re-establishes our common humanity. Tour-goers fall in love with this crusty old salt by the time it’s over, and vice versa. When they see me around town later, they have huge smiles. Me, too. We walked that mile and laughed together.




Death and Taxis

by Lawrence Arnstein ’67

A confession: I look forward to receiving the Bulletin with a sense of dread. Not because my classmates are approaching death, or death is approaching us, but because they have all achieved so much. What’s the big idea?

(As for me, I have two Writers Guild of America Awards looking down on me from my den wall as if to say, “Yeah, but what have you done lately?” Also an Emmy nomination, the Emmy having been given to a less-deserving writer due to human error. A book I wrote with my sons was a semifinalist for the Thurber Prize for American Humor, and since a semifinalist is a kind of finalist, really we were finalists for the Thurber Prize. Finally, my essays on current affairs have been rejected by not only The Washington Post, but also The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The New Yorker.)

Anyway, in my senior year, I had a small part in a production of the medieval allegory Everyman down by the Crum. The play begins with Everyman partying hard, which is what I tried to do at college. Death appears suddenly: “What, weenest thou thy life is given thee?” Everyman says, “I had ween’d so verily.” Death laughs. “Nay, it was but lent thee.”

That wasn’t the only time I co-starred with death: After Swarthmore, I tempted fate as a New York City taxi driver. One secret I learned: Safe driving is all about meeting expectations. If you’re driving a taxi in Manhattan, people expect you to do crazy things and drive very aggressively. If you do not do crazy things and drive very aggressively, you will cause accidents. (Another secret—surprise!—is that poor people are better tippers than rich people. Imagine that.)

As a cabbie, passengers tell you things—funny anecdotes, love stories, tales of woe. It’s a lot less expensive than therapy, and cab drivers actually listen.

These days, I’m no longer a death-defying mobile shrink. I am a calm and safe—even somewhat slow—driver. The only time I drive fast and crazy is when I’m late for work, which terrifies my wife, reasonably enough. She’ll scream, “You’re not driving a taxi in Manhattan!”

I think, but do not say, If I’m late, I will be driving a taxi in Manhattan.






by Sarah Luger ’97

Humor is about empathy, timing, and nuance with a spontaneous, often linguistic, component. (“In old country, TV watches you!”)

It’s the highest level of human expression, so basically, robots can’t do it because they parrot us without understanding. In artificial intelligence, humor is viewed as the final frontier because it’s so difficult to truly make happen.

With AI, humor has to be hard-coded in. Amazon’s Alexa, for example, has a multitude of skills including “jokes of the day” that are either programmed by someone or pulled from a website. One of the first types of humor they’re trying to have AI create are quips like, “Stanford is the Harvard of the ’90s,” but the result has been things like, “Chairs are the chicken of the esophagus.” It doesn’t make any sense; it’s just generating data.

That’s why, when we have AI creating comedy based on data drawn from the internet, the worst impulses of humanity can be reflected. After all, the internet—which is heavily heteronormative pornography and anonymous racist comments with cat memes sprinkled in—is a very biased place. This is the reason a Microsoft chatbot quickly disintegrated into bigotry when unleashed on Twitter in 2016.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not a hater on AI. It can do amazing things, like figure out if a photo is of a dog or a cat. You or I could do that pretty well—not perfectly, of course—but then again, computers aren’t perfect, either. But the reason AI is so good at it is thanks to the data it’s seen. More photos with dogs in snow are present than of cats in snow; we call this feature engineering. Our systems are looking at all the features and recognizing patterns—faster than humans ever could—but they don’t have an understanding of what a dog is.

Still, think about how this could translate to other things, like recognizing cancer cells. AI’s potential makes a lot of people view it as a salve to rub on countless ailments. And that’s OK, because it means I keep making computer-scientist money to support progressive causes. But the intersection of AI and humor is a little strange, because so much of humor is tied up in what it means to be human.

That is, until the robots take over. Then the joke’s on us.






From the garlicky intersection of the Halcyon and Admissions Interview with the Vampire ...






















How many Swatties does it take to change a lightbulb?

Dozens of Swatties will organize to change the lightbulb but graduate before seeing it done. —Kyle Erf ’13

Why did the Swattie cross the road?

They were having an epistemic crisis. Also, they had Tarble credit. —Lesley Tsina ’96

Knock, knock. 

Who's there?


Swat who?

Sorry. I was unclear. Swat isn't my first name. I'm a personification of Swarthmore College.

And you're standing at my door, knocking?


Is this even a joke?

It's impossible for us to ever truly know. —Morgan Phillips ’96

Two Swatties walk into a bar ...

...order cheap beer, put on "Closing Time," jump on a table, and dance till dawn. Aw wait, that's not a joke, that's just me being real nostalgic. —Jessie Cannizzaro ’12

McCabe's Least-Checked-Out Books

Least Popular Screw Your Roommate Matches

Other Famous Learned Animals of Swarthmore

What You’ll See at the Hamburg Show

Less Popular Alternatives to the Primal Scream

Rejected WSRN Shows





two cartoons: 1) two alligators eating a Swarthmore sweatshirt and saying, "Hey Vanessa, does this taste socially conscious to you?" and 2) witches' hats floating beside a broomstick in a river and the caption "And just like that, Team Cauldron's chances of winning the Crum Regatta were over."








The Many Swarthmorean Deaths of Fun


+ WE TRIED! Now, you go! Share your favorite Swarthmore-inspired comedy (or throw virtual tomatoes our way):