How Restaurants Whet Your Appetite with Whimsy and Wit

By Don and Alleen Nilsen, Co-Founders of the International Society for Humor Studies

Now that we have retired from our teaching positions at Arizona State University, we have more time to eat out and what we have discovered is that restaurants are using humor and wit to spice up their patrons’ eating and drinking experiences.  We were recently invited to speak about humor and aging at a big retirement community built in the desert east of Mesa, Arizona.  When we got close, we stopped to eat at a restaurant and were amused to see that the bar area was totally covered with  humorous license plates apparently donated by the retirees (“the Snowbirds”), who come from colder climates to spend warm winters in Arizona.

The license plates were amusing to first-timers, like us, and comforting to repeat customers who were proud to see us taking pictures of a license plate that they identified with, either because they had donated it or because it came from their home state.

Since then, we’ve started noticing humor as an attention-getter at other restaurants.  For example, at our local pancake house, the waitresses wear T-shirts with such semi-suggestive messages as “CRACK IT, WHIP IT, FLIP IT!” while at our favorite pizzeria the messages on the waitress’s shirts include, “LEGALIZE MARINARA,” and “TASTES LIKE GARLIC.”  One woman’s shirt looked as if it read “WATCH OUT FOR HABOOBS!”  “Haboob” is an Arabic word for a huge dust storm.  It was first used by Arizona broadcasters and newspapers in the summer of 2011, when we had a dust storm that was just slightly bigger than usual.  Our own waitress saw us trying to read the “Haboob” message which was partially hidden by the waitress’s long hair, and she cheerfully explained that they used to all have “Haboob” shirts, but a customer complained and so they were now trying to be more conservative.  However, a new catalogue was going to arrive next week so next time we come for pizza, we will be able to enjoy a whole new set of T-shirt messages.

We’ve also discovered that the Jimmy John’s sandwich shop is using humor—both on clothes and on their walls—to attract and amuse customers.  Signs visible from the street read “FREE SMELLS,” and “YOUR LUCKY NUMBER” followed by the shop’s telephone number.    The delivery boy wears a shirt with the message, “YOU BUY, I FLY!”   On display inside the restaurant are such signs as “MOTHER APPROVED,”  “CRAVE IT!  SAVOR IT!  And “LOVE AT FIRST BITE.”   Bigger signs that customers can read to amuse themselves while their sandwiches are being made include “Your mouth isn’t watering; It’s crying for Jimmy Johns!”,  “Turns out pigs can fly.  You just have to make them into sandwiches first!” and “16 Things That Took Me over 50 Years to Learn.”   Thankfully our sandwiches were ready by the time we finished reading the first one: “Never take a laxative and a sleeping pill the same night.”  We’re undecided about whether we want to come back to read the others, but we probably will–either out of hunger or curiosity.

Don and Alleen Nilsen became emeritus professors at Arizona State University on May 15th, 2011. Their opus magnum is the Encyclopedia of 20th-Century American Humor  which in 2000 was selected as an “Outstanding Academic Book” by Choice, and which in 2001 won an “Outstanding Reference Source” award from the American Library Association’s.  Don has also written three books about humor in British literature, one about humor in American literature, and one about humor in Irish literature.  In 2004, Don and Alleen published two books about teaching metaphor in public schools, and in 2007, they published their Names and Naming in Young Adult Literature.  Don and Alleen’s most recent book is their revisedPronunciation Contrasts in English, about half of which is about English spelling as a rule-governed system.  Don and Alleen are presently working on the 9th edition ofLiterature for Today’s Young Adults, which will appear in 2012.

Encyclopedia of 20TH-century American Humor (00 Edition)

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