Back in the mid- 1980s, when my firm’s profits were excellent and electronic communications were rudimentary, the extravagant business trips to London remained the order of the day. Since my wife had her own career, she didn’t travel with me often, but other men, both colleagues and customers often brought their wives. We’d be invited to elaborate dinners where the wives of our senior London hosts would also attend.
An hour long cocktail reception prior to dinner elevated the mood of gaiety by means of generous offerings of champagne, wine and spirits. A multi-course dinner followed accompanied by different wines for the appropriate course. After dessert coffee was served together with liqueurs or brandy, or selected cheeses and vintage port if not both. Conversation flowed freely including many socially acceptable attempts at humor.
One such occasion found me at a slightly smaller gathering than those usual “dog and pony shows.” In place of a private room, we gathered in the main dining room of the Savoy Hotel. It was a grand evening and when it was my turn to add to the entertainment, I selected a story from my repertoire that I knew would amuse the ladies and gentlemen, be acceptable in mixed company, and didn’t telegraph its slap-shoe ending until I reached the punch line. I began:
The Pope died and as is their duty, the College of Cardinals met in Vatican City to select the new pope. Days passed but each time smoke rose from the chimney atop the Sistine Chapel, the color was always black: no new Pope today!
Unbeknownst to the waiting faithful, the cardinals could not choose among three Polish prelates, Cardinal Smykowski, Cardinal Katkavage and Cardinal Komorowski. Ballot after ballot, the results were the same, one third, one third and one third.
At this point I knew that I had the table hanging on my every word. The joke was working perfectly and they were all intrigued.
In desperation the cardinals agreed to take an unorthodox approach to end this papal dilemma. A committee of the 12 most senior cardinals would question each of the candidates to determine who was the holiest and then recommend that man to the college to be elected Pope.
First up was Cardinal Smykoski: Question: “Cardinal, what is the holiest day in the Christian Calendar?”
“Oh that’s easy; it’s the Fourth of July, you know that great day when we bar-b-que, clam bakes, drink beer and watch the fireworks at night.”
It was at this point after I used that reference to our Independence Day that I realized to my horror that my audience was overwhelmingly British and while they got the Fourth of July, most of them knew nothing about Ground Hog Day. Still I pressed on:
Smykowski was quickly dismissed. Cardinal Katkavage entered next – asked the same question, he replied: “Thanksgiving, of course, when families gather from far and wide to give thanks, eat turkey and watch football on television.
I could see they understood the Thanksgiving reference too. Damn, no choice but to keep going.
Finally, Cardinal Komorowski is summoned: “What is the holiest day in the Christian Calendar?”
Komorowski pondered his answer as tension filled the room. Finally he spoke, “Why Easter, of course. That is the day that Christ rises from the dead, leaves his tomb and…” Komorowski was suddenly interrupted as the room erupted in relief and joy at the realization that finally the cardinals had a holy man their presence.
At last the excitement abated and the room quieted. Komorowski cleared his throat and continued “…It is the day when he leaves his tomb and if he sees his shadow, we have two more weeks of lent.”
I inherited a polite noise that mimicked laughter and a sea of blank faces. No time for explanations, that will only be digging my hole deeper. Instead, I smiled back, took a large sip of my drink and pretended what just happened did not happen. I quietly waited for the next idiot to tell his story.