I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this joke from the British comedy team Mitchell and Webb, which is probably like one of my five all-time favorite jokes. I’m going to tell you the joke, but in the chronological order of the events happening, not in the form of the actual joke. It’s more of like the story at the end of No Country For Old Men.
Two men work at the same company. One, who we will call Bravo, eats a ham sandwich for lunch, and gets a tiny bit of the ham just under his lower lip. His co-worker, who we will call Alfa, sees this happen—but doesn’t say anything. (I’m just pulling the names for A and B from the NATO phonetic alphabet because the details aren’t really important; this is a grand archetypal fable, as we will see)
Now: Bravo goes on for the next forty years with this tiny piece of ham under his lip. He doesn’t realize he has the ham on his face, and nobody—most notably his co-worker Alfa, who first saw this happen up-close—tells him about it. You can imagine how nasty this wee bit of ham must have looked like after four decades on this man’s skin.
In fact, Bravo, though tolerated by his company—was also sort of its pariah. Because of the ham. He missed out on promotions, key meetings, and even having sex with Sophia Loren because of his unfortunate condition. God knows how many other ways in which Bravo’s life suffered by having a stinky piece of rotting meat on his face.
Finally, it’s time for Bravo to retire. Right before the party begins, Alfa has a confession. A dark confession, considering the circumstances. But it is more than a confession. It is to be a life-altering revelation for Bravo.
Alfa takes Bravo aside and tells him: “you have a tiny piece of ham on your face; just under your lip.”
Bravo thinks Alfa is referring to the crumbs of some recent meal. “How long have I had this?”
Alfa replies: “You’ve had it the entire time I’ve known you. You’ve had it for forty years.”
He goes on to admit that he saw the bit of ham fall on Bravo’s face that day at lunchtime, but never said anything.
In growing horror, Bravo recounts a list of all the different previously unexplained negative experiences he’s had on the job—Alfa confirms that it was most certainly the ham that was a factor in all of these.
Bravo lets out a nervous laugh. He does acknowledge that he has something on his face, but insists it has always been there; a sort of facial blemish he must have been born with, or perhaps one that sprung organically like a boil.
Alfa grimly directs Bravo to rub that little raw stinking bit. It comes off. Now Bravo realizes:
“It WAS ham!”
First of all, we can’t place all the blame on Alfa for this situation. Bravo must have been INCREDIBLY stupid not to realize he had a piece of ham sticking to his face. I mean: how could he have possibly have missed it? Was his lower lip so protruding, perhaps, that it shielded the ham from his view? Was he just normally oblivious about such details? What?
But Alfa’s actions are also quite questionable here. He knew his co-worker—with whom he had seemed to have a pleasant relationship with—had this ham on his face. And yet he said nothing for forty years. He said nothing, choosing to instead to watch Bravo blindly stumble into one misfortune after another.
More than that: they had an office full of other people there. Could nobody say anything to Bravo about the ham? Did Bravo have family members or close friends who could have brought this up to him? Was anybody actively looking after Bravo’s best interest here?
Lastly: can a piece of ham really stick to a person’s face for 40 years? Does it sort of become organically…connected to the rest of his face? Wouldn’t this cause some sort of infection? Would it truly be so easy as to rub the ham off after all that time? Shouldn’t the doctors get involved at this point?
This joke has been haunting me ever since I heard it for the first time in like 2014. The ham: it was ham! He had ham on his face for FORTY YEARS! And nobody told him! Not even his best bud at the job. They just let him walk around with the…the ham.
For forty years. Nobody told him. His co-worker just…sat there. Looking at the ham on his friend’s face. Tantalized with the secret knowledge. The ham. Who could possibly do this? Who could passively let his friend’s life go down the shitter day after day after day rather than step in with an easy fix and a damned napkin? Who could possibly let another human being twist in the wind like this?
And how could an individual survive for such a long time with this errant piece of processed meat just below his lower lip? Just how did he do it? Was it supreme ignorance? Or did his natural child-like optimism and troubling lack of detail in regards to personal hygiene blind him to his condition?
And what happens to these two people once the joke is over? What is the fallout from the Ham Revelation? Do they remain friends? Does Alfa get punched in the nose? Do the two become even closer as a result of this incident…as people bond through trauma?
The ham. It was there all along. It’s the key to everything, the final answer, the cypher through which all previous inquiries might be solved. Even writing these words now…it’s finally become clear. The secrets of the universe, the meaning of the Mysteries, the answer to the divine equation.
It’s as clear as the ham on my face.