A man walks into a bar. He has an orange for a head. The bartender pours him a drink and says: “So—you want to tell me about it?”
“Well, I was walking on the beach,” says the man with an orange for a head. “I found an old lamp in the sand and took it home. When I polished the lamp, a genie came out and offered me three wishes in return for setting him free. Thinking it was some sort of trick, I offhandedly wished for a million dollars. Instantly, the doorbell rang. A man had arrived to tell me I’d won a mail-order sweepstakes for exactly a million dollars. So I returned to the genie and wished I could have sex with every Playmate of the Month for last year. The doorbell rang again—and all 12 pinup girls came prancing in, at my service. I went back to the genie a third time,” says the man with an orange for a head, “and I think this may have been where I made my mistake.”
“What did you do?” says the bartender.
“I wished to have an orange for a head.”
When I first heard this joke about ten years ago, I laughed off and on—mostly on—for close to a week. I thought then and think now that it’s the funniest joke I’ve ever heard. I immediately began telling it to everyone I knew; over the last decade, I’ve told it countless times. And I’ve discovered two fascinating things about it. First, almost no one else thinks it’s funny. Most people don’t even crack a smile. Second, those few people who do think it’s funny think, like myself, that it’s the funniest joke ever—and a preponderance of them are, like myself, writers of fiction.
I’ve wondered about this phenomenon a lot. Why do story writers, almost exclusively, find this joke hilarious? I believe the answer is that, for those of us who have worked hard to master the storyteller’s craft, the joke both dramatizes and exemplifies the most painful and ridiculous truth we’ve learned: no narrative structure is big enough to contain the infinite perversity of the human heart.
Anyone who has written for the movies has encountered producers or studio executives who have read, perhaps, Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces or Robert McKee’s Story or Christopher Booker’s Seven Basic Plots or something like them. Equipped with these Casaubonian guides to all narrative structure, they now think they know how the writer’s job is done. They will interrupt your pitch to ask questions like “Where’s the second-act closing?” or “When does the hero confront the Other?,” speaking with a gravity that seems to imply, against all the evidence, that they are talking something other than blithering nonsense. One famous director, who has made several terrific films, even has a chart on his wall showing precisely where the hero of a story must meet certain obstacles, reach the nadir of his adventure, begin his rise to redemption, and so on.
It’s not that there’s no wisdom in these structural guides. They can be vaguely helpful, especially in the absence of inspiration or originality. But continually to construct your stories according to their universal frameworks is ultimately to guarantee creations that are blandly commercial at best and empty, cynical, and stale at worst. Because none of their templates will ever produce the orange-head joke. Not one can encompass our perversity.
As it is with fiction, so it is with the narratives of life that it imitates—with politics and with history, which continually confound our theories and predictions. Consider that study after study shows that faith, self-reliance, and chastity make human beings happier and healthier. Yet not only do we abandon these behaviors individually out of personal folly and weakness; we dismantle them as a society by intention and design, preaching and modeling lifestyles to our young that are almost guaranteed to make them sad and sick and dependent. Consider that the earth, as if beneficent, has poured millions of years’ worth of energy into the fossils of its dead creatures, presenting us with the Promethean gift of fuels that elevate us beyond the imaginations of our ancestors. Our response? We nurture a superstitious dread of oil and coal and promulgate pseudoscientific disaster scenarios meant to teach panic and to quench the very fire of our freedom. Or consider, finally, that we were born into the freest, strongest, and wealthiest nation that mankind has ever known—and elected as our president a man who promised to “fundamentally transform” it.
Yes, I think that may have been where we made our mistake. We wished to have an orange for a head.
Maybe you’re right. Maybe it’s not that funny.