You Really Had to Be There

There’s this line by Agent J in Men in Black 3 that goes: “Okay, see, the prerequisite for a joke, is that it be funny.” That’s what the “you really had to be there” expression is about and which occurs to me whenever I think about an incident that cracks me up now almost as much as it did decades ago.

The thing about the “you really had to be there” expression is that it refers to an event that was funny to someone, but the comicality of it is usually tough to explain to a person who wasn’t there at the time the event occurred. It’s one of those insider jokes. The often-present feature of the story is that there are some parts of it you’d rather not reveal. That can make it hard for some people to “get it.”

This “you really had to be there” story happened when I was a teenager. A bunch of us guys were sitting around a table after finishing lunch. We were having dessert, which were crumbly snack bars. I think they were made of chocolate Rice Krispies and they were probably old. That’s a key factor, along with the paper plates on which they were served.

Some of the guys were jonesing for a cigarette. Not me because I didn’t smoke. But the place didn’t allow smoking. One guy (I can’t remember his name so I’ll call him Ralph) started complaining about it and then starting playing with his snack bar like it was a cigarette. I know Rice Krispies bars are usually gooey, but these were definitely not. They were dry and tasteless. When you picked them up, crumbs randomly dropped all over the paper plates.

Anyway, while Ralph was moaning and groaning about not being able to smoke, he started tapping on his dessert bar like he was tapping ashes off a cigarette. Now, if you’ve ever smoked or watched somebody else smoke, it eventually dawns on you why some people say they smoke—it gives them something to do with their hands. Anyway, people used to say that. They do all sorts of weird mannerisms and trick-like finger moves while they smoke.

Anyway, Ralph would roll his cigarette/snack bar on the paper plate, tap crumbs off it like they were ashes, flick it smartly and, occasionally, he’d put it up to his lips and take a bite as though he were taking a drag.

Cigarette ash doesn’t make a sound when it falls in an ashtray. It’s impossible to explain why the tapping noise of the snack bar crumbs hitting the paper plate made us all hysterical. But it definitely had a lot to do with his clowning around with a snack bar prop. Ralph’s act was a combination of complaints about the food, the smoke-free joint, and an instinct for the prerequisite of a joke. It was funny—at a particular time and in a particular place.

I’ve thought about trying to make a YouTube video of this. But I don’t think it would be as funny as Ralph’s spontaneous performance. There’s probably no way I could pull it off. And, let’s face it, as a trained doctor knowing what I know about the health hazards of smoking, it’d be pretty awkward.

And would anyone else get it? You really had to be there.

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