Keeping a smile as the world melts down

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A year ago, when we first explored the idea of a humor column at Bankrate, the U.S. economy had just (swoosh!) slipped on the banana peel of the market meltdown, staggered dazed (wha? huh?) into the swinging door of the housing bust and (splat!) taken the cream pie of soaring job loss full in the face.

Hilarious? Maybe if you were the Marquis de Sade. Not so much if you’d just taken on a banking humor column.

“How do you define optimism? A banker who irons five shirts on Sunday.”

Those first few columns felt a little bit like singing “The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow” in patent leather Mary Janes and a bright orange fright wig while it was raining men on Wall Street.

Yet humor somehow prevails despite hard times, and perhaps because of them. We need humor to overcome adversity in life, yet we often fail to appreciate its analgesic qualities once the pain subsides.

If you work (or used to work) on Wall Street, maybe you’re familiar with these:

  • How do you define optimism? A banker who irons five shirts on Sunday.
  • What’s the difference between an investment banker and a large pizza? A large pizza can feed a family of four.
  • What’s the difference between an investment banker and a pigeon? A pigeon can still make deposits on a BMW.

Fair-weather friends

Our economic maelstrom has had little impact on the basic structure of banking humor, which mostly requires the banker to bear the brunt of the joke. Personally, I prefer those who deliver the blow with a wink at the absurd, and maybe the universal, in all of us. Here’s one of my favorites:

Three armed robbers storm into a bank. While one of the robbers empties the cash drawers, the others order the two branch bankers and frightened customers against the wall. As the robbers proceed to relieve the hostages of their jewelry, watches and wallets, the first banker slips something into the hand of the other banker.

“What’s this?” the second banker whispers, too scared to glance down. The first banker — knowing he’s going to have to empty his wallet anyway — replies, “It’s that $50 I owe you.”

We Americans hardly have a monopoly on banking humor. U.K. humor archivists Will Baker and Guy Thomas, who collect humor from all over the world, share this bit of silliness inspired by Japan’s economic troubles:

“In the last seven days, Origami Bank has folded, Sumo Bank has gone belly-up and Karaoke Bank is up for sale and will likely go for a song. Samurai Bank is soldiering on following sharp cutbacks and analysts report something fishy going on at Sushi Bank, where it is feared staff may get a raw deal.”

Pundits and poets alike have been skewering bankers for years. Mark Twain observed, “Banks will loan you money if you can prove you don’t need it.”

Robert Frost famously characterized the wingtip crowd this way: “A bank is a place where they lend you an umbrella in fair weather and ask for it back when it begins to rain.”

Bad assets, easy profits

If you’ve known a banker or two on a personal level, you probably know them to be pretty good eggs. My banker buddies have been kind and principled professionals with an easy laugh and a soft spot for the underdog.

So I would be remiss on this first anniversary of Bank Shots if I didn’t share a favorite slice of banking humor in which the banker prevails — sort of.

An investment banker walks into a job interview. The interviewer asks her, “What’s the key to successful investment banking?” The applicant replies, “Turning bad assets into something profitable.”

When asked for an example, she offered this story:

An investment banker bought a horse from a farmer for $100. On the date of delivery, the horse died. Since the farmer had already spent the money, the banker said, “That’s OK. I’ll take the dead horse.”

The banker then organized a raffle, offering chances to win the horse. She sold $2 tickets to 500 people.

“How’d you do with that dead horse?” the farmer asked several days later.

“Oh, I made $998,” the banker replied.

“Did anyone complain?” the farmer asked.

“Only the winner,” the banker said. “So, I refunded his $2.”

She was hired immediately.

If you have a comment or suggestion about this column, write to Bank Shots.