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Steer clear of high-brow humor by taking the low road to laughter

More than once, I've left a precept wondering how many Princeton students really think of themselves as being "clever" or "witty." I suppose it's natural to try to be imaginative and original. Especially in an atmosphere like Princeton's — one that is filled with geniuses or geniuses-in-training — being able to get a classmate or professor to chuckle or to think, "How astute!" has to be a hugely thrilling experience. But having been bombarded by five semesters of an overdose of wit, I am now intent on becoming as relentlessly stupid as possible.

The "annoying kid in precept" is the most obvious example of a student's desire to show off his depth of thought to his classmates. This is the person who somehow manages to find the longest synonyms for the shortest words, and who answers classmates' questions to preceptors with glib, smirking responses. But the most obvious and overlooked result is a competition for cleverness among signs posted in hallways and on lamp posts, and among covers of student publications.


This phenomenon hit me at the beginning of the year, when nearly every weekly or monthly journal and magazine (and several random posters on campus) made a headline reference to the arrival of Peter Singer along with his band of disabled opponents. There was an eerie feeling about these headlines and slogans, and it seemed as though competition was underway for the "wittiest Singer joke" contest.

Maybe such a reaction to a campus news story is an expected result of putting a bunch of smart, literate people together in a competitive environment. Still, I've gotten sick of it. The dozens of jokes and witticisms that we read every day begin to blend together and send one basic message: "If you're clever enough to appreciate this slogan, you should vote/read/attend with its authors."

So to escape from the pressure of student wit, I've tried to avoid things that try to be cute or ironic. Instead, I've tried to shrink my vocabulary while enjoying the most blatantly stupid things I can find. This quest to find the opposite of clever led me to the Donovan song, "There Is a Mountain."

For those of you unfamiliar with 1960s folk rock, Donovan Leitch was an Irish singer-songwriter who became famous for soft, wandering songs like "Mellow Yellow" (from the Gap commercials). He also fell victim to the first of a series of celebrity drug busts in Britain, and brought together Led Zeppelin founders Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones.

All this having been said, "There Is a Mountain" is one of the dumbest songs to come from his generation, which would surely place it pretty high in the running for dumbest ever. The lyrics consist of five sentences, most notably: "First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, there is." Donovan repeats this sentence eight times during the two-and-a-half minute song, always in the same tone of sunny cluelessness.

The beauty of this song is that it doesn't pretend to be anything it isn't. There's nothing fancy or unusual about the music, and the lyrics refuse to explain or address anything, including themselves. Clearly, Donovan wasn't trying to impress his friends with his stunning creativity or profoundness of thought. There's something about that honesty that is refreshing when I compare it to the Peter Singer jokes and snappy headlines that fill the Princeton campus.


So I have taken refuge in Donovan, and I recommend that other students do so as well. I know I'm not alone in enjoying simple idiot humor, as the success of Howard Stern and "South Park" would suggest. There's one kid from my sociology precept who I'm sure would be eager to comment on how this trend reflects an adverse reaction to commercial culture. I won't because I think it's a dumb idea, and who would want to read about that anyway?

(Joe Dague is a politics major from Carlisle, Pa. He can be reached at

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