Writing jokes is hard. I should know: I've spent the last 15 years writing good jokes for this newspaper column, which I've had for 28 years.
Being able to write jokes is a talent that not many people have. Just ask "That '90s Show."
Or look at the electronic highway signs the next time you're out driving.
Except those things will become a thing of the past.
That's because the U.S. Federal Highway Administration (FHA) hates jokes or having fun of any kind. They're the Grinch of freeway frivolities. The Tipper Gore of highway humor. If the FHA was in a movie, they'd be the guy who wants to stop young people from dancing.
The FHA just released its new 1,100-page manual containing all kinds of regulations state governments have to follow when it comes to rules of the road. That includes signs, signals, and other traffic control devices. And in the new manual, the FHA banished humorous messages on overhead electronic highway signs.
These are the signs that flash messages that warn you about crashes, traffic delays, and weather conditions. They also provide reminders to fasten your seatbelt and to drive at safe speeds.
Over the years, different states have used humor in their electronic messages to get people's attention: Massachusetts reminds drivers to "Use Yah Blinkah." Ohio advised "Visiting in-laws? Slow down, get there late." And Arizona said, "Hands on the wheel, not your meal."
These were all good for a chuckle because they reminded us to follow good driving practices.
Except the FHA realized that these messages were — gasp! — fun.
They couldn't allow that. Meetings were held, pearls were clutched, garments were rended, and fainting couches were fainted upon.
So, in order to eliminate fun, the FHA decreed that states could no longer use humor in their highway-to-helpful messages.
"No more happiness, no more mirth, no more humor of any kind."
The FHA also refuses to rhyme as it could also bring happiness to others.
Instead, they believe driving is meant to be tolerated, not enjoyed!
According to them, highway messages should be "simple, direct, brief, legible, and clear" and "relevant to the road user on the roadway on which the message is displayed." Otherwise, they could be "misunderstood or distracting to drivers."
"Honey, you're swerving all over the road! What's wrong?"
"I don't know. That sign said, 'Be a buckle girl in a buckle world,' and I thought I was supposed to swerve like a maniac."
Clunky bureaucratic language aside, they apparently think U.S. drivers are dumb. They worry that funny messages, "might be misunderstood or understood only by a limited segment of road users and require greater time to process and understand."
I've been driving for nearly 40 years, and I can tell you they're right: Many U.S. drivers are dumb. You only have to drive behind someone doing 20 miles below the speed limit in the left lane to realize that.
But still, even the slowest of left-lane drivers understand what "Texting & Driving? Oh Cell No!" actually means. They're not distracted from their snail's pace and easily understand the point. After all, they have plenty of time to figure it out.
The FHA has given states two years to get a humor-ectomy and start clenching up tight enough to meet federal standards.
But not everyone is taking this well. One Arizona state representative, David Cook, told CBS 5 in Phoenix, "Why are you trying to have the federal government come in and tell us what we can do in our own state? Prime example that the federal government is not focusing on what they need to be."
Well, to be fair, I think the federal government can walk and chew gum at the same time, the same as most — well, many — drivers can. I don't think the entire government will be distracted from feeding the homeless or focusing on the war in the Middle East because they're cracking down on humor, too.
After all, you found time to talk to a TV station when you should be doing government things.
Plus, the humor lovers have science on their side. In 2020, the Wall Street Journal reported on a study by Tripp Shealy, a professor at Virginia Tech. He said that messages that use humor, wordplay, and rhyme "commanded the most cognitive attention compared with other types."
"My recommendation would be that they’re useful, and humor should be allowed, from what we studied," Shealy told the WSJ.
Ultimately, the FHA is worried that funny signs could "adversely affect respect for the sign."
Look, it's not the American flag. Respecting highway signs is not even a thing. It's not like people are going to disregard messages because they're funny any more than they're going to respect, well, you.
If you want people to "respect the sign" — I couldn't say that with a straight face — then write messages that people will appreciate. Give them something to think about as they buzz down the highway. Teach them a lesson with a memorable quote or quip.
It could even make them speed up in the left lane for a few minutes.
Photo credit: Used by permission from www.maine.gov
My new humor novel, Mackinac Island Nation, is finished and available from 4 Horsemen Publications. You can get the ebook and print versions here.