Insight (with a Rimshot) or Variations on a Theme by Benny Kubelsky

28Aug09

One of my all-time favorite films is Annie Hall.  I like many things about it – it’s a Romantic Comedy that, unlike most current examples of that genre, actually manages to be both romantic and funny.  Woody’s love interest is even age-appropriate.  But one thing that I really enjoy about it is Woody Allen’s use of classic old jokes to frame and explicate the story. 

The movie begins with Woody’s character, Alvy Singer, talking directly into the camera: 

“There’s an old joke – um… two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of ’em says, ‘Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.’  The other one says, ‘Yeah, I know; and such small portions.’  Well, that’s essentially how I feel about life – full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly.  The… the other important joke, for me, is one that’s usually attributed to Groucho Marx; but, I think it appears originally in Freud’s ‘Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious,’ and it goes like this – I’m paraphrasing – um, ‘I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.’  That’s the key joke of my adult life, in terms of my relationships with women.1” 

In a perfect bookend, the film concludes with a voice-over by Alvy: 

“After that it got pretty late, and we both had to go, but it was great seeing Annie again.  I… I realized what a terrific person she was, and… and how much fun it was just knowing her; and I… I, I thought of that old joke, y’know, the, this… this guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, ‘Doc, uh, my brother’s crazy; he thinks he’s a chicken.’  And, uh, the doctor says, ‘Well, why don’t you turn him in?’  The guy says, ‘I would, but I need the eggs.’  Well, I guess that’s pretty much now how I feel about relationships; y’know, they’re totally irrational, and crazy, and absurd, and… but, uh, I guess we keep goin’ through it because, uh, most of us… need the eggs.2

I still think it’s a brilliant narrative device.  So much so, that today I’m going to “borrow” it for my blog. 

There’s a classic joke, attributed to Jack Benny (who built much of his comic persona around being a cheapskate), that goes something like this:

Jack Benny went to his doctor for a physical.  The doctor took x-rays and, after looking at them said, “Mr. Benny, you need an operation, and it is going to cost you $400.”  And Jack Benny responded by saying, “Doctor, for $25 can’t you just touch up the x-rays?” 

This joke applies in so many situations… how many times have we seen people avoid dealing with the underlying cause of a problem and opt instead to do something (pick your adjective: quick, easy, cheap…) that temporarily disguises it?  How often have we done it ourselves? 

I don’t want to get too political in this blog, but one obvious resonance of this joke is the current effort at healthcare reform.  I suspect that  any legislation we’re likely to get will only “touch up the x-rays.” 

Additionally, this joke illuminates far too many business situations. 

[Sidebar:  In my very first post I mocked the idea that I might discuss training in this blog.  Well, I promise that I won’t make a habit of it, honest!] 

I’ve been working in the training profession for 25+ years… I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had people in positions of authority ask me, essentially, to “touch up the x-rays.”  In the corporate environment, when it comes to employee learning and development, you often are in situations where there isn’t enough money or resources or management support to actually address performance issues.  What management inevitably wants is for you to do something – specifically something cheap – that appears to make things better. 

Of course, spending any money on something you know is worthless doesn’t seem like much of a bargain to me.  Here’s an example of a situation where I declined to “touch up the x-rays”: 

In the early ‘90s, I was the senior instructional designer at a large Savings & Loan (remember those?).  As part of a big push to get tellers and new accounts staff to cross-sell3products to our customers, they spent hundreds of thousands of dollars developing a computer application called CSI (in this case the acronym stood for “Customer Sales Information”) that would show employees all the products a customer had.  It was launched with great fanfare (and a small training effort orchestrated by the Regional Operations Supervisors).  The  IT (Information Technology) folks tracked the application and found it wasn’t being used much at most branches.  My boss was contacted because IT wanted our department to “design a training program.”

I asked, “But, weren’t the branch employees already trained?”

IT replied, “Yes, but it must not have been enough.”  Immediately, my B.S. detector went off.  

I looked at the usage reports and found 1 local branch that was using CSI and 1 that wasn’t.  I called and scheduled visits.  As I suspected, the employees knew how to use the system.  What I learned was that CSI required a supervisor override for a teller or new accounts person to access it.  To top it off, the branch that wasusing CSI was, in fact, technically violating company policy, by having the supervisor enter the override for each teller and new accounts person before the branch opened.

I recommended that:
a)   IT should eliminate the supervisor override and
b)   I would develop a job aid (a.k.a. a “cheat sheet”) for quick reference by the branch employees. 

If you’d never actually worked in a corporate environment, you might think that management would have been happy with my plan.  Wrong!  I got a lot of pushback.  They wanted training damn it– how dare the training people tell them to change their application. 

Fortunately, my boss backed me up and in a couple of weeks the problem was solved – faster and cheaper than a training program that wouldn’t have worked (how’s that for an ironic twist on the cheapskate aspect of the joke).  CSI usage increased by over 250%, which lead to improved cross-selling ratios and retention of maturing CDs. 

For my efforts, the Senior VP of IT gave me a clock imbedded in a Lucite triangle emblazoned with the words “Excellence in Service.”   

I wonder what I would have gotten if I’d just developed the training like they asked. 

There’s a variation of the joke that goes: 

A guy thinks he’s broken his leg and goes to see a doctor.  The doctor takes x-rays and says, “Yes, your leg is broken, but don’t worry.  I can fix it for $1,000.”  The patient says, “But doc, I don’t have $1,000.”  To which the doctor replies, “Well, for $50 I can touch-up the x-rays.” 

In this version, the control point has shifted from the patient to the doctor.  The doctor is either:
a)   telling the patient what he wants to hear, even though it’s clearly idiotic or
b)   pointing out the absurdity of quibbling over the price of a necessary procedure.   

Going with the latter interpretation, now that I’m a training consultant – an outsider and not on staff – I like to tell this version of the joke when talking to clients.  It doesn’t always get them to make the right choices, but at least it forces them to examine what they’re doing.

And there’s actually another version – Henny Youngman did it, naturally, as a one-liner:

“I’ve got a great doctor.  If you can’t afford the operation, he touches up your X-rays.” 

Frankly, I prefer the longer versions.

So… what can we learn from this?

  • The doctor always gets paid… even when he does bubkes.
  • Medical procedures were much cheaper in the past.

Okay readers… now I want to hear your stories – either a situation when you had to “touch up the x-rays” or when you refused to do it.  Please respond via the “Comment” function, so we can all feel your pain and/or admire your principled stance. 

Later…

  1.  http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0075686/quotes
  2. Ibid.
  3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cross-selling
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4 Responses to “Insight (with a Rimshot) or Variations on a Theme by Benny Kubelsky”

  1. 1 ted

    I believe it’s called PhotoShopping the X-Rays today.

    And it’s been a daily occurrence in my corner of the universe for over thirty years. I prefer to call it Dealing with Real Life. You pick your battles, you win some and you lose some, and the rest of the time, there’s a lot of touching up to do

    • Maybe even “Photoshopping the MRIs.” It doesn’t have quite the same ring… and Jack Benny would never have said it.

  2. 3 Jim Laffan

    …and pretty soon all the tellers were cross-selling emerging market mutual funds and ninja loans to total strangers without supervisor overrides or any adult intrusion whatsoever. The rest, as they say, is history. Sort of reminds me of an old joke; guy goes to see a doctor who takes his x-ray and calls him back the next day. “I touched myself looking at your x-rays. It was great but unfortunately you’ve got a tumor in your lung.” Touched yourself! the guy screams, “what kinda fershlugginer doctor masturbates to xrays? You crazy?” “Who said I was a doctor? I’m just a pervert in a lab coat. And anyway, it’s not called masturbation, it’s called ‘choking the chicken back where I come from’. I also noticed an egg-shaped vibrator in your rectum, want me reach up there and replace the batteries?” “Only if you love me,” the guy replied. “Love’s a tall order, pal; but I’ll do it for a clock imbedded in a Lucite triangle emblazoned with the words “Excellence in Service.” “Deal,” he replied

    So I guess love is like that, as crazy and frustrating and confusing and surreal it seems at times we keep on because…oh, sorry, this is my stop. Bye!

  3. 4 jallebrand

    I’m sorry I’m so far behind the curve on commenting. There’s always so much to ponder and laugh about on this blog, and many memories of similar or similarly absurd happenings well up.
    I am responding to the challenge to the reader of providing a story about ‘touching up the x-rays.’ First however, a comment inspired by the Groucho Marx joke.

    Not wanting to join a club that would accept you as a member is a great all-American joke with its Freudian uptightness and its love-hate puritan-hedonist duality, its yearning for love and fear of the other, similar to the last administration’s attitude toward the United Nations – i.e., John Bolton as UN ambassador. Maybe the amb, the part about walking out to meet, should be dropped and just the assador left sullenly in place.

    More to the point of touch ups: there was my first real white collar company job in the fast and furious world of advertising research. As a member, and later head, of the so-called ‘Writing Department’ – that dept title may be the reason I left a better paying gig as a cab driver – we, an assortment of lost boys, most of whom headed back to school to become lawyers or masters of corporate propaganda, were responsible for taking the raw data from consumer surveys on TV commercials conducted in trailers in supermarket parking lots and ‘writing’ it up into a report with charts and color graphs and tabulated comments, and of course a description of the rigorous methodology applied. This report would then be used by the client (P&G laundry soap, frozen pizza, dog food, etc.) to select the spots to dump onto the airwaves of broadcast television. The reports went from the writing office to ‘production,’ where they would be done up in color and bound in a soft cover with a square cutout meant to look like a TV picture tube (rabbit ears graphic above, etc.) where the names of the commercials under review were displayed. As the old hands of the Writing Department let me know, the report also went through a review by the executive staff – Dr. J, behavioral psychologist, CEO and founder, and his wife, President and COO. The report would then be sent back to the Writing Department for proof reading, and that’s where things became interesting. Sometimes there were ‘adjustments’ to the data and the analysis that turned an also-ran spot into the highest ranked one. The old hands claimed that Dr. J sometimes went with his gut on these things. And I later saw this first hand when I delivered the reel of spots and the ‘rough’ report to Dr. J at his Bel Air estate where he came to the door in his underwear and a two-day beard, gave me a wink and said he’d give it all the once-over and have his analysis back in the morning – like he was telling me to take two aspirins etc. I guess here’s where Dr. J tells the joke to his client that he needs to redo the operation for a hefty fee, or he can touch up the x-rays for free, or rather for the fee that’s already been paid That encounter and the day Darcy and I, and Ms. President, spent hauling the raw data to the building dumpster just before the buyout went through, were the most bald, though not the only, instances of corporate crime I’ve had to scrape, oh come on down Sweet Virginia, offa my shoes.
    Not wanting to end on such a downer: one of the funniest corporate typographical errors, perhaps one of the funniest typographical Freudian slips, I have seen = “Drop Shit” instead of “Drop Shot” in that little TV cutout on a report for a spot remover commercial.


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