Local Catholic: New Orleans is a really punny place

Story and photos by Beth Donze

Q: What would Caesar say to Brutus if he were Cajun?

A: “Étouffée, Brute?”

The pun – which plays on the aural similarities between the famous Shakespearean quote and the celebrated Louisiana dish – is among the comedic double-entendres inside “Jokes for Crescent City Kids,” a collection of 170 original New Orleans and Louisiana-themed jokes written by local Catholic, author and stand-up comedian Michael Strecker.

To assemble the book, released last fall by Pelican Publishing Company, Strecker drew on his home state’s rich and wide-ranging vernacular – inside jokes, sayings, puns and riddles that conjure up Louisiana’s unique culture.

“People really appreciate inside humor – it’s almost like a joke between ourselves,” said Slidell-born Strecker, who attends Mass at Our Lady of the Rosary Church in New Orleans. “I think there’s a pride there that no one else would get (some of the humor). It’s ours. It’s our culture.”

Loosely divided into more than 30 comedic themes, Strecker’s jokes hit on local touchstones such as food, Mardi Gras, festivals, music and even that most local of preoccupations: potholes.

Geography also provides comedic fodder. For example, Strecker devotes a whole section of jokes to the Mississippi River and riffs off of place names such as Cut Off (the answer to “Where’s the best place to open a barbershop in Louisiana?”); Bywater (“What do New Orleanians do when they get thirsty?”); Venetian Isles (“In what neighborhood does everyone have blinds?”); and Denham Springs (“Where do jeans pop out of the earth?”).

Gotta have a chicken joke!

Even categories of humor that aren’t “in-your-face New Orleans” are cleverly localized in Strecker’s hands, as in his cluster of jokes related to outer space. He has a “New Orleans astronaut” plaintively telling his wife, before blasting off: “I’ll Michoud.” In the book’s section on “legal humor,” the comic asks: “Where are lawsuits decided by a couple of nuns?” (The Court of Two Sisters).

There is even a “Why did the chicken cross the road?” joke (To get to the neutral ground).

“It’s kind of a cool discovery for yourself just to see something that you see every day and then realize that there’s some fun there, there’s a joke there,” said Strecker, admitting that his favorite joke in the softbound volume is located in the section devoted to the New Orleans Saints: “What was the first thing the artist did when he was hired to create portraits of the Saints?” (He Drew Brees).

A classroom performer

Strecker, the longtime executive director of public relations at Tulane University, grew up as the youngest of seven boys in a home that valued humor. Rarely did Strecker’s parents tell their jokester sons, “Stop that foolishness!” he recalls.

“I have a very funny family,” Strecker said. “I remember hearing my brothers get laughs and very consciously saying, ‘I want to do what they’re doing. I want to be funny like they are.’”

In his elementary school years at St. Margaret Mary in Slidell, Strecker said he regularly received the note “Disturbs others” in the teachers’ comments section of his report cards.

“I would always tell my mom: ‘I’m not disturbing them. I’m entertaining them. I’m giving the people what they want!’” he said.

Followed his passion

Although Strecker – a graduate of Slidell High who earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from LSU and a master’s degree in English literature at Tulane – always toyed with the idea of writing comedy, he never thought he’d have the nerve to do stand-up. He presumed delivering jokes was the exclusive domain of idols such as Johnny Carson, Don Rickles, Jerry Seinfeld and Brian Regan.

However, a chance sighting in his early 30s of a non-credit, stand-up comedy course at UNO enabled Strecker to dip his toe into the art. The teacher of the course, former comedian Mike Parnon, asked his students to compose a five-minute comedy routine and perform it in a culminating stand-up event in front of family and friends.

Strecker was petrified, but told himself if all went well, he would follow his gut and continue.

“It turned out to be one of the most nurturing crowds and best ways to start off your career. By the fourth (public performance), I said, ‘I’m going to do this no matter what,’” said Strecker, who performs his observational, family-friendly comedy routines as a happily married father of two at venues such as birthday parties, coffeehouses and church and synagogue events. His credits include performing at the Improv Comedy Club in Los Angeles and at the Saenger Theatre, where he appeared last summer as the opening act for a Shriners fundraiser that drew an audience of 1,500 people.

“The next show I do (after the Saenger), I’m literally doing stand-up in a garage in Thibodaux,” Strecker said, chuckling. “Making people laugh feels really good. It feels like you’re loved. It feels like a nice thing to make people happy, just for a fleeting moment in time.”

Wife nudged him to compile

In addition to “Jokes for Crescent City Kids,” Strecker is the author of the two-part “Young Comic’s Guide to Telling Jokes” (Sterling Publishing). The pair of Amazon best-sellers of 600 jokes each include Strecker’s tips for fledgling comedians, such as the importance of being well read, cultivating a love for language and basing comedy routines on “what you know” – tidbits of conversation and experiences a young comic might encounter in the classroom, at soccer practice or around the dinner table.

Like doing stand-up comedy, writing joke books for children was the last thing Strecker thought he would ever do. His wife Jillian, a teacher, encouraged him to write down the puns he cracked at home after noticing how her students would gobble up jokes printed in their “Weekly Reader” classroom magazine.

“Being a teacher, she knew what kids would buy,” Strecker said.

Humor: A gift God gives us

Strecker likes when his humor resonates with all ages of readers, his favorite feedback being when parents say they read his joke books together with their children. He said “Jokes for Crescent City Kids” is ideal for non-local adults who want a souvenir of their time in New Orleans and for natives who simply want to savor their city and state.

“One young woman told me, ‘I’m getting this for my dad. He’s 60. He loves puns!” Strecker said. “Or, people will buy the book and they’ll say, ‘My daughter’s marrying a Yankee, so I’m giving this to them because I want my grandkids to know about New Orleans culture.”

As a practicing Catholic, Strecker also cherishes the humor that’s occasionally inserted into homilies at Mass. His uncle, a priest, noted a parallel between his job as a homilist and Strecker’s stand-up comedy: The same joke or metaphor that is a hit with congregants at the 10 a.m. Mass might fall flat at 5 p.m.

“I’m so grateful for the gift of humor from God. I think it’s a wonderful gift that we share as humans that helps us get along,” Strecker said. “It’s a grace to be of good cheer.”

Strecker also is the author of “A Lake Catherine Lesson,” a short story. “Jokes for Crescent City Kids,” published by Pelican Publishing Company and featuring the whimsical illustrations of Vernon Smith, is available at amazon.com and at area locations of Barnes and Noble. The book includes a “Who Dat?” glossary of local terms for readers who are unfamiliar with Louisiana’s colorful lexicon.

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