Milk has had a long and intimate relationship with comedy. And it's much more than just jokes about milk. It's the role that milk plays as a reaction to successful humor. Woody Allen explained it best when he said, "I am thankful for laughter, except when milk comes out of my nose." It's true. When that happens, comedians are way beyond thankful. They're deliriously ecstatic.
Why? Any comedian will tell you that a good joke can kill. But only an incredible joke can make milk come out of someone's nose. It's the goal of comedy. That's why I got worried about a story recently broadcast on NPR: "Soy, Almond, Coconut: If It's Not From A Cow, Can You Legally Call It Milk?"
The story recounted the latest battle in a long-running war. For many years, the dairy industry has argued that plant-based drinks like soy, almond, rice and coconut shouldn't be labeled milk. Manufacturers of the plant-based drinks have disagreed. But last week, Congressional representatives from many big dairy states sent a letter to the Food & Drug Administration. They strenuously suggested that only the drink that comes out of cows should be called milk. What about soy milk, rice milk, almond milk, coconut milk, etc.? Tough luck! Manufacturers of those drinks should find a new non-milk name to call them.
Ordinarily, I'd ignore this type of news. It sounds like a bunch of New Age nutritionists wondering why the free range chicken crossed the road. (Because it's free range!) But it's the relationship between milk and comedy that gave me pause. If plant-based drinks are no longer called milk will comedy be affected? Will traveling salesmen no longer tarry with milk maids in haystacks? Will yo mamma no longer be so big that when she goes missing her picture is on four sides of a milk carton?
Fortunately, most milk jokes involve the dairy-based variety. Here are a few:
The guy who discovered milk...exactly what was he doing with the cow?
How do you keep milk from turning sour? Keep it in the cow.
What do you get when you cross an octopus with a cow? An animal that can milk itself.
There are also the classic political science definitions involving milk.
COMMUNISM - You have two cows. The government takes both and gives you the milk.
FASCISM - You have two cows. The government takes both and sells you the milk.
BUREAUCRACY - You have two cows. The government takes both, shoots one and pours the milk down the drain.
In contrast, it's difficult to find many jokes about soy, rice, almond or coconut milk.
Does that mean comedians shouldn't care if plant-based drinks are legally excluded from being labeled milk? Not exactly.
While most milk jokes won't be affected, reaction to them will be. Here's why: If only cow-based drinks can be called milk, it will immediately diminish the potential for incredible comedy. There will be less opportunity to make milk come out of someone's nose.
So what should comedians do? An old proverb provides the answer: When a fool has the cow by the horns, the wise man can milk it. And that's what comedians will probably do -- just keep milking it.