The Hard Way

One of my favourite bits is the “Boy, did I learn that the hard way” bit. The best example is from Woody the bartender on Cheers. You must remember Cheers. It wasn’t that long ago. Really.

Woody is behind the bar, so typical of a bartender, talking to a customer. He uses the word “irregardless”. Someone in the bar, I forget whom, corrects him, tells him that the word he’s looking for is “regardless” and that “irregardless” isn’t even an actual word.

Woody: Really? I thought it was one of those situations where both words meant the same thing. Like flammable and inflammable.
Boy, did I learn that the hard way.

The heavy lifting of this gag is done in the listener’s head. You don’t imagine anything specific, necessarily. Your mind doesn’t immediately go to any particular instance from among the many ways that one can learn the hard way that flammable and inflammable mean the same thing. In fact, leaving all of the possibilities in play is funnier than imagining the details of any particular hard way of learning this lesson.

So, imagine that Woody had said this instead:

Woody: … Like flammable and inflammable. I learned about those two words one night when a buddy and me were getting ready to smoke up next to this big red tank. The tank had printed on it, in big letters, ‘INFLAMMABLE’. My buddy said, ‘Geez Woody, you think this is safe?’ Well, yeah, I said. I’d be worried if it said ‘FLAMMABLE’ – that would mean that an open flame could spark a conflagration – of epic proportions, considering the size of this tank. But, buddy, see, it says INflammable. That means ‘NOT flammable’. Obviously. Pass me the bong and the matches. Then, KaBoom. Man. It turns out that inflammable means the same thing as flammable. I wish there’d been an easier way to learn that.

Okay, I know that Woody wasn’t the dope-smoking type and wouldn’t use an expression like “conflagration of epic proportions”. This is just a rough illustration to demonstrate that a  story about how Woody might actually have learned this valuable lesson in an obviously “hard” way – a story that would surely involve an explosion and fire, property damage, injury, even loss of life – just isn’t as funny as saying “Boy, did I learn that the hard way.”  It can’t be. In any version of the real story, somebody ends up in the morgue or the burns unit. Funny?

Ever since first hearing that bit on Cheers, I’ve assumed it was sort of a standard comedic template: Blahblahblah [assertion of a matter of fact] – pause – “Boy, did I learn that the hard way” – much laughter.  But, you know, I don’t think it is. Google, which tells me everything I know about the world, because I don’t get out of the house very much, especially during the colder months, doesn’t spit out much material when you type in “Boy, did I learn that the hard way”. Okay, like any Google search, it comes up with fifty four thousand things in seven tenths of a second, but mostly the references aren’t funny and aren’t intended to be funny. Yes, I looked at all fifty four thousand. Typically, the expression is  found in “how to”, technical, articles.  “Learned that the hard way” just means making an error that results in your cake collapsing or your car getting bad gas mileage or some other dull thing.  Zzzzz.

So, my Google search suggests that I may be the only person who sees the broader yuks-potential of this particular bit, if used properly. Since hearing Woody’s gag, I’ve tried to use it whenever I can – especially in email correspondence at work. Oh, here’s a flash: When you’re a lawyer and all of your legal opinions appear to be nothing more than elaborate set ups for lame jokes – well, eventually no one takes you seriously and your career stalls. Yes, I learned that one the hard way.

Another thing about this bit is that it allows you to just fire off a list from a single set up. No elaboration, no need for context. Easy. Like Jeff Foxworthy’s “you might just be a redneck” schtick. Everybody knows the punchline and says it along with him. They all feel like they are helping him to be funny. So – interactive, fun and funny. But, most important for me, easy.

So. Let’s try this. I set out a proposition, a matter of fact, a pearl of wisdom. We pause. Then, the next line is – “Boy, did I learn that the hard way.” Say it out loud. Your imagination does the rest. You create your own funny. Magic. Don’t forget to pause. Timing is everything.


Cigarettes are quite addictive.
Boy, did I learn that the hard way.

Jujubes actually have quite a few calories.
Boy, etc.

Those are just warm ups. You get the idea? Did you remember to pause?

Steer with the skid.

[In case you’re worried because you find yourself amused by the car accident that is so obviously implicit in this one – and what that might mean about you – let me assure you, when I learned the skid rule the hard way, no one was injured by your heartlessness. This time. So relax. Still, comedy does stimulate the dark side. You need to get comfortable with that.]

The English Bull Terrier does not make a good pet, especially if you have cats.
Boy, did I …

[See, it’s frightening. Did the cats also learn this the hard way? And where are they now?]

Twenty three is way too young to get married.
Oh boy, did I ever …

Three children is way way way more than two.
Boy …

Saskatchewan matrimonial property law does not require that the spouse who gets the stereo must also take the record club membership.

Columbia Record Club and Financial Collections Agency Inc. both take your record club obligations very seriously – you did get eleven records for a dollar, don’t forget – and they will find you no matter where you move and, unlike the student loans people, are not the least interested to learn that you have no money because you have returned to school.

[note: If you’re not finding these to be funny, remember, this bit requires that you exercise your imagination and your own sense of humour, assuming you have both of those things. You can’t just sit there and be the passive recipient of funny. Try again.]

It is best not to congratulate a woman on her pregnancy if you have not had that pregnancy confirmed by at least a couple of reliable sources.
Boy oh boy …

[Sadly, there are a lot of lessons one must learn the hard way several times.]

Never identify a child as the “grandchild” of the person accompanying that child. Never.

Parents don’t have a sense of humour about their ugly babies.

When your camp-stove has set fire to a tree, turning the knob clockwise makes things worse. Or is it counterclockwise?

[Sometimes you get “the hard way” without learning anything.]

A half-bottle daily scotch habit is simply not sustainable.
Yikes, …

See? These things allow you to turn your personal tragedy, humiliation or social ineptitude into some high-level entertainment for others – without exposing any actual details. And, the best thing: they are laughing with you.