BOOK EXCERPT: Eating Salad Drunk

Sometime around the turn of the sixteenth century, in the hills of central Japan, a Buddhist monk emerged from his seclusion, knelt before the bed of his ailing father, and composed a verse so full of worldly wisdom that it stuns us yet today:

Even at the time

When my father lay dying

I still kept farting.

The author of this flatulent ode, Yamazaki Sokan, was one of the founders of haikai—the forerunner and namesake of haiku poetry—and this poem was among the world’s very first haikus.

There’s a lot we English-speaking moderns don’t understand (and misunderstand) about haiku poetry, but perhaps our greatest error is thinking that haikus need to be serious. From its earliest days, the heart of haiku poetry was humor. These three-line, seventeen-syllable poems—composed communally and in the informal, everyday language of Japan’s lower class—tended toward the lewd and crude, the comical and lighthearted, and poets like Yamazaki Sokan were as likely to wax poetic about ponds and dewdrops as they were about excrement and urination. (Nature is nature, after all.) The roots of the haiku, in fact, are right there in the word itself: haikai literally means “comic verse.”

My own association with haiku humor began the very day I learned what a haiku was. It was freshman year of high school. I was sitting in the back of English class, steeling myself for another dreary analysis of Wuthering Heights, when Ms. Connolly brought out a laminated poster printed with a three-line poem and tacked it on the wall. It was National Haiku Day, she explained, and today we would all try our hand at poetry.

The rules of the form were simple: three unrhymed lines of five, seven, and five syllables each. If Ms. Connolly—bless her heart—thought this exercise might lull us into a state of Zen relaxation, thereby buying her an hour’s peace and quiet, she was certainly disappointed. It exploded instead into a rowdy competition, with all the aspiring class clowns trying to outwit each other in three-line, seventeen-syllable bursts. Before long, we had taken this peaceful poetic form to where adolescent boys inevitably take all things: the offensive, gross, and scatological.

In a moment of divine inspiration (with a hint of bowel discomfort), I wrote this gem:

I stare at the clock

Waiting for the bell, so I

Can finally poop.

With a better understanding of haiku history, Ms. Connolly might have bestowed upon us all bonus points for channeling the great Sokan. Instead we got pop quizzes every day for the next week.

Stand-up comedy and haiku poetry—two art forms separated by continents and centuries—have more in common than one might think. Both rely foremost on concision: Each word must be arranged in the right syllabic rhythm, with the perfect beat and punch, for the work to be effective. (Rodney Dangerfield would have been a great haiku poet. So would Mitch Hedberg.) Both employ wordplay: Traditional Japanese haiku poets leaned heavily on double entendre and puns. (Nishiyama Soin was particularly fond of the phrase tsuki idete, which could mean either moon or erection, depending on the context.) And both abide (loosely) by the Rule of Three, a principle that holds that things that come in threes are inherently funnier or more compelling than items in other denominations: the Three Stooges, Three Amigos, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and just about every bar joke you’ve ever heard (a blonde, a brunette, and a redhead; a priest, a rabbi, and a minister).

In joke telling, this three-item rule usually takes the form of two set-up lines followed by a punch line. Take this haiku by the New York comedian Myq Kaplan:

Star Wars. Star Trek. Dune.

Battlestar Galactica.

Girls don’t sleep with me.

Or this by the legendary Elayne Boosler:

Thought I saw Groucho.

Moustache, glasses, funny walk.

Close, but no cigar.

Or this shameful confession from Ray Romano:

Just killed a spider.

Didn’t have to, but he saw

Me masturbating.

A teacher friend of mine once told me that when she teaches haiku, she has her students cut out “haiku glasses” from cardboard tubes; by peering through these cylinders at a patch of grass, a leaf, a puddle, the field of view is restricted, and the observer can focus on a small, contained area. Jerry Seinfeld may as well be looking through a cardboard tube when he tunnel-focuses on a hair on the bathroom wall, or the top button of a collared shirt, or the buckle on an airplane seatbelt. Sometimes comedy expands our scope to highlight profound truths about life and the cosmos; other times it narrows our view to the infinitesimal, the everyday, the subtle, and the subtly irritating. Observational humor contains the essence of haiku. It is comedy through a cardboard tube.

Strangely enough, there seems to be no better poetry for our burnout age than this five-century-old Japanese triplet. Haikus are the world’s shortest poems—snapshots of the world in its smallest distillations—and we are a generation that requires its information short and distilled. (And snapshotted, too, if possible, with a Juno filter please). With platforms like Twitter restricting the space in which we convey and consume our world, and traditional media rushing to meet our ever-shrinking capacity to concentrate, we now expect everything in bite-sized, meme-ified form. Haikus, in their brevity and appeal to the attention-deprived, may just be the poetry for these times.

To my delight, nearly every comedian I approached for this book was not only receptive but breathlessly eager to contribute. As I learned years ago in Ms. Connolly’s class, there is something addictive about writing within constraint. It brings out a creative ingenuity in the artist—a personal challenge to see how much can be done in a limited space. (Just think how much came out of Shakespeare’s ten-syllables-per-line iambic constraints, or Hemingway’s six-word-story challenge.) The challenge: Can you write a self-contained joke or bit using only seventeen syllables? And once I opened the tap, I couldn’t stop it. The haikus poured in.

I hope you enjoy reading these little droplets of wit and crudity as much as I’ve enjoyed collecting them. And I hope you find that this Zen poetry we call haiku—ancient and outmoded though it may seem—fits remarkably well in today’s fast-paced, short-spaced era of Twitter, TikTok, and dwindling attention spans. To quote one modern haiku master:

Who has time for more

Than seventeen syllables

These days anyway?



“I’m huge on Twitter”

—An ancient proverb that means
Lonely in real life.


Can I report a

Hostile work environment

If I’m self-employed?


I just want a house

Big enough to avoid the

People I live with.


Bad news. Doctor says

I must stop eating bacon

During my checkups.


Thought I saw Groucho.

Moustache, glasses, funny walk.

Close, but no cigar.


When my Wi-Fi says

It cannot connect I’m like

Are you my father?



Caféplus bacteria?

I will eat at home.


The future is now.

No, now. No, wait, now. No now.

Time to reminisce.


It’s a lovely day

To go for a run! I should

Tell my friend who runs.


I only listen

To songs that made me horny

In 2008.


“Don’t worry, he’s cool”

Is a bad way to describe

Your youth pastor friend. 


Tech companies are

Trying to harvest our brains.

Click if you agree!


Just killed a spider.

Didn’t have to, but he saw

Me masturbating.


You can always tell

Who went to Catholic school:

They are atheists.


Eggs over easy

Always has the appearance

Of a murder scene.


She ate Nutella

Not knowing it’d stay on her

Chin through two meetings.


If I stop eating

Sugar, would I ever stop

Talking about it?


Hindsight is 20/

20. But I’ll never look

Back on that damn year.


If you hold a shell

Up to your ear, you can hear

How lonely you are.


Doctors always say

Just listen to your body.

Mine screams constantly.



FaceTimed my doctor’s office.

The call was declined.


Do anti-vaxxers

Have their own dating websites?

Hot shingles near you!


Therapy’s not cheap

But neither are the weighted

Plush sloths I buy drunk.




*All author proceeds go towards Comedy Gives Back, a nonprofit that provides mental health, medical, and crisis support resources for comedians.



Copyright © 2021 by Gabe Henry