During my first semester at the College of Charleston 15 years ago, I was teaching a journalism writing course where I gave weekly current-events quizzes. During one quiz a few weeks after the semester began, I asked which state finished 50th in the country on SAT test scores, according to an Associated Press story.
When the quiz was finished, I went over the answers. When I asked the class which state finished 50th on SAT scores, nearly everyone shouted out the correct answer.
A young man in the last row then blurted, "At least we weren't last."
There was a brief, painful silence before the class erupted in laughter.
The student then laughed, too, believing he had said something incredibly funny. And he had.
My immediate reaction was, "I wonder if I can get my old job back." But I soon realized that the student was an aberration, probably in more ways than one. He wasn't representative of the students at the college, then or now. Someone like him would probably not be admitted into the college today. But he could still become governor, represent the state in the U.S. Congress or in the Miss Teen USA Pageant, or vote.
I thought about this story after seeing that former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich won heavily in the South Carolina primary by capturing the heavily evangelical state with a pro-adultery platform.
When South Carolina embarrasses itself like this, I receive emails and phone calls from friends elsewhere in the country, who can barely contain their snickering. Some bring up comedian Jon Stewart, who calls South Carolina "America's whoopee cushion."
This inevitably leads to a trip down memory lane of other South Carolinians who have slipped on banana peels while the country was watching. Gov. Mark Sanford. U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson. U.S. Sen. candidate Alvin Greene, who won the Democratic primary even though he had never won an elected office and had recently been arrested for showing pornography to a college student.
Then there was Miss Teen South Carolina Caitlin Upton. She was asked during the Miss Teen USA pageant to respond to a poll that said a fifth of Americans could not locate the United States on a world map. She began her answer by suggesting that this was because most Americans didn't have world maps, and things deteriorated from there.
I tell my friends that the people in South Carolina are no more foolish than they are anywhere else in the country. It's just that when we sit on whoopee cushions and slip on banana peels, we do so when others are watching, often when millions of people are watching. And people laugh.
Listen to Stephen Colbert, who was born and raised in Charleston, or listen to Jon Stewart, Jay Leno, David Letterman, or other comics and what do you hear, jokes that were "made in South Carolina."
What do we in South Carolina get out of it? It's time we turn this embarrassment of riches into riches by exploiting our reputation as the nation's breadbasket of laughter. It's time that South Carolina finds a way to profit economically from our boundless resource.
We simply tell the rest of the country that if it doesn't start paying users' fees on comedy coming from this state, we'll start electing serious, thoughtful politicians, and the comedians will have to find their own jokes.
South Carolina will have the last laugh.