Sounds of the Whale

I used to enjoy going to the symphony. But I don’t go anymore. My mother and I are afraid to show our faces, because we managed to cause a scene at a performance of the Illinois Philharmonic Orchestra at Governors State University some years back.

Let me backtrack a little. It’s no secret that I think fart jokes are funny. Flatulence in general is a rich trove of humor. (I have an extremely funny story about how my little sister Nicole almost blasted her father’s private plane out of the sky as a result of her eating at White Castle on one of their trips into Chicago, but I promised her I wouldn’t tell it here.)

The surprise is that my mother also finds flatulence funny. I’ve always thought this was unusual for women. I have told fart jokes (and penis jokes) in mixed company on a number of occasions, and the reaction is almost always split along gender lines, with the men laughing heartily and the women looking at me as though I’ve just poured gravy into their shoes.

Watch The Farting Preacher. See if you laugh. My mom certainly did. I almost passed out the first time I watched it.

Anyway, one year my mom and stepdad had season tickets for the symphony at GSU, and they invited me along for a few of them. The audience there was the typical symphony crowd – well-dressed, formal, upper-crusty. Not my sort of folks, but I can usually fake it for a couple of hours.

The last time I went with them, the Illinois Philharmonic was scheduled to perform a piece called “And God Created Great Whales,” a 1970 composition by Alan Hovhaness. According to the program, it was a combination of symphonic music and tape recordings of actual humpback whale sounds.

Back in the seventies, the National Lampoon Radio Hour did a bit called “Save the Whales,” a fake public service message about the dangers faced by humpback whales. The primary problem the whales faced turned out to be flatulence, as demonstrated by an “actual recording” of a giant, gurgling, underwater whale fart. To this day, it’s one of the funniest things I have ever heard.

Hearing that the symphony would feature whale sounds, of course, reminded me of the National Lampoon bit, so I described it to my folks. As it turns out, this was a serious mistake. I had planted a seed in my mother’s brain.

That night, at the theater, we were reading the program notes about the whale composition, which was considered very avant-garde and meant as an environmental statement. I remember thinking that the whole thing sounded a bit pretentious.

The music began, and it was basically soothing mood music, creating a setting of underwater serenity. I settled down in my seat and mentally drifted off into the ocean. I could see the ripples of sunlight dancing on the surface and reflecting down into the green water, deeper and deeper, as I slowly moved toward the giant lumbering creatures in the distance. The unmistakable shape of a humpback resolved itself before me. As I ventured closer, the music faded, and we heard the first genuine recording of whale song.


My mother lost it first. I distinctly remember that. Her laughter started me laughing. My stepdad was staring at us in disbelief, which made it that much funnier.


My mom’s face went beet-red as she tried desperately to choke back the laughter. I was doing the same, vibrating in my seat, struggling to breathe. My stepdad was edging away from us, pretending we weren’t together. I looked around the theater and saw that not a single soul was even smiling, much less laughing. This was striking no one funny but us.

We managed to keep our composure for most of the second and third movements. But by now my initial reverie was long gone, and quite frankly, I was getting bored with the composition. So I took to reading the program, and saw the following note regarding the fourth and final movement:

“This final movement contains some of the lowest whale noises ever recorded…”

I pointed this out to my mother.

“Oh, no,” she said.

Now the fourth movement began, and we were bracing ourselves. I could hear my mom muttering, “Don’t laugh, don’t laugh,” under her breath. The music grew softer, and I winced. I knew what was coming.


It was all over. My mother and I were doubled over in hysterics. People all over the theater were shooting us dirty looks and clucking their tongues. We didn’t care any more. We both knew we were never coming back here. We just needed to get through the rest of this damn symphony so we could get the hell out.

I like whales. Someday I hope to go on a whale watching cruise. They are magnificent creatures.

I also like the symphony. But I’ve never been invited back. And I don’t think I ever will be.

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