When I was a kid my dad had a mug with a cartoon aardvark on it. The aardvark wore a shirt and tie (but no pants, in true cartoon-character fashion) and was himself holding a mug. Underneath was the motto “Don’t Vark Too Aard.” It was vaguely amusing, so I read it everytime my dad used the mug to drink coffee (or, in the evenings, a shot of Jose Cuervo).
The mug was one of those things that is just funny enough that someone will buy for their friend or relative, but never for themselves. I’m sure my dad received it as a gift one year. He must have liked it, because while some gifts my dad has received have quickly disappeared, Mr. Aardvark was in his weekly mug rotation for many years. I think I can see why. It is really weird. Who thinks of a saying like that, let alone realizes Don’t Vark too Aard would make a perfect mug?
As a cartoonist, a little game I play with every joke I like is “how did they get to that punchline?” Trying to figure out how someone arrives at a joke is about as impossible as looking at the answer to a math problem and then saying “what equation must have given this result?” There are thousands of answers to that question. But I play anyway, because it’s fun.
Suppose a mug-maker was at a zoo with his kids. I pictured a middle-aged guy with a family, perhaps not so different from my dad. He was at the zoo. The first animal exhibit at our city’s zoo was the aardvark. So he walks through the gates still fresh and excited to see the animals; this is before his kids start pestering him for toys and ice cream and the sun bakes his scalp and the glasses on his face keep slipping from sweat. He steps up to that first exhibit: Aardvark. As usual, it isn’t moving too much. It’s probably sitting in the shade. The guy thinks about his own hectic schedule and chuckles at the aardvark’s easy life.
“Don’t work too hard, aardvark,” he says to himself. Then: “Don’t vark too aard, aardvark.” Bingo!
Why, of all the mugs and shirts and hats and things with silly phrases printed on them, have I remembered my dad’s aardvark mug all these years? Perhaps I liked the sentiment. It’s true, I don’t want to work too hard. If the mug just had a picture of a businessman and said “Don’t work too hard,” I would have thought “duh” and forgotten all about it. But because there was a aardvark in a shirt and tie, I heeded those words.
When you’re a kid, you never think to ask your parents the important questions. Why is that? It’s the easiest way to find out the answer. Instead of asking my dad about the mug, I remembered it my whole life. Maybe if I had asked my dad about it, he would have answered and neither of us would remember it today. That would have been a shame, since that aardvark made a good point about vark.