Let’s remember the joke from Ninotchka that Žižek occasionally refers to:
— Waiter! Get me a cup of coffee without cream!
— I’m sorry, sir, we have no cream, but I can get you a coffee without milk!
When Zupančič, Žižek and others refer to this joke, they seem to take “milk” and “cream” as two interchangeable terms. But these two terms register a difference of quality: milk is generally better than cream; cream is a negation of milk in terms of quality (by “cream” I mean “creamer” ). In other words, milk is the big Other, cream is the small other: Having milk registers us into the symbolic order, whereas having cream, in comparison to milk, disturbs and gives anxiety. When this difference of quality is taken into account, the waiter’s response becomes loaded with an interesting attitude.
If the waiter had settled with a single negation, he could simply bring a “coffee without cream” to the customer, as he does not have cream. But he is not satisfied and he needs to negate “cream” a second time, so that the customer must not even mention any “cream”. Why does the waiter need this second negation? What is the excess meaning loaded in his response “we have no cream”? Why is this extreme response needed? This question is the main focus of the joke.
Given that milk represents a higher quality than cream, the waiter’s response “we have no cream” actively defends the quality of service in the cafeteria. He means to say “Don’t insinuate that we serve coffee with or without cream, we are a good cafeteria that serves coffee with or without milk!” Speaking in the name of the big Other of Milk that guarantees the quality of service in their cafeteria, the waiter actively denies the small other of cream that disturbs the big Other of Milk and causes anxiety.
Due to the waiter’s defensive attitude, the final remark “I can get you a coffee without milk!” has a sarcastic tone, because the waiter really aims to point out the presence of Milk in the cafeteria, not its absence as the remark literally suggests. For the same reason, “I’m sorry” does not mean that the waiter is really sorry, it’s just his way of negating the customer’s inappropriate reference to the nonexistent “cream” that would imply a reduced quality of service for the cafeteria. High quality of service can only be guaranteed by the big Other, which requires the active denial of the small other. If the customer says “Yes please” to the waiter’s final remark, he will be approving the presence of Milk and the denial of cream.
In brief, the customer’s mention of “cream” represents the expectation of a quality that is lower than the reality of the cafeteria, and the waiter defends the “reality” of the cafeteria by asserting the big Other of Milk that guarantees this reality of high quality. Even though “cream” is doubly negated, it functions as an object-cause of desire for the cafeteria by taking a negative part in this assurance of its quality of service.
Let us now consider a second version of the joke where “milk” and “cream” are switched:
— Waiter! Get me a cup of coffee without milk!
— I’m sorry, sir, we have no milk, but I can get you a coffee without cream!
In terms of the customer’s situation and the waiter’s attitude, this second version is thoroughly different from the first version of the joke, if we take into account the difference of quality between milk and cream.
Again, the waiter’s response is about the inappropriate expectations of the customer. But in the second version, the expectations of the customer are not lower but higher than the reality of the cafeteria: the customer is referring to “milk” whereas the cafeteria only has “cream” in reality. Thus the waiter stands for a realism in both versions, but he isn’t defending anything in the second version, so he can be sincerely “sorry” that the cafeteria does not have milk. The response is more natural when the waiter’s realism aims to lower the expectations of the customer.
Now let’s repeat the key question for the second version of the joke: Why does the waiter need a second negation? Why does he not simply bring “coffee without milk”, as he does not have milk? Why does he need to negate “milk” a second time, so that the customer must not even mention any “milk”? What is the excess meaning loaded in his response “we have no milk”? The answer for the second version is different from the first version.
Since Milk stands for the symbolic order that guarantees the quality of service in the cafeteria, the waiter’s response “we have no milk” means “There is no big Other”. He means to say “You shouldn’t even dream of Milk, because it’s impossible, there is no Milk, there is only cream.” Cream as the small other is again an object-cause of desire, but in this case it’s positively acknowledged as an object, even though as an object of anxiety. The final remark “I can get you a coffee without cream!” by literally negating this object, acknowledges its disturbing character. If the customer says “Yes please” in this version, he will be accepting the causality of the small other.
In both versions, the waiter’s response forces the customer to be realistic. But the first version exhibits a realism of the reality of the symbolic order, whereas the second version demonstrates a realism of the Real.
Which of the versions of the joke do you think is funnier? I think the first one is funnier because it’s a ridiculous defense of the symbolic order. But you could also find the second one more funny because the waiter’s response is more subtle.
Here is a poll to decide which one is funnier:
 Aaron Schuster made the following comparison: “Coffee without cream is a rich man’s black coffee; lacking this commodity, the best the waiter can offer is the more proletarian coffee without milk.” (Communist Ninotchka) But Schuster lives in the “developed” world with “true cream”. In my “developing” world, “krema” just means “creamer” (fake cream) so milk is the more luxurious option. Thanks to Jorge Kosmos for pointing out this discrepancy.