In spite of this warning from Saul Steinberg, we continue to collect, tell, and analyze jokes. I remember when my kids were about 5 or 6 and intent on decoding the comics. A good joke depends on springing a mouse trap that has been intricately and thoughtlessly set by decades of social convention, released in a single punchline. Explaining these social Rube Goldberg contraptions is guaranteed to eventually drain the humor from any joke or cartoon. Imagine explaining why you are laughing at this cartoon about Doris's husband to a five year old.
Back in the 90s, Esquire reported that the funniest joke of all time was this, from Gary Shandling:
I went to my doctor and told him, "My penis is burning." He said, "That means somebody is talking about it."
More recently, Richard Wiseman headed up a project to use the Internet to discover the world's funniest joke at LaughLab. In spite of Dave Barry's attempt to undermine Wiseman's attempt by having his readers submit and vote for a flurry of jokes that all ended with the line, "A weasel is chomping on his privates!" this joke took top honors:
Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn't seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps, "My friend is dead! What can I do?". The operator says "Calm down. I can help. First, let's make sure he's dead." There is a silence, then a shot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says "OK, now what?"
I have to admit, though, that my personal favorite from LaughLab is the one that scored highest in Belgium:
An Alsatian went to a telegram office, took out a blank form and wrote:Now, Dave TV just published the results of their commissioned research to identify the world's ten oldest jokes. The oldest is reportedly a fart joke, although I would surmise that the oldest joke probably involved actual farting and no spoken words. My favorite in this list of oldest jokes is Homer's, from 800 BC.
“Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof.”
The clerk examined the paper and politely told the dog: “There are only nine words here. You could send another ‘Woof’ for the same price.”
“But,” the dog replied, “that would make no sense at all.”
Odysseus tells the Cyclops that his real name is nobody. When Odysseus instructs his men to attack the Cyclops, the Cyclops shouts: "Help, nobody is attacking me!" No one comes to help.Reportedly, one of George H. Bush's favorite jokes is this bit of ingenious word play:
How do you titillate an ocelot?Given his father's penchant for such jokes, it is perhaps no wonder that George W. has struggled with the English language since childhood. When asked about his favorite children's book, George W. named the Hungry Caterpillar, a book that was published when George was in his 20s.
You oscillate its tits a lot.
And speaking of George, my father, who voted twice for George, told me a blonde joke about 5 years ago. It took me about a minute to realize that it worked much better as a Bush joke and I adapted it, emailed to a couple of dozen friends, and then, about a year later, received it in an email. It seemed an odd victory that the joke had surived so long in forwarded emails. I didn't make it up, but I did make it about George, something that gave me a sense of satisfaction.
Rumsfeld is briefing George on the situation in Iraq. Almost casually, Rumsfeld says, "And two Brazilian soldiers were killed yesterday in Fallujah."
George lets out a gasp, and then drops his head into his hands. He moans. The cabinet looks on silently, feeling awkward about this unusual display of emotion and grief. Finally, looking stunned, George lifts his head and asks, "How many is a Brazilian?"
My wife insists on turning off the lights when we make love. That doesn’t bother me. It’s the hiding that seems so cruel.
Quips like the above from Jonathan Katz are hard to beat, but I do have a weakness for jokes that unfold like small stories, like this:
A young man enters the monastery and is given the job of transcribing scriptures. A few days into his job of copying from a book he asks, “Am I copying from an original?”
“No,” says one of the older monks.
“So, I’m copying from a copy?”
“Probably a copy of a copy of a copy,” he is told. “We leave the originals in a safe place. We don’t use them.”
“Well, has anyone ever compared what we’re doing with the originals?” asks the young monk. “I mean, what if someone made an error that we’re copying again and again?”
All the older monks look at each other, uncertain about how to respond. Finally, they decide to take his question to the head of the monastery, a wise old man who has spent his whole life in the monastery. He hears the question and responds, “That’s a great question. I’ll compare our most recent copies with the originals we have.”
For days he goes back into the secure portion of the monastery to take on this task. About the fourth day, the monks hear him let out with a cry of anguish. They look nervously at each other, uncertain about what to do. The crying becomes louder and goes on for some time. Finally, they decide that they have to go back into the sanctuary to check on the elderly monk. They find him with the original before him, sobbing.
“What is it?” they ask.
“The word,” he sobs, “the word is ‘celebrate.’”
Finally, jokes can themselves become fodder for jokes. I'll leave you with this.
A traveling salesmen was driving in the country when his car broke down. He hiked several miles to a farmhouse, and asked the farmer if there was a place he could stay overnight. “Sure,” said the farmer, “my wife died several years ago, and my two daughters are twenty-one and twenty-three, but they’re off to college, and I’m all by myself, so I have lots of room to put you up.”
Hearing this, the salesman turned around and started walking back toward the highway.
The farmer called after him, “Did you hear what I said? I have lots of room.”
“I heard you,” said the salesman, “but I think I’m in the wrong joke.”