I grew up amidst a family who would have been completely at home as actors on the stage of the Yiddish theatre. They were a family who didn’t know about moderation or calm; they preferred, instead, hysteria, drama, and untamed excesses of emotion. The phone would ring, followed by screaming and wringing of hands. What was the phone call about? Possibly someone had died, but they reacted exactly the same way to a wrong number. Or, a gasp and a shout would come from the next room. They would emerge, wild-eyed, arms raised to Heaven. “Oy, vay! A curse on Columbus that he should discover America so that I could come here and see this!” What had they seen? A murder? No. Most likely, what had happened was that they had discovered a burned out light bulb. This heritage of mine is the reason this is my favorite joke:
A little old Jewish man was sitting at the table having dinner when suddenly he held his hand to his throat, collapsed backwards in his chair, and looked up to Heaven. “Oy!” he screamed, his voice creaking with pain. “Oy, am I thirsty!”
“Here, here, Papa, here’s some water,” said his daughter, and she held a glass of cool water to his lips.
The man drank the glass of water, and then another, and then another. Finally he put the last glass down. He held his hand to his throat, collapsed backwards in his chair, and looked up to Heaven. “Oy!” he screamed, his voice creaking with pain. “Oy!, Was I thirsty!”
Park Forest, Illinois
The Laughing God liked to make up jokes. He was amazed and delighted at his own humor, but occasionally it came slowly and he hardly thought of two new puns from one Kali Yuga to the next. His jokes always surprised him, but he began to long for a pastime even more unexpected and unpredictable.
Inspiration struck him, and he created a universe inhabited by a race of little creatures with grandiose pretensions. Their attempts to make themselves important brought every day new and hilarious jokes for the Laughing God to enjoy.
For instance, when the flimsy beings got to uppity, they were invariably laid low by disaster. The universe was made this way. Some of the clever little rascals discerned this pattern and called it hubris.
The Laughing God made them to reproduce themselves in a hasty, disgusting, and painful way, but the little sensualists considered it beautiful and wonderful and wrote poems about it.
The astronomer thought he had figured out the mysteries of the universe and how it was created. The Laughing God almost died laughing.
But one day he saw a humble creature struggling under too heavy a load, and the Laughing God wept, feeling some emotion he’d never known before.
“It is indeed full of surprises,” he said of this world he had created.
“What’s yellow and dangerous?”
“A two-thousand-pound canary.”
“What’s yellow and dangerous?”
“A canary with a machine gun.”
My favorite jokes are two-liners, like those. I guess technically they are riddles, except you’re not really supposed to guess the answer; you’re just supposed to wait for it. And the answer is usually both silly and macabre.
Interest in this kind of joke tends to peak around fifth grade. As my children passed through this age period, I relished the jokes they brought home — genre two-liners. Elephant jokes. Light bulb jokes. Dead baby jokes. Helen Keller jokes. (“What did Helen Keller do when she fell down the well?” “She screamed her hands off.”)
In 1976 I moved to New York — lower Manhattan — and found that New Yorkers too specialize in two-liners, usually topical, often in refreshingly bad taste. Whatever was on the front page of the newspaper, that’s what people were telling jokes about. A cardinal from Warsaw was elevated to the papacy; by the next day I’d heard four Polish Pope jokes. Grace Kelly died? Grace Kelly jokes. A horrible new disease appeared? So did the jokes. (“What do you call a person with herpes and AIDS?” “An incurable romantic.” Now are you sorry you asked?)
It was not until my oldest son, now grown, became a New York banker that I found out where these jokes come from, and why they seem to be all over Manhattan within hours of the precipitating event. They come from the financial district: from the brokers, the foreign exchange desks, the arbitragers, the merger and takeover teams — a population of highly intelligent people working at top speed under great pressure, with the possibility of disaster, either personal or corporate, always at hand. Jokes, especially gruesome jokes, are natural in such circumstances; surgeons make similar jokes in the operating room. And the financial district provides the other necessity — an incessantly active and widespread communications system which spreads the jokes around.
Once again my kids amuse me by passing on the latest jokes, this time from their office telephones. A man the press called the subway vigilante shot four muggers who were threatening him with sharp tools; here’s one my son picked up from Goldman Sachs, the brokerage, the next morning: “How do you make a vigilante cocktail?” “A screwdriver and four shots.” And then there’s the Union Carbide theme song: “One little, two little, three little Indians. . . .”
Gregory Bateson said that we are never so serious as when we are joking. I think about that sometimes. Perhaps the reason I cherish this gallows humor is that my life has always involved a lot of risk-taking. And what does it tell us about life in the fifth grade? Never mind. Of all the two-liners I’ve ever heard, here is my very favorite, one of the fifth-grader contributions:
“What’s yellow and dangerous?”
North Bend, Washington
(My oldest friend, Jeffrey, heard this from Bob Hope at Roosevelt Raceway in Queens, New York.)
I woke up this morning and I thought my feet had turned green.
Then I realized I was wearing my socks.
On The Road, U.S.A.
I love a good practical joke, don’t you?
My dad loved a good practical joke. There was one fellow at the shop who was a bit of a stick-in-the-mud about some of the joking that went on. So one day they wired his metal lunch box. He picked it up, and when he opened it, 110 volts, ka-whammy! My dad took a picture right as it was happening. The man is a foot off the bench he’d been sitting on, lunch box four feet in the air, sandwiches, boiled egg, cookies scattered above it. Every time the guys in the shop saw that picture, they got another good belly laugh.
He liked to wire cars with those things. You turn on the key, get a screaming whistle under the hood, then a loud explosion with a lot of smoke. He liked to give presents wrapped in layer after layer after layer of paper. Sometimes there was something fine down at the center, sometimes not. Once, my mother started to open a Christmas present, saw it was that kind, and stuck it right into the wood stove. Later he said it was a gold necklace, but nobody knew if he was serious or not.
God created everything, including man. He created man in his own image, male and female He created them. And God saw everything that He had made, and it was good. Then he rested and blessed all his creation. (Genesis, through 2:4.)
Now here’s the all-time greatest practical joke. Somebody slipped in another story. After that, says that story, a mist went up from the earth and the Lord God saw there was no man to till the earth, no man of dust and ash. Mankind had already been created, male and female and equal from the instant of creation, in God’s image, complete, and good. But the Lord God, says the story, created a man of the earth, a woman (later and lesser) for him, and the rules of the garden. Then he thoroughly cursed the people of his own creation for manifesting the traits he had created in them and booted them out of the garden.
It’s such an effective practical joke because few of the joked upon even recognize that it is a joke. It’s funniest when the guy who’s had a whiz-bomb planted under the hood of his car throws the hood up, grabs a fire extinguisher, and wonders in a panic what’s gone wrong with his car, not realizing it’s a joke.
A good practical joke is funniest if, when the joked upon does recognize it as a joke, he can’t figure out who did it. When my dad played his jokes, we knew it was him. He was the only one in the family. Outside the family, his style and reputation usually gave him away.
Now as to that bigger one, the very first practical joke, I’m not saying who did it, even if I have a hunch. But as our history unfolds, influenced strongly by our ignorance that we have been joked upon, with the story of Adam and Eve slipped in to throw us off our track, some joker is watching closely and having a hell of a belly laugh.