HOW TO TELL A GOOD JOKE
"I am in favour of jokes. They have political value. Jokes are a release for the cowardly and the impotent."
So said, unsmilingly, the fictional Tonton Macoute captain during the brutal, unfortunately nonfictional reign of Haitian dictator Papa Doc in Graham Greene's novel The Comedians. More and more, I've come to grasp the evil wisdom in this statement. Smiling seems to be a sign of weakness in a position of power, and a good joke by its nature is probably going to offend at least someone in any audience. I think this tendency also starts to explain most people's dislike for authority figures, and the tendency, for example, of political cartoons to aim primarily at governing leaders. To satirize someone is essentially to bring that person down to one's own social level, or below. Conversely, I think most people's deepest wounds stem not from the physical scars they carry, but from the jokes told at their expense.
My life could be boiled down to a handful of jokes I've told and retold, mostly from childhood. I enjoy this about myself—jokes are like tall tales, where we know how they end but we act like we don't on the off-chance that we can fool ourselves into being surprised and delighted by the time we get to the ending, which always makes us smile. Telling a joke well is something even dictators and killers respect, because the power of a well-told joke is freely given by the audience. My jokes are my stories, the parts of my life I've sharpened to a fine point, the punchline. People don't mind being misled, if there's a good turn at the end of the plank.
I picked up my presentation skills from a book of really bad jokes I carried around with me from first through third grade. At first my mom was my only audience, laughing at my first pun (Q: "What's black and white and red all over?"), then acting surprised when I varied it up (A: "A zebra with a sunburn!"), playing along with the endless cyclic procession of knock-knock jokes (A1: "Banana." A2: Banana." A3: "Orange you glad I didn't say banana?"). The "surprise" punchline actually became my specialty as my joke telling progressed. The best one, I thought (still think), is the twist no one sees coming. The one where no one knows whether to laugh.
I learned many of the jokes I still carry with me from my Aunt Becky, who had a peanut gallery of her own six kids when I stayed the night at her trailer. We always interrupted her, trying to blurt out the punchline before she got to it, so she sometimes had to improvise. For example, there's the one about the pig and the donkey on Bourbon Street. I'm convinced now that it must have originally ended differently, or maybe she just made the whole thing up as she went. I didn't even know Bourbon Street was an actual place until high school. I just knew it had a lot of bars. The basic premise of the joke's cyclic narrative was a pig walking into every bar he sees and drinking all the beer in each one, and the same donkey sitting at the end of each bar asking him the same question, "Why'd you drink so much, you big hog?" and the pig always replying, "Shut up, jackass, I know what I'm doing." The same thing would happen at each bar, lulling us into a dulled sense of anticipation as the pig went into the first bar, and the second bar, and the third bar, and the third bar…
"Wait a minute," one of us would interrupt. "It's the fourth bar!"
"Shut up, jackass, I know what I'm doing," Aunt Becky would reply, and each of us would look at the sucker who thought he was smarter than Aunt Becky, and reaffirm that that person was the dumbest in the room.
I've worked in many genres over my own joke-telling career. There was my childish love of Polish jokes. We called them Pollacks for reasons I still can't explain, which made me wonder if fake crabmeat was made from Polish people when I looked at the ingredients list. The butt has a replacement in just about any culture, with the general intended reaction being, "Boy, are they dumb!" This kind of joke to me is the least refined and the first one good joke-tellers grow out of, usually after the first time they tell this type of joke and someone replies, "I'm Polish." Like H.I.'s hapless boss in Raising Arizona, my legal father never grew out of them. I like to think that this is another important service jokes give to society—establishing human empathy. We all want to laugh at the punchline, but we don't want to be the punchline.
Except, of course, to the well-told joke. The finest jokes are the ones where, by the end, we're both in on the joke and completely fooled, sharing the power to eventually get the joke while being completely subservient to the teller in getting us there. This is perhaps the release that Tonton Macoute captain was talking about. Unlike the real world, the joke teller is a benevolent leader, whose sole intention is to pass on a good story and hopefully make people laugh—at themselves, the world, and the leader himself. My Aunt Becky's Pig on Bourbon Street joke is this kind, so much that I think we must have pretended many times not to have heard the joke, then intentionally called out the third door, just to be in on it. I still tell that one.
A good joke almost always carries with it a whiff of disbelief. Most times this stems from systemic defamiliarization, or putting something where it doesn't belong. Take a pig and a donkey and put them in a bar, for example. The wonderful irony of these jokes is that they cage—sometimes defusing, sometimes intensifying— a nervous energy around which people are normally uncomfortable. Bring up the LAPD in mixed company and you'll get either nervous laughs or a quick change of subject. Bring up the CIA or the FBI and you'll get yawns. But take agents from the CIA, the FBI, and the LAPD and bring them all to the edge of the forest with the President and a caged rabbit and you have rapt attention. (It's an old joke by now, and easily googlable.) As I've gotten older I talk less in mixed company about urinary and bowel concerns, but I know I'm completely comfortable in a room only when I can tell my joke about a guy who gets treated for a tapeworm by having a doctor repeatedly shove a carrot and a lemon cookie up his butt for two weeks, until the doctor shoves just the carrot in and waits with a hammer until the tapeworm pokes its head out and yells, "Where's my lemon cookie?!"
But my best joke is one that I only bring out at precisely the right time. Late night conversations, when we're perhaps most open to reveal ourselves, also leave us most open to having the best jokes sprung on us. There's a certain openness after the witching hour, when our defenses are down and our spirits are willing, much like those times I spent at my Aunt Becky's with my cousins. Most snipe hunting and cow tipping occurs after dark not because the snipe are nocturnally active and the cows are not, but because, deep down, we want to be fooled. It's then when we are most open to our chosen company, in an almost holy confessional alliance. One of the most simultaneously meaningful and cliché glimpses into ourselves we can give after midnight is to bare our scars. It might be anything from a noticeable cleft above the hairline where no hair grows to a permanent purple splotch on the meaty part of the right buttock that only a spouse or mother should see, but somehow the divulging of the wherefore and the how makes it something less than a faux pas, in the deep heart of the night, to show them off. For the most part, everyone does seem to want to know how we got our scars—a funny story, or perhaps a near-death experience or the reason we finally got health insurance. These, for me, are deep human bonding moments, when we get to share our exploits, our childhoods, our fears, our flesh, and hopefully a good laugh. This is when I pounce.
The proper punchline requires eminent patience. The timing has to be just right—a notably strange story, or a particularly ugly scar—and of course is entirely intuitive, based on years of honing. Sometimes I back off, save it for another night even. But when I get the opportunity, after a particularly gruesome or funny story someone else just told, I stick up my right middle finger, point between the first and second joint, and plainly state, as if finishing the story the last person just told, "This is where my dad tried to cut my finger off when I was in the fifth grade."
But that's not the only way I tell it. Sometimes I point to the same finger and say, "I got this from getting my finger stuck in a merry-go-round ramp in the third grade." Like all of the best jokes, both punchlines are based in reality, at least the way I remember it. But I only have one scar.
There is a reason either of these disclosures is the punchline, and not the beginning of the story. Most people don't want to know the rest. Perhaps another connection between jokes and political power is that humor is built on lack of knowledge, or at the very least the willing suspension of disbelief. The more you know about the material of jokes—the CIA, the FBI, the LAPD, scars, tapeworms—the less there is to laugh about. Jokes in this respect are like life—mostly variations on the same theme over and over, with some stray moments of transcendence. In jokes at least, unlike in life, we get to end with the transcendence.
When I think about my own family, I realize that I got my penchant for telling jokes not from that book of jokes I carried around until the third grade, but from these people. My Aunt Becky's jokes always had a Gotcha Moment, that I usually didn't get the first time around. (Her favorite riddle I can remember was, "What do you get when you cross an elephant and a rhinoceros? Elephino!" When I retold the joke to my mom with the bowdlerized punchline of "Heck if I know!" she claimed I couldn't have learned that joke from her sister. "Why?" I asked indignantly. "Because it's not funny.") I didn't know it then but Aunt Becky was already legally blind, and things were getting darker for her with every year. She now lives in disabled housing, but gets around every day on her own so that you probably wouldn't know she was blind if you saw her on the bus. She still tells jokes with the best of them, for reasons I'm only recently beginning to understand. She needs an audience, just like I do.
Only now am I thinking about the parts of the joke I don't tell—the parts where, if someone asked (they never do) the joke wouldn't be funny anymore, even to me. Recently Daniel Leonard began posting Peanuts comic strips in succession, removing the last frame of each. In the words of Leonard, "Charles Schulz's Peanuts comics often conceal the existential despair of their world with a closing joke at the characters' expense. With the last panel omitted, despair pervades all." Without the fourth panel, the third panel—now the last—frequently leaves one or more of the characters staring into space with concerned looks on their faces, or waiting for something to happen, or asking a difficult question that never gets answered. This, the pregnant space before the punchline, is the razor-thin line between the humor and the gallows. Herewith, I present the first three panels to my own punchlines.
When I was in the third grade, every day I went after school to the park two blocks from our house with my bulldog Sassy. I have a picture of Sassy and me going down the slide, a big smile on my face while her panting tongue trails her open mouth. Behind that slide is a merry-go-round. When I was in the third grade that merry-go-round had a ramp leading up to it. I hadn't seen any such ramp before then, and haven't since—it led right to the edge, with a maybe quarter-inch gap between it and the spinning disc. I would guess some city councilman thought it might be a good idea—not a good enough idea to put one in at South Park, Watson Park, or anywhere near the Alvamar golf course, but a good enough idea to try out in a dumpy little East Lawrence park just a stone's throw from the railroad tracks. By the next year, that ramp was gone. I'm not sure, but I think I had something to do with that.
A baseball diamond with a crumbling set of concrete amphitheater bleachers stood between that park and my home on Delaware Street. During the spring and summer months when the youth and rec leagues filled those stands I went and watched, feeling with every pop of a bat and raucous cheer like I was part of something big and wonderful and sacred, like the tent revivals held outside the livestock market on the east side of that stadium. But in the wintertime, when the stands were empty and the gray concrete matched the cold, gray sky, I tried not to look at the wide, empty chasm with all those empty, faded seats. I shouted at it though, feeling my own voice bounce back, reverberate, and disappear in the dry air. On one of those winter days, after thoroughly shouting down the stadium, I took Sassy over to the park. After a long game of chase, I decided to give Sassy one of her favorite treats, a ride on the merry-go-round. She knew the drill. After I lifted her onto the platform—she would never use the ramp—she sat down and put her front paws firmly in front of herself and balanced in a wide tripod, looking out toward the edge. I then spun the platform, running alongside it all the way around, pulling my hands back when I ran a full circle to the ramp and watching Sassy continue spinning. Every time I waited a little longer to stop when I got to the ramp. I yelped happily each time I did this, like I was somehow pulling one over on the ramp. Once, I waited too long.
I didn't even realize what had happened until my right middle finger was wedged about fifteen inches into the small crevice. At first the only pain I felt was in my shoulder, from my instinctive attempts to yank out my finger. In the half-minute between my realization that no amount of pulling was going to get my finger out and the jolt of intense pain that pulsed up from it into my heart, the horror of my situation dawned on me. In panic, I screamed. Not once, but over and over. At first I screamed for my mom, then I just screamed Help! Help! Help! and then I screamed, repeatedly, no words, and every scream hit those big cavernous bleachers and bounced back at me, mocking every helpless cry I made. I remembered my Great-Grandpa Proctor's ring finger, how it was missing the top joint, and how when I asked him what happened he said it came off in an accident at work with a drill, and when I asked him if it hurt he said No, it popped right off. That was a good joke, well played—wedged perfectly into something as serious as losing a finger. Right then, I asked God to please, please let my finger pop off. If he just released me this time I would be good forever.
But my finger didn't pop off, and my dog was on the merry-go-round, silently looking at me. I yelled at her wordlessly, meaning Go find help! Or Stop looking at me! Then I glanced down at my bulging hand, and realized I was the only one who was going to get it out. So I propped my right leg against the ramp, gripped the merry-go-round with my left hand, and pulled. The metal ground into my finger like a gear with a loose screw stuck in it. And for every quarter inch the monstrous disc turned, I had to stop and let my finger recover from the scraping, slicing pain that inched it closer to freedom. I remembered the fire-and-brimstone sermons at the big-tent revivals to which I'd run away on Sundays and their vision of hell as a place of everlasting, unrelenting torment—again, a good joke, well played, and especially at my weakest and most powerless, I fell for it. I realized then that I was a bad kid, that I'd missed any chance I'd had for salvation, and that this was my hell. After what seemed like an eternity, I pulled a final time. My finger escaped, and I landed on my ass. Sassy jumped down and licked my finger, which was either green or purple—I remember both colors—and led me home.
I remember my mom screaming when she saw my finger. I remember not going to the hospital. I remember showing off my green and purple scar to all the kids at school for months, retelling the story, honing and perfecting it until my finger finally, somewhat sadly, returned to its normal color, with just a slice of white scar tissue breadthwise across the segment between the first and second joint. And I remember—this happened two years later—the other punchline for my scar.
As I said, my legal father was a big fan of Polish jokes. Come to think of it, he was a fan of most any joke with someone else as the butt. Life had gotten over on him something fierce. He'd married a woman who already had a son, a child of a man he hated, and now he was stuck raising a kid and loving a woman he didn't even really like. But perhaps it was simply self-fulfilling prophecy—everyone, his friends and his brothers, said he was always a little paranoid. Or maybe he just found a situation to match the life he'd imagined for himself.
He also had a thing about table manners. He said it came from growing up watching his brothers eat like pigs—with their hands and mouths open, smacking their lips—and he wasn't going to put up with it under his own roof. Unfortunately, I was a fidgety kid, maybe even obsessive-compulsive, but I wasn't yet rebellious. I had, for example, a tendency to lean back on my chair, which Greg Proctor corrected by backhanding me in the chest. I'm still surprised at how many times my ass or the back of my head hit the floor before that lesson sank in.
But my worst, most uncontrollable habit was one I shared with my uncles: chewing with my mouth open. I still don't how this motor skill deficiency plagued me for so long—perhaps it was an act of rebellion, however unconscious. And every time I did it at the dinner table my legal father's eyes lit and his tongue curled around his lower lip. I'm sure he remembered his brothers' mongrel ways, and he probably thought I was smacking my lips in disdain, reminding him that I, and the world, loved his brothers more than him. His punishments were completely spontaneous and unmethodical. Many times, especially when my mom was eating, he would kick me under the table. But repeat offenses at the same dinner demanded harsher measures, which usually involved dining utensils. My sister wrote a poem when she was in junior high about a memory of him jabbing me in the arm with a fork. My most vivid memory, though, is the other story behind the scar. My sister was only two years old and my mom wasn't there. We were having steak, which might have been why I'd been smacking my lips so much, probably brazenly displaying some disgusting admixture of meat, potatoes, and saliva. If the greatest jokes are borne of anger and despair, I don't know whose were greater, mine or my father's. Either way, I was the butt. I remember the almost disembodied image of Greg Proctor's white knuckled hand over mine, his other hand with a steak knife sawing on my right middle finger. And my sister's screaming—she always screamed when he did things like this to me, and I always hated her for that. It just made him blame me for making my sister cry. I told him over and over that I was sorry as he crouched over my finger, like he was trying to shield me from having to see it, or to guard his work. I told him I wouldn't do it again, and thought where is my mother I just want my mother. I thought there would be blood, but there wasn't I finally figured out that he was gouging away at my finger with the blunt edge of the knife.
I've thought about it for years, gone over that scene in my mind, put the pieces together trying to get the story in some order. And this is all I can come up with, the only way it makes any sense to me—this sleight of hand was perhaps his masterwork, a joke with a brutal humor perfectly played. With no open wound, there was no evidence, especially with a scar already in place. But he made his point, with a flourish, and when he let my hand go and resumed eating his steak while my sister continued crying, he must have known I wouldn't tell anyone. He couldn't have me going to school with a missing or mutilated finger, but he wanted to teach me a lesson. I looked at my finger, again either green or purple but still attached. He told me, masticating steak in his full, unsmiling mouth, When I say to do something, you do it. Or, This house is the lawn, your ass is grass, and I'm the lawnmower. Or, This is what you get for making your sister cry. It could have been any of those, really –those are the morals I remember that particular joke teaching me.
The thing about jokes is that they always have a moral, however ill conceived the codes may be from which they spring. The Tonton Macoute were named after a well-worn Haitian joke parents played on their children in which a bogey man named Tonton Macoute, or "Uncle Gunnysack," stole misbehaving children away at night in a gunnysack and ate them for breakfast in the morning. This fear kept the children—and by 1960 the adults—in trembling servitude to the authorities, and I'm sure gave the authorities a good laugh at their subjects' expense. Job's suffering was essentially a big joke between Lucifer and Yahweh, and he, the most just among humans, was the butt. The everyman speaker of Bruce Springsteen's musically upbeat but lyrically bleak "Dancing in the Dark" sings, "There's a joke here somewhere and it's on me." The point of all this? Maybe all the suffering in the world is, to the ones we serve—parents, dictators, gods, muses—a really good joke.
Now, when I look at my scar on my right middle finger, I remember both a gray, pitiless sky and a wrath I was helpless against. That bone-white scar on my middle finger is a continual reminder of my first realization that I am all alone in the world, and at my time of greatest need when I'm screaming for an audience, anyone to listen to me, there will only be my own voice crying back at me. It also reminds me that even the best jokes always have victims. But I don't tell that part late at night; I only give the punchline. And still, no one ever laughs.
This essay sprung out of a longer series of written negotiations he is conducting between humor and pathology; he is currently at work on a piece tentatively titled "My Life and Hard Times, as Told Through Little Johnny Jokes."