For Want of a Good Joke

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People don’t tell jokes anymore. At least, not the people I am around. Perhaps it is a sign of the times. I’ve heard stand-up comics complain that it is difficult to tell jokes in the current atmosphere, as someone is bound to be offended. I’m not sure that’s true. People are offended if the joke is offensive, but I’ve heard many jokes that made me laugh that seemed innocent enough to me. The problem is, I don’t hear them anymore. I think part of the reason is because jokes are now too long for a person’s attention span. Jokes have been replaced by TikTok videos, which is a perfect demonstration of how entropy increases in the universe.

There is a skill to a good joke-teller and not everyone has it. The best jokesters tell jokes as if they are stories. None of this guy walks into a bar thing. They make the jokes personal, often becoming the butt of the joke to get the laugh. I love listening to a good joke-teller because I like to imagine I can tell jokes pretty well (I am a storyteller after all), but when I heard a really good joke-teller, it’s like sitting at the knees of a professional writer, actor, or anyone who has honed their skills over time.

I have a cousin who is a really good joke-teller. He knows how to do it right, but it has been so long since I’ve seen him, I worry that the jokes won’t seem as good as they used to.

When I was younger, I could spend a good part of an evening with someone swapping jokes back and forth, and laughing the entire time. There is almost nothing that can do more for my state of mind than laughter. Recently I was at a get-together and while there was a lot of funny conversion, there were no jokes.

What brought this to mind was the punchline to a joke I once heard my mother tell. This was maybe forty years ago. For some reason, the punchline always stuck in my head. I never knew the joke, just the punchline. It didn’t seem like a particular funny punchline either, and that made it all the more curious. What was this joke that belonged to this punchline? The punchline, delivered in a sing-song voice, went something like, “Washing, washing, washing in the Cheer Cheer Cheer. Rinsing, rinsing, rinsing in the clear, clear clear. Looks so nice, smells so–washing, washing, washing in the Cheer Cheer Cheer.”

Over the decades I’ve had this punchline run through my head countless times. It would pop at the oddest moment: during a cultural anthropology final in college; somewhere over the Great Plains on a flight across the country; standing in a vomitorium in the ruins of Miletus in Turkey; or whenever I put a load of laundry in the washing machine. The last time it happened my curiosity got the best of me. I decided to see if Google knew the joke. As it happened, Google knew it. I located it in the Joke Archives, and if you’d like, you can read the entire joke yourself. The version of the punchline in my head is slightly different from the one in the Joke Archives, but it is definitely the joke that goes with the punchline.

This was a rare letdown. The joke wasn’t that funny in my mind. When my mom told the joke, however, I remember her laughter as well as the laughter of the people around her, which just goes to show you why humor is so difficult, and why comedians should be national treasures for their skill.

My own personal favorite joke is a mother-in-law joke. I love my mother-in-law, but in-laws are one of those cultural mines for good jokes. I’m not certain, but I think I might have first come across this joke in one of Isaac Asimov’s volume of humor (he wrote two specifically on jokes and humor). The way I tell it goes like this:

A caveman is sitting by a creek, gnawing on a hunk of mastodon meat, enjoying the rare quiet. After a short time the quiet is broken by a distant shriek and from the direction of his cave, his wife comes running. “Wog! Wog!” she screams, “Come quick! A sabertooth tiger has just chased mother into the cave.” Wog looks up at his wife with mild annoyance, chews of the final remaining piece of meat from the bone, and calmly says, “What do I care what happens to a sabertooth tiger?”

My apologies to all sabertooth tigers out there.

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