(THEY JUST CAME OUT OF ME. BLAME IT ON THE WEATHER.)
At the age of 93, Roger Angell says he depends on jokes, including jokes about death, to help keep him going. I like to laugh at a good joke as much as the next person, and always did. It’s just that I then have trouble remembering the joke long enough to share the pleasure by passing it on. It’s not an age thing. I managed to forget dozen of laugh lines I first heard in my teens and twenties even before I reached thirty.
Nonetheless, after lying awake last night unpacking my memory for any scrap of joke that might still be buried there, punch line intact, I have discovered that I do indeed retain a very small inventory of material I at one time or another thought funny. However, only two concern death, although another could be thought of as a death-in-life joke. Most of them go tastelessly right to sex, body parts and related phenomena — and two of the three from my father that are asexual demonstrate other kinds of immorality, having to do with making money in not unimpeachable ways. What the fact that these jokes are the only ones I remember says about me — I leave to the comment section.
Anyway, that last paragraph was your spoiler alert. You’ve been warned. The baker’s dozen that follow are not Reader’s Digest type jokes. Proceed at your own risk.
From grammar school (in the 1930’s):
1. A name for a book: “The Hole in the Wall,” by Mr. Completely. (At eleven, my three girlfriends and I were rolling on the floor with this one. What did we think? That the woman stood upright and the man aimed himself at her, like a guided missile?)
2. [Passed around from Roberta F. to me to Ann D. in Mrs. Goldberg’s 8A class, with much tittering and covering of mouth with hand. We had all just got our periods.]
Question: How do you cover a hole in four strokes?
Answer: First print “hole” on piece of paper. With pencil turn “h” into “k.” [stroke 1] Cross “l” to turn it into “t.” [stroke 2] Add letter “x” at the end. [strokes 3 and 4]
[Little girls. What can you do? More to the point, what can you do with an eighty-two year old woman who still knows how to print “hole” on a piece of paper and then turn it into “kotex” with four strokes of the pencil and isn’t totally ashamed of herself?]
From my father (in the 1940’s):
[The context for all three was the New York garment district. My father never worked in the garment district. Who told him these? I never thought to ask.]
3. Two men meet in a Broadway cafeteria for lunch. One says to the other: “I hear you had a big fire at your place last Tuesday.” The other replies: “Ssssh. Next Tuesday!”
4. Business is very bad. The line isn’t selling. Bernie wants to hang on, but his partner Abe has had it and jumps out the seventeenth-floor window. He looks into the windows of all the lower floors as he falls. As he passes the fourth window, he calls up to his partner: “Bernie! Cut velvet!”
5. Two men sit together doing the hand-sewing in a men’s tailoring establishment. They take a stitch and pull the thread up. Take another stitch, pull the thread up. Hour after hour, day after day, week after week. Take a stitch, pull the thread up. One has a family so it’s hand to mouth, but the other is a bachelor and after ten years manages to save enough for a safari vacation. He’s gone two weeks. After he comes back, the two men sit together again. They take a stitch and pull the thread up, take a stitch and pull the thread up. The second man tells the first man all about his time in Africa as they take a stitch and pull the thread up. He was about to shoot a lion, he says, when the lion attacked. Only the intervention of the beater saved him. The first man takes a stitch, pulls the thread up, and says, “But you escaped. You’re not dead. At least you’re living.” The second man takes a stitch, pulls the thread up, and says, “You call this living?”
From French class in high school:
[Glossary: The French word for “black” is noir. The French word for “hat” is chapeau, pronounced “sha-poh.” One of the French words for “condom” is capot, pronounced “ka-poh.”]
6. An American couple is sightseeing in Paris when the wife suddenly dies. The husband has a black suit but must go to a Parisian gentlemen’s haberdashery to buy himself a black hat for the trip home with the body. He explains in broken French that his wife has just passed away, and that he will need a “capot noir.” The salesman exclaims: “Ah monsieur! Quelle delicatesse de sentiment!” [What delicacy of sentiment!]
From my days in advertising:
7. [About another Bernie, a far more successful one.] Bernie’s business is doing great. At the age of fifty, he’s made enough to retire and travel. He and his wife go to Switzerland, where they take skiing lessons and Bernie decides to do some Alpine mountain climbing. One evening he doesn’t get back. Early the next day, a search party goes out. High up ahead of them, they see a small speck in the distance, still climbing.
“Bernie,” they call. “Stop! It’s the Red Cross!”
Bernie calls back: “I gave at the office!”
From my days as a lawyer:
8. Question: When a passenger ship founders in shark-infested waters, why are the lawyers on board the only ones the sharks won’t touch? Answer: Professional courtesy.
[I omit two here from a former boyfriend, recycled in older age, who recognized no boundaries whatsoever: One joke will offend Catholics, the other Jews. He himself was a lapsed Catholic whose second wife had been Jewish. No. Absolutely not. My lips are sealed.]
From the husband of a long-time friend:
9. A flasher wearing a raincoat and nothing else is walking down the street towards the garment district. A woman comes towards him from the opposite direction. He immediately opens his coat to show her what he has. She gives him a look and sniffs: “You call that a lining?”
From a very proper and beautifully well organized legal secretary at a great big law firm who in her spare time wrote and published a book about making Victorian dolls. She made me promise not to let anyone know it was she who told it to me. I did promise, but it was a very long time ago, and I haven’t given you her name, have I?
10. Three women begin to boast about their husbands. The first says, “My husband is a world-famous surgeon. They called him when they needed someone to operate on President Reagan!” The second woman says, “My husband is a renowned attorney. He was one of the team conscripted for the defense in the O.J. Simpson trial!” The third woman thinks a moment and then says, “My husband has a very big penis. Thirteen pigeons can stand on it.” The first two women look at the third woman. Then the first woman says, “Okay, I exaggerated. My husband is a doctor, but he just works in the city ER.” The second woman says, “Well, I exaggerated too. My husband is a lawyer, but he’s really just an ambulance chaser.” They both turn to the third woman expectantly. “All right,” the third woman says. “The thirteenth pigeon can only get one foot on.”
From a colleague at a smaller law firm. She got her jokes from her former father-in-law. They always seemed to feature a Jake and a Becky:
11. Jake hears very bad news from his doctor. At best, he has only three months to live. He calls Becky to tell her right away. By the time he comes home, the delicious smell of brownies is wafting through the air from the kitchen. Brownies: his favorite! She’s trying to console him! What a wonderful wife! He hurries into the kitchen where Becky is indeed taking tray after tray of brownies out of the oven. He reaches for one, but she slaps his hand away. “Not yet!” she scolds. “After the funeral!”
12. [From an earlier period in the married life of Jake and Becky.] Becky — who weighs more than perhaps she should — takes a shower and suddenly needs to use the toilet. She sits down wet, does her business, and can’t get up again. She is stuck! She calls Jake. He pulls, and pushes, and tugs, and fails. They will have to call the plumber. But Becky is naked. She covers her breasts with her arms and Jake hastily covers her private parts with his black yarmulke. The plumber arrives, and looks, and measures. Finally, he delivers his verdict. “I can get her out all right. But I won’t be able to save the rabbi.”
From the American wife of a grizzled Israeli war hero whom I met on the roof of a Tel Aviv apartment house at a Friday night dinner under the stars in the summer of 1993. I can’t remember her name anymore, but I have never forgotten her joke. It seems to go over better with women than with men. But then I’m a woman:
13. A husband and wife go on two-week safari in Africa. They have tents, a guide, beaters, servants, the whole shebang. Money does not buy safety. In the middle of the night, the wife is abducted by an enormous gorilla who escapes with her under his arm before anyone can catch him. Many days and much laborious search later, the wife is discovered in a cave, abandoned by the gorilla after he has had his way with her. She’s airlifted to a Nairobi hospital. The husband flies in her best friend from America to sit by her bedside. The friend arrives, all ready to commiserate. “My dear, my dear,” she says, seating herself next to the wife’s bed and taking her hand. “What a terrible experience! How do you feel?” The wife lifts her shoulders and eyebrows. “How should I feel?” she asks. “He doesn’t call, he doesn’t write….”
Does any of that make me feel better for being eighty-two and a half? Well, yeah. It kinda does.