An Elegy for my Vacation

August 19, 2013 § Leave a comment

I really wish I could say I’m happy to be back here on the world wide web but my recent vacation was just too beautiful.  I spent a glorious week in a cabin on an island in Northeastern Ontario. The weather was a little cooler than a normal August, perfect for shorts and dock shoes during the day and sleeping bags at night, and the only time it rained was the day the roofers were due to make some repairs, so the grey skies were actually a lucky guarantor of peace and quiet for reading. And that’s really all I did for the whole week: laze about in a hammock and read.  On one of the last days, I tried fishing for a few minutes, but quickly found myself back to a book.

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View from the Western Window of my Cottage–photo by Jenny McDougal

You know you’re relaxing when fishing seems like too much excitement.

In addition to Rob Bell’s thoughtful Love Wins, I read the following novels: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, Red Moon by Ben Percy, Echolocation by Myfanwy Collins, Broken Harbor by Tana French, and A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers. There wasn’t a bad one in the bunch, but it is A Hologram for the King that I want to blog about today, because its literary use of jokes it pertinent to the mission of this blog.

The novel follows Alan Clay, a salesman from a fast-fading era of American greatness, as he tries to redeem his recent (and continuing) blunders by giving a successful sales pitch to a Saudi Arabian monarch. Concerned with failure and decline—both personal and cultural—this spare novel is sad and beautiful in an elegiac way.

It is, thankfully, also very funny. Many of the laughs come at Alan’s expense as he rushes from one awkard mess to the next (imagine Michael Scott fancying himself Lawrence of Arabia).  But, lost in a foreign land, Alan recognizes that humor is a great bridge between cultures (as we’ve discussed on the blog before). After an awkward silence between he and his local driver, Alan tries to break the ice:

-Okay, Alan said. A woman’s husband has been sick. He’s been slipping in and out of a coma for several months, but she’s been staying by his bedside every single day. When he wakes up, he motions for her to come nearer. She comes over, sits next to him. His voice is weak. He holds her hand. ‘You know what?’ he says. ‘You’ve been with me all through the bad times. When I got fired, you were there to support me. When my business went sour, you were there. When we lost the house, you gave me support.  When my health started failing, you were still by my side… You know what?’ ‘What dear?’ she asks gently. ‘I think you bring me bad luck!’

Yousef snorted, coughed, had to stub out his cigarette.

-That’s good.  I didn’t see that coming. You have more?

Alan was so grateful. He had not told a joke to an appreciative young person in many years.

This joke, obviously doing some thematic work as well, is surrounded by Alan’s recent memories of being shamed by his ex-wife and daughter for telling jokes. These failures are indicative of his crumbling connection to American life, just as his success in the car is a convincing sign of his budding friendship with Yousef. This relationship was one of the least depressing aspects of the book, as well as one of the realest feeling, in part because of the good (and good-bad) jokes Eggers uses in building it. There’s a decent chunk of the book dedicated to lamenting the fact that nothing real is built in America anymore, and in Alan’s world of  telecom holograms and skyscrapers that will never be finished, an unlikely friendship is one of the most concrete commitments  to be found.

With this in mind, I’m afraid to say that this post might have to serve as a sort of elegy for business as usual at The Oldest Jokes in the World: in contrast to the declining might of American manufacture, I’m going to start focusing on producing my own work for a while instead of commenting, theorizing on, and repackaging the rest of the world’s. My serial novel, Slash, is launching in September, so my only posts here for the next month or two will probably be to promote my efforts. I will have plenty of content related to Slash that is both literary and funny, though, so check out the website and the fb group to get your fix. Otherwise, I promise to be back soon with an essay about the history of the “deeez nuts” joke or the importance of flatulence gags.

Jokealong: ICE BREAKERS

May 17, 2013 § 2 Comments

Since people are continually stumbling onto The Oldest Jokes in the World in search of actual jokes, not just abstract theories about them, every other week we have a joke-along post. I’ll search through the site’s stats for a specific joke people have been searching for, comb the internet for the best existing examples, and try come up with one of my own. And then you all can add your own in the comments, so the next time someone comes searching, they won’t leave disappointed.

Busy with other projects (gentle reminder: like the fb page and follow the website for my forthcoming novel, Slash), it has been over a month since our last jokealong, so I had a little difficulty warming up to even start this one. What better topic to pick then, I thought, than ice breakers?

Really any topic, I discovered, once I started.

People are, apparently, desperate for ice-breakers. In my series on the divide between wit and written jokes, I mentioned, briefly, that written jokes are great for breaking the ice in unfamiliar social situations, and in the months since, searches for “ice breaker jokes” have become the number one term leading people to the site. As an awkward guy myself, I sympathize with this search for an easy-to-memorize sentence that will make you look smooth in any social situation, no matter how sweaty and uncomfortable you are.

But my own personal search for a good ice-breaker has made me realize it is a quixotic (and greedy) quest. When you think about it, what phrase could appeal to all audiences everywhere? And if such a golden incantation did exist, who would be responsible enough to know such a spell without using it for evil?

As a result of their ultimate impossibility, many ice-breakers are just lame jokes. Anything that might appeal to everyone is going to be necessarily broad and soft to the point of near meaninglessness.

In the opposite direction, there are those who just assume that their own personal points of view are the only ones worth having and that anyone who is offended by them aren’t worth knowing. One example I came across are Redditers who claim that cheap cheap-hand-job jokes are their go-to ice-breakers. The goal here isn’t making a connection with a new person, but testing to see if your audience is exactly as crass as you.

(Which isn’t to say I don’t enjoy a well crafted hand-job joke, just that I know I need to earn the right and familiarity to tell one to you.)

The worst examples—and, sadly, the most desperate searchers of good examples—come from dating websites. On this dating site message board thread for ice-breaking tips, several men suggest lesbian jokes as ice-breakers. Again, the goal doesn’t seem to be to make a connection, but to test if your date is the sort of feminist killjoy who hates lesbian jokes—and is probably a secret lesbian anyways, the spiraling logic goes. I’ve got to assume these guys are so obsessed with lesbians because they think every girl they’ve ever dated is a lesbian: I mean, who else wouldn’t be attracted to such a handsome guy with such a wealth of homophobic humor, right? These aren’t the sort of ice-breakers that open the room to warmth, but that send the teller further and further down a lonely, one-way path.

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That said, there are some decent ones out there, as anyone who listens to the Dinner Party Download on MPR knows. I think the key is knowing a few and gauging the situation for one that fits. As a result, I’m submitting this year’s compilation podcast from that show as our winner. If the people you find yourself with are worth conversing with at all, there’d ought to be something here that will get them to like you.

As for my contribution:

Q: Why did the lonely hipster put ornate studs in his tires before going to the winter pub crawl?

A: They make a great ice-braker.

Ice-breakers are mostly about putting yourself out there to be vulnerable, getting the dialogue going, so I hope that lame attempt will open the floodgates to all of your awesome ice-breakers out there.

Jokealong: BIRTHDAYS

April 19, 2013 § 2 Comments

Since people are continually stumbling onto The Oldest Jokes in the World in search of actual jokes, not just abstract theories about them, every other week we have a joke-along post. I’ll search through the site’s stats for a specific joke people have been searching for, comb the internet for the best existing examples, and try come up with one of my own. And then you all can add your own in the comments, so the next time someone comes searching, they won’t leave disappointed.

Since this week marks the one-year anniversary of The Oldest Jokes in the World, we have a very special Birthday Jokealong! On April 16th, 2012, I posted this blog’s first post; this jokealong is our sixtieth since, so I haven’t quite lived up to my promise of twice-weekly updates, but I have managed to say something at least every Friday. Initially, I wasn’t sure if I’d last half a year, but the experience has been more rewarding and more challenging than I thought it would be, so I’m already looking forward to the next. I’m most grateful for all the great fellow bloggers I’ve met in the past year, as well as anyone and everyone who stopped by for a quick laugh without saying, “Hi.” So without further ado, let’s get on with the celebration.

For a present this year, it seems the internet got me my easiest jokealong yet! Maybe it is due to the fact that birthdays are a time when people come together to make each other merry, or maybe I can just thank a century’s worth of discarded greeting card slogans, but there is a wealth of birthday humor out there for anyone looking. Here are some of the more interesting ones:

Q: Why are birthday’s good for you?

A: Statistics show that the people who have the most live the longest!

And…

Q: What do George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Christopher Columbus all have in common?

A: They were all born on holidays.

Or…

Q: “Were any famous people born on your birthday?”

A: “No, only little babies.”

There’s also quite a few “You might be old if…”s out there, most of which are pretty tired. You might be old if you are a you might be old joke. The best one I found, anyways, comes to us from Bob Hope:

You know you are getting old when the candles cost more than the cake.

The most fun I had, though, was poking through our culture’s vast catalog of alternative birthday songs. You may or may not know that Warner Music Group owns the copyright to “Happy Birthday To You”, making $2,000,000.00 a year even though their claims to it are laughable at best. The whole situation is hilarious to me in that desperate all-you-can-do-is-laugh way, as well as a with a more triumphant David-and-Goliath glee, since as much as they’d like to, Warner can’t collect every time you sing to your grandma in the nursing home’s party room. They do, though, charge $10,000 to anyone who want to use it in TV or film, so there’s a humorous tradition of cheap imitations detailed in the video below:

There’s a push out there to get a new song that is free to everyone just for being born. Creative Commons and the Free Music Archive have sponsored a contest, and you can listen to the winners here. My favorite, though, is Jack Black’s attempt at writing the next birthday song on Saturday Night Live a few years ago.

As a result, for my contribution to the jokealong, I tried writing a new birthday song, too:

CHORUS:

We hope your birthday is your worst day.

We hope your birthday is your worst day.

May the next year be all up-hill from here.

We hope your birthday is your worst day!

VERSE ONE:

We are certainly not trying to say

We hope your celebration saw sorrow.

For the next 365 days

we want to set a high bar, though.

Which is to say,if you had a cake today,

we hope you have two tomorrow.

VERSE TWO:

When we next feel the urge to smother

You in our loving good cheer,

We know not to wait for another

Anniversary of your birth to come near:

You deserve a check from your grandmother

On every single day of the year!

If someone wants to set that to music, I’ll share the copyright with you and we’ll make millions. And if you’ve got any more good birthday jokes, please do share them in the comments. This post might also make a great birthday present on someone’s Facebook wall, if you want to share the good cheer that way.

Otherwise, stay tuned in the coming weeks because year two will see some exciting changes to The Oldest Jokes in the World.

Jokealong: AWP13

March 15, 2013 § 4 Comments

This Friday, we have a very special jokealong: the AWP 2013 edition! I was lucky enough to spend all last week in Boston attending this wonderful conference, where I met old friends and new, learned about writing and publishing, and bought more books than I could fit in my suitcase on the way home. While there, I was also on the look-out for the best literary laughs to bring back here for our jokealong.

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This was my fourth time at the conference, and it seems I’ve finally learned a few things, as I didn’t stress myself out trying to cram as much in as possible; in fact, I never even made it over to the convention center in time for the 9am panels. In previous years, I felt I had to be at each panel so I didn’t miss the “secret” to writing a masterpiece or getting published or getting 100 followers for your twitter, but this year, I tried to be more open what found me instead of what I might be looking for.

This worked in my search for humor, as well. For example, one of my biggest laughs of the week came when I sat around in a conference room for half an hour with a bunch of other awkward writers quietly wondering if the presenters would ever show up. They never did. In past years, I would have been frustrated by the time wasted and knowledge missed. But this year I just had to laugh; it makes perfect sense that none of the panelists for “Authors Who Rock Social Media to Sell Books” would bother showing up in person.

One of the most enjoyable hours of the conference for me came when my fiance dragged me along to “A Muriel Rukeyser Centenary.” Never having encountered Muriel’s poetry before, I was expecting some sort of somber remembrance, not the spirited celebration I found—but then that was the sort of surprise I was waiting for. And there was quite a bit of serendipity at play in the discussion as well: to ensure the room didn’t fall into the eulogistic tone I’d been fearing, the poet Olga Broumas started off by encouraging us all to clap for Muriel—raising her hands above her head to make sure our applause stayed up for a long span—until I’d been clapping so long, I felt a little crazy. After that, we all laughed. And then we clapped some more, a giddy wave you could feel coursing through the room. When Olga finally started to read a poem Galway Kinnell had written about how Muriel once suffered a stroke while reading but wanted to persevere with the show,she only made it a few lines in before a loud but ghostly applause could be heard from some adjacent room. Olga said, open-mouthed, “The podium is rising!”, and we all laughed some more.

My choice for best joke of the conference came from the very same panel, as Sharon Olds explained her time in a workshop led by Muriel. Apparently, Olds wasn’t yet the master of the lasciviously literary, because she’d brought in an erotic poem to workshop that was all “milky this and creamy that.” Another member of the class, maybe a little scandalized, struggled to find the words to discuss the poem: “It’s too… too…” “Too dairy,” Muriel suggested.

In any event, I know I only took in one hundredth of what the conference had to offer, so if you were there and heard or told an even better literary joke, please do share it below. And if you didn’t make it out to Boston, I hope these few anecdotes brought some of the inspiration to you.

Get Ready for the AWP JOKEALONG!

March 1, 2013 § 1 Comment

I’m very excited to be heading to the A.W.P. Conference and Bookfair in Boston next week. For those that don’t know, AWP (The Association of Writers and Writing Programs) is an awesome organization that does all sorts of great things for writer/educators. They publish a magazine, run an awards series, and provide many other means for writers to connect—but their biggest event every year is the annual Conference and Bookfair.

url-1The conference features keynote addresses and readings by famous authors every night, as well as an exhausting schedule of interactive panel discussions every day. Even better, in my opinion, is the bookfair: conference hall after conference hall filled with presses, each with their own table covered in hardcovers, trades, chapbooks, and swag. Too big to be called a dream, it is more of a bibliophile’s inescapable visionary coma.

I have attended each of the last three years, and it keeps getting bigger and crazier, so I’m looking forward to what it will look like in Boston. My main goal this year is to research self-publishing and self-promotion options for the serial novel I’m going to start publishing this September, but I always end up learning something by surprise when I am there as well.

For example, at the conference in Chicago last year, I attended a panel on jokes featuring Stephen Goodwin, Richard Bausch, Robert Bausch, Jill McCorkle, and Alan Shapiro, and their hilarious discussion of humor in literature (which quickly turned into a joke-off) inspired me to start this blog.

As a result, I’m going to dedicate the next few weeks of blogging to an AWP jokealong. While at the conference, I’ll be on the hunt for the best obscure literary puns and writerly anecdotes, and I’ll update you on my progress on Friday. Then on the Friday after, once I’m home, I’ll compile my findings in an official jokealong post.

That said, if you’re going to be in Boston, too, we should meet up and trade a joke or two. I’d love to meet some of you blogging-buddies in real-life, so drop a comment if you’re going to be there!

And since I don’t want to leave you without a Friday laugh, here’s one of the funnier anecdotes I heard at last year’s conference, told by Richard Bausch:

The novelist Jon Hassler was working on a book in a cabin up in the woods somewhere north of Duluth, Minnesota, and something very bad happened to the sump pump. There was a kind of methane explosion after the toilet backed up awfully and so he had to call a plumber. The plumber was wiping raw sewage off the walls and standing in it up to his ankles. “People told me you were up here working on a book or something? I mean you’re that writer guy from Minneapolis, right?”
“Yes,” Hassler said.
The plumber shook his head almost wistfully, with a kind of pity. “Don’t know how you can do that kind of work.”

Jokealong: HEAR NO EVIL…

February 15, 2013 § Leave a comment

Since people are continually stumbling onto The Oldest Jokes in the World in search of actual jokes, not just abstract theories about them, every other week we have a joke-along post. I’ll search through the site’s stats for a specific joke people have been searching for, comb the internet for the best existing examples, and try come up with one of my own. And then you all can add your own in the comments, so the next time someone comes searching, they won’t leave disappointed.

This week, we’re lifting our hands from our eyes in search of “Hear No Evil” Jokes.

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In a post I wrote almost a year ago about our sense of humor as a sense, I included a photo of Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor from their classic 1989 comedy, See No Evil, Hear No Evil–and searches for “hear no evil jokes” have been pilling up ever since.

Unfortunately, the jokes themselves weren’t as plentiful, with this proving to be quite a difficult jokealong. It was pleasant enough at first, as I spent an hour poking around youtube clips of the movie, reliving all my favorite gags but failing to find any real reference to the three monkeys besides its jokey title. (Since the bits in the movie are so much funnier than the on-topic jokes I found, I’d be remiss if didn’t break the rules and include at least one.)

Once I got down to business, though, nine out of ten search results were the same list of “witty” one-liners (often tagged as witty one-liners for women or, strangely, work) that has been posted prolifically across the internet. The one line in question is: “Hear no evil, see no evil, date no evil.”

I hoped there was better stuff out there, but half of the result remaining on each page were for these very lame Hear No Evil Anti-Nagging Earplugs for Men.

Part of the trouble with my research was that I’ve never really understood what the heck this strange maxim really meant, and I guess I’m not the only one who’s confused: Wikipedia’s article on The Three Wise Monkeys says that Buddhists use it as reminder not to dwell on negative thoughts while most Westerners use it “to refer to a lack of moral responsibility on the part of people who refuse to acknowledge impropriety, looking the other way or feigning ignorance.” In organized crime, it is often used to invoke a code of silence. Or, consider this sign aimed at participants in the Manhattan Project.

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With that in mind, out of the few actual jokes I found, I decided to pick one that seemed to capture everything that is creepy, wrong, and irresponsible about these three self-involved monkeys. It’s from British Comedian Jimmy Carr; unfortunately, I couldn’t find a good clip online of him saying it, so if you’re not familiar with his dry delivery, check him out here to get his voice in your head. Anyways, the joke is short and simple: See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. Rohypnol(TM).

Inspired by the organized crime connections, I wrote this bootlegging vignette as my contribution:

Sam was desperate for a drink, hadn’t had a drop since the cops busted up the last speakeasy in town a month earlier. So when he heard about a new gin joint just down the block, he left work early to see if the rumors were true. Sure enough, the nondescript door on the south side of the alley led into a long, dark room that stank of sweet, sweet booze. There were no other patrons this early in the day, though, just three gangsters behind an empty bar. Despite their tough looks, Sam had trouble not laughing: one had his hands on his ears, the other had his hands over his eyes, and the third had his hands on his mouth.

“WELCOME TO THE “HEAR NO EVIL, SEE NO EVIL, SPEAK EASY,” the one with his hands over his ears yelled. “MY NAME IS HEAR-NO AND I’LL BE YOUR HOST.”

“Hi,” Sam started, “The na—”

“TO AVOID ANY LEGAL IMPLICATIONS,” Hear-No interrupted, “WE RUN THE BAR UNDER A VERY SPECIFIC PROTOCOL. I’M GOING TO EXPLAIN THE RULES, OUTLOUD, TO NO ONE IN PARTICULAR. FIRSTLY, LET IT BE KNOWN THAT SEE-NO, SPEAK-NO, AND MYSELF ARE ALL INDEPENDENT CONTRACTORS AND ARE IN NO WAY AFFILIATED WITH EACH OTHER OR THIS SPEAKEASY. THAT SAID, ONCE I’VE FINISHED TALKING, IF YOU WANT A DRINK, YOU’LL PUT A C-NOTE IN SEE-NO’s POCKET, AT WHICH POINT SPEAK-NO WILL POUR YOU A DRINK.”

“Sounds great, fellas,” Sam answered, looking around the empty shelves behind them. “Just one question first: where do you keep all the booze?”

Hear-No grimaced and pointed at his ear before covering it again.

“Sorry. Of course.” Sam tapped his nose. “Say, See-No… Where do you guys keep all the booze.”

See-No kept his eyes covered with one hand while he felt in his breast pocket with the other. When he felt nothing, he scowled, “How’m I supposed to know where anything is, ya jerk?”

“Sorry. I trust you guys.” Afraid of losing his chance for a drink, Sam tried to smooth things over as he retrieved his billfold. “In fact, I appreciate how cautious you are being, so maybe you can stay open. Looks like you’ve got the perfect racket, anyways: plausible deniability for all three of you since one guy just deals with the patrons, one guy justs deals with the money, and,” he pointed to Speak-No and smiled, “you must take the interrogations whenever the cops show up.”

Speak-No sighed through his fingers and shook his head.

“Of course not. I was just joking,” Sam apologized again, but Speak-No kept shaking his head, holding tight to his mouth as his movements became more emphatic. Sam crammed a hundred dollar bill in See-No’s pocket, but when he looked to Speak-No, the silent giant continued to jerk his neck from shoulder to shoulder. When he looked back to See-No, the money was gone.

“And here I go blabbing your whole plan and I didn’t even mean to mention the cops, I swear. You probably think I’m the G-D’ed D.A.” As Sam babbled nervously, Speak-No took a martini glass from above the bar and held it under his chin.

Gin and vermouth dribbled into the glass as he explained. “Ah, you got the whole scheme wrong anyway. I only deal with mixing the booze; when the cops come, I’m just supposed to swallow.” By way of a punctuation point, he spit an olive into Sam’s glass.

I guess that turned into more of a short story than a joke, but you can’t complain unless you add a pithy little joke of your own!

Hate Humor

February 8, 2013 § 4 Comments

As an addendum to our ongoing discussion of the dichotomy between wit and composed jokes, I want to take this week out to discuss racist, homophobic, and sexist humor. Last post, in linking wit to liberalism and jokes to conservatism, I used hate humor as evidence, pointing out that our culture’s vast catalogue of such jokes serve to conserve prestige and privilege for the group telling them.

Proofreading right before posting, though, I realized I had missed a possible contradiction to my argument: racist wit. If the divide between wit and jokes is really like a road that humor crosses back and forth over, it makes sense that there would be a sort of wit that would correspond to jokes that rely on hate speech. Does such a wit exist, and if so, would it mean that wit isn’t actual the liberal side of the street?

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Irresponsible, I know, but I posted anyway and decided to figure out if what I had written was right or wrong later. And after a week of consideration, I think I was right all along: there is no such thing as hateful wit. I might just be trying to make the world into what I want it to be with this line of reasoning, but I truly believe that wit is by definition open and searching, and as a result, closed-minded comments can never really be witty.

What ultimately convinced me of this was considering examples from life. Most of the hate humor I’ve come across has, thankfully, not been from my friends and family but at work, where we don’t have as much power choosing our conversation partners. For example, for a while I was forced to work closely with a particularly miserable guy we’ll call K; whenever the rest of us at work would get a nice, convivial, and witty conversation going, he’d have to interject his a racist, sexist, or homophobic comment to get in on the fun. But it never came across as witty, just another instance of K trying to force his agenda on our otherwise free-ranging conversation.

(Looking back, I don’t think K’s agenda was propagating a misogynist worldview as much as satiating his need to control the conversation, making everyone feel uncomfortable so he could feel power. I think there was a bit of jealousy in it, as well; unwilling or unable to open himself up to the creativity of wit, he was often left behind in our conversations and probably wanted to ruin what he couldn’t participate in.)

All hate humor has an agenda; even it’s most spontaneous expression is built on preconceived notions for the purpose further propagating those notions—and as such, it is never pure wit. Finding the opportune moment to say what you’ve been wanting to say is a different thing than finding the novel words this fresh moment demands. As such, hate humor is also the enemy of conversation; a moment of such forced “wit” will always end a conversation uncomfortably if the audience doesn’t agree (as with K) or tighten it into something less than a conversation, as all the participants talk only to reinforce their shared opinions instead of exchanging foreign ideas.

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