Respectable Laughter Only

  Dan Shea       April 28, 2007      Weekend Wonk

Slaving away at a keyboard all week got you down? Do you start to loathe the feel of a mouse in your hand before lunchtime? Do you have trouble reading the prices at Starbucks because they aren’t on a backlit LCD monitor eleven inches from your face? Does The Grind have you so ground that you actually want to open that email from Billy down in Receiving which obviously contains a quadruple-forwarded .jpg-attachment joke befitting the subject line “Fwd: (fwd):{fwd}– ‘Did That Guy Just Fart?’ -(Fwd)”?

Well, hold on there, buckaroo! I know it’s a tough world and sometimes the digital convenience of everything is really overwhelming, and sure, I can even see why a quick lowbrow diversion could appear tempting while afloat on a wide sea of PDFs and cover-sheets. Hell, I myself have been known to chuckle at and/or even make a clever scatological reference under work-related duress. But that is no excuse, I repeat, NO EXCUSE, to cheapen and bastardize our culture’s last surviving oral tradition: The Joke.

Over the last century, we have seen all of our long held oral practices fall victim to Technology. First the Phonograph stole live music’s Soul, then hundreds of thousands of minstrels and choirs and bands lost their livelihood to the advent of Radio (a further case could be made for Video subsequently killing the Radio Star, but not here). Soon, stories and live plays turned into movies and television, theaters had screens instead of stages, and the town crier began wearing a tie and sitting behind a desk in New York. People’s demand for entertainment and distraction escalated while their collective attention span plummeted. The only survivor in the wasteland of sub-analog communication was the tradition of The Joke.

Sometimes as simple as one line, other times as complex as double-meaning and misdirection, The Joke has a long and oft overlooked past in Mankind’s history. In 2003, scientists concluded that a series of etchings on a cave wall beneath Sussex, England depicted a three hundred pound relative of the modern chicken crossing an ancient road (apparently chasing Oog, the prehistoric village idiot who had a penchant for gigantic eggs), and one original translation of the Torah contains a number of references to God wanting Moses to “pull His finger” and at least one unanswered “Knock-knock…” Many of our most celebrated bards and composers are credited with original authorship of Western Civilization’s more famous jokes. William Shakespeare was thought to have first penned “And the knaves walked in twain, making entrance to yon’ pub…” in 1607 (though it was recently discovered to have been written by three prostitutes, a groundling, and a North Addleton Community College T.A . – the same team responsible for “Hamlet” and “Police Academy 11: The Force Goes Straight to VHS”). It is a widely believed fact that Amadeus, Mozart, and Wolfgang all collaborated on the satirical “Jingle Bells, Batman Smells” holiday standard long before the inventions of either Batman or the classic Christmas tune “Jingle Bells.” Many scholars now tell us that Oscar Wilde, that stodgy old literary killjoy, first noted that a horse does indeed have a naturally long face. Even today, flamboyant rocker Little Richard is currently in litigation over his claim to have invented The Rimshot (ba-dum-boohmp!).

The Internet represents a double-edged blade to the future of The Joke. In one sense, it has breathed new, unprecedented life back into the art-form with its ability to mass communicate and further reach the lowest common public denominator as the technology becomes more and more accessible. On the other hand, that same accessibility and ease-of-use has both driven down the standards for a decent joke and sapped the desire to commit a really good joke to memory. Conditions are so bad that some people (and I’m not kidding here) are known to start re-forwarding bad jokes to entire contact lists before they even get to the punchline! Then, thanks to the Internet, their second cousins who wouldn’t know them from Adam are getting sub-standard humor forcibly jammed into Inboxes across the globe and office productivity falls off, along with our culture’s sense of humor and ability to memorize dirty limericks for Happy Hour (another over-exploited social staple, but we’ll save that for another lament)…

“So what can I do to save The Joke,” you ask? Well, before opening any emails, make sure you know who sent it. Is it a close friend who shares your highbrowed sense of humor? Is it a casual acquaintance from work who makes fart sounds in the elevator? Is it, God help you, a relative who assumes you will forgive them no matter what they send you, be it an undersized turtleneck at Christmas or forwarded pictures of semi-comedically painted human genitalia smoking cigarettes and/or monkey coitus to your work email address? The “From” line of the email is your first indicator of the potential quality of The Joke. The next line, the “Subject” line, is the next indicator. Is the first word “(Fwd)”? That can be either a good or bad sign, but it tends to be bad around 85-90% of the time. These odds seem to increase exponentially for every time “(Fwd)” is repeated in this line. And, of course, should any word from this line cause you to giggle, then it is most likely the funniest part of the email, i.e., words like “poop,” “booger,” “Chihuahua,” or “Anna Nicole.” Remember, prevention is the greatest cure.

Failing that, and if you should find yourself opening a message and scrolling down through several yards of “From:>To:>” forwarding prompts until finally reaching a twenty word joke you already heard back in the sixth-grade, then please do the Internet and our society in general a favor and delete it. DO NOT FORWARD IT. Press Delete, turn off your computer completely, get up and go to the bathroom, forget everything you just read, wash your hands and face, and don’t go back online until you feel clean again.

On the rare occasion that you receive a good joke from a reliable source, my advice is actually the exact same: DO NOT FORWARD IT. Instead, memorize it. Say it out loud. Poke your head over a partition and tell an office-mate in person. Be the center of attention at the bar later. Take it home with you. Phone a close friend, or maybe even that ignorant second cousin of yours who likes forwarding pictures of primate sex, and share it orally (insert rimshot here). If you really have no other choice, at least cut-and-paste the text to a new email and take credit for it.

It’s what Henny Youngman would have done.


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