From the Director: Old Jokes

When I was a kid, I heard and retold many cruel jokes. Sometimes I heard these cruel jokes from my father, sometimes from older kids, or classmates, or kids at camp. These jokes seemed to be everywhere. I assumed that everyone I knew—or every kid I knew, or every boy I knew—was hearing these jokes and retelling them. I assumed that anyone worthy of my respect would laugh at these jokes. I laughed at these jokes. The crueler the jokes, the more they trounced some line of decency, the more I laughed.

There was the joke about the thermos, the joke about the wet spot, the joke about the blood, the joke about the recipe for ice, the joke about the library with one book, the joke about the three men at the urinal, the joke about the dishwasher, the joke about the orgasm, the joke about dick size, the joke about ovens, the joke about rice, the joke about the elevator, the other joke about dick size, the other joke about the orgasm, the joke about the airplane at night.

These jokes were all around me when I was a kid, but they don’t seem to be around my kids now. My son is sixteen and my daughter is fourteen—prime joke years—but I don’t hear them telling jokes like these.

These jokes traded on stereotype and caricature. They reduced groups of people to one or two essential and disparaging characteristics. In telling the jokes and laughing at the jokes, we told ourselves that we knew about people from races and places other than our own (we were mostly White and mostly Jewish), about our own bodies and bodies we hadn’t yet seen or touched, about status, power, and difference—all the things we were starting to brush up against and didn’t have the first idea how to deal with.

These jokes could be told and laughed at only by those who felt distant from the punch lines. Even the Jewish jokes depended on this distance: in telling jokes that turned on Jews’ concern for money, or our victimhood, we demonstrated that we ourselves were not similarly caught up, or that even if we were, it didn’t matter to us. We were ironic in a cruel and complex sense: we could look at the fate of those who suffered, even people just like us, and we could separate ourselves enough from this suffering, from these people, that we could laugh.

In the right circumstances, almost anything can be laughed at. I laugh at things like cancer and death, including my mother’s early cancer and death, and frequently find myself trying to get others to laugh at these things, too. I laugh about my own failures, my current and looming decline.

But I shake my head, or know I should, at the thought that my kids might hear these old jokes and find them funny. Yes, laugh about the early death of loved ones, about the body’s sounds, smells, fluids, and shapes, and about our failures. Laugh about your own father’s small-mindedness, his residence in a bygone age. But don’t laugh in other cruel ways. Don’t laugh on the backs of others.

And yet: Why do I also feel a small shiver of fear that this cultural moment—and my kids, coming of age in this moment—might be missing out on something important? Why do I wonder, in flashes, whether cruelty-free jokes might be doing my kids and other kids a disservice, might be taking something away from them, something they need as they figure out themselves and their world?

I’ve embraced other shifts in the climate: on seat belts (wear them); on cigarettes (not indoors or even near doors); on girls playing soccer more enthusiastically and aggressively than boys, and men pushing strollers to the park in the middle of the day; on sparing the rod so as not to harm the child. I’ve come along.

So why do I still cling, uncertainly but indisputably, to these old jokes and what they did for me? Some part of me must believe in the old jokes, in the crude, cruel way they helped us sort out the complexities of living in strange physical bodies and stranger social bodies, all beset by forces and pressures we were trying to learn how to see and shape.

This shiver, this reluctant belief, this vestige of loyalty to the old jokes—this may be the cruelest joke of all.

Comments

1 comments have been posted.

Yes, yes, and yes, Adam. They were cruel, and I am old too, and I notice the decline of jokes as social coins. But some of them were damn funny. So here's what I see: Quietly, even secretly, distill them for their humorous essence. Then recast them! It can be done! Or pun a few new ones: "I can't eat those cookies, sorry, I'm newton intolerant." "Heard about the pill that makes you think you like opera? Ask your pharmacist for Placebo Domingo."

Lee Barker | September 2021 | Redmond

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