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“This is a joke,” says my three-year-old as she thumps into the kitchen. Patches of red dot her pale cheeks, and I can see nearly all of her tiny teeth inside her wide-open grin. Clearly, it is a joke she has been enjoying, and enjoying to the point of hilarity, for a while now, thanks in large part to the encouragement of her audience — my five-year-old son, who is still deep in the “do it again!” stage of joke appreciation.

Assured that she has our attention, my daughter happily drops trou, and I shoot my wife a look — How does she know that public pantslessness is funny? Has she been watching Jackass when we’re asleep? But that’s not the joke; the joke is the baby blanket she is stuffing down the back of her pants before hoisting them back up, thus giving herself an enormous booty, which she proceeds to waggle in our direction. She tries to sing along to the waggling, but she is choked with laughter.

The big butt is comedy gold — though I’m not sure it really qualifies as a joke. (Setup: I am three years old. Punch line: My butt is absolutely huge — and what’s more, I can shake it.) Still, for surefire, effortless effect, it’s right up there with saying the word “underpants” to my nine-year-old son. Grin. Snicker. A good Freudian might suggest that butts and underpants are funny because of their proximity to the excretory and sexual regions. Because of the way these regions overpower us — the body having its say, willy-nilly — they may serve as a source of embarrassment. (Farts, anyone?) And laughter is a pretty stock response to embarrassment — it takes the curse off. But to my kids, butts and underpants are inherently funny — instant jokes. Why they’re funny never enters into it.

My oldest son is 11, but he’s been working on jokes since forever. I think he was 9 when he proposed a cartoon showing Santa Claus on the psychiatrist’s couch, with the shrink declaring, “Your problem is that you just don’t believe in yourself.” It’s one of my prouder moments as a father. Making jokes is a tough business; why else would I remember these two groaners I sent off to Reader’s Digest lo these many years ago?

“Your whole life is wrapped up in dating all these different women. It’s not healthy. You need to broaden your horizons.”

“No thanks. I’ve already got too many broads in my horizons.”

“Geez — another D in history. I think I must be allergic to it.”

“Why not take an antihistorine?”

Gad. I knew they were horrible — that’s why I sent them to Reader’s Digest. But I still sent them because, dammit, I made a funny. Like the man said, “Dying is easy; comedy is hard.”

Where the Jokes Flow Freely

Thaddeus Robles tends bar on weekends at the Live Wire, a comfortably run-down and raucous neighborhood bar on the corner of El Cajon Boulevard and Alabama. (“Cold Beer, Warm Friends,” reads the glowing sign over the entrance; the inside is low ceilings, low lighting, purplish walls, and a Reader award for Best Jukebox Selection.) Robles collects jokes of every kind as he slides from customer to customer, “from the nastiest to the most racist to the cutest.” He’s been at the Live Wire for a decade, long enough for him to call the place “just part of my life. I have a group of friends that come in the bar — whenever we hear a new joke, we’ll call each other.” Here’s one he picked up recently from the cute end of the spectrum: “A guy goes into the library, and he goes, ‘Gimme a cheeseburger, fries, and a shake!’ The librarian says, ‘I’m sorry, sir, but you’re in a library.’ So he says, ‘Oh, sorry,’ and whispers, ‘Gimme a cheeseburger, fries, and a shake.’”

I went to a bar partly because I wanted to find a third place — a hangout where people felt relaxed enough to let the jokes flow freely. But also because bar jokes are one of the great subjects of the joke canon, great enough to have spawned jokes about the jokes: A rabbi, a priest, and a minister walk into a bar. The bartender says, “What is this, a joke?” Asked for a bar joke, Robles offers another gentle one: “A polar bear walks into a bar and says to the bartender, ‘Let me get a Bud…weiser.’ The bartender says, ‘What’s with the big pause?’ The polar bear lifts his hands says, ‘I don’t know; I was born with them.’ ”

Robles is an archivist, not an inventor, though he shares my regard for invention. “I have a pirate joke that my friend made up,” he says, “and it has nothing to do with the letter R, which is awesome. How come pirates can’t say the alphabet? Because they keep getting lost at C.” (It’s a great joke — even with the heads-up, my mind was racing ahead to something involving “Arr…” and bam, the payoff is way back at C.) Having that archive is one of the tools of the trade, something that makes the Live Wire better than drinking at home. “A lot of customers will come in and say, ‘You got any jokes?’ ” Well, yes — thousands. But which one to tell? “I’ll usually ask them, ‘What’s one that you’ve got?’ and then try to stay in the area they’re making jokes about. Most of the time, I’ve already heard the joke they tell me, and I’ll just say, ‘Yeah, I heard that one, that one’s really good,’ and get on with the joke-telling.”

It’s a smart play. Jokes have a way of sliding to the edges of socially acceptable speech and, sometimes, tumbling right over. Add the congenial atmosphere of the bar and the loosening of social inhibitions brought on by alcohol, and it’s easy to see how things could get tricky. The bartender wants to entertain the customer, not to alienate him — or her. Better to let the customer lead, even if it’s into dangerous territory. “Some people are trying to be funny,” says Robles, “and they’ll tell some racist ones that are pretty bad. I don’t find too much humor in those. But I’m not going to lie and say I’ve never heard a bad joke and laughed at it.” It depends, in part, on who’s doing the telling. “Most of my jokes I get from friends,” says Robles, “but a customer did tell me a really funny one. ‘What’s the difference between a hamburger and a boner? You’re not giving me a hamburger right now.’ It was a girl who told me that one, so that kind of made it a lot more funny.”

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Comments

rickeysays July 9, 2009 @ 2:28 p.m.

I'm imagining the flurry of forwarding this article is going to inspire. That dude sitting at the bar will have them in his pocket next week.

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lindacox July 11, 2009 @ 11:35 a.m.

"Knock, knock." "Who's there?" "Anita." "Anita Who?" "Anita better punch line."

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Josh Board July 13, 2009 @ 10:30 p.m.

The classic knock knock joke I love is the one that goes:

knock, knock.

Who's there?

The Interrupting Cow.

The interrupting Cow, Who?

(now, during that last line, you're supposed to interrupt with a "moo", before they finish and get to the "who?" part).

People either already know this joke, or they inevitably mess it up.

Sometimes they don't repeat "The interrupting cow, who?" Or...they just say "What? What does that mean? What's an interrupting cow?"

Instead of them just following along the knock/knock rule of repeating, and adding the "who".

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magicsfive July 13, 2009 @ 11:08 p.m.

thank you. i am officially confused! interrupting cow???????

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Josh Board July 13, 2009 @ 11:58 p.m.

I just finished reading the cover story. It was great, although...I can't help but wonder if Matthew had a conversation with his wife that went like:

"No, you don't understand. I'm going there for the jokes. Seriously."

I think the idea of the strip club having a sign that says something about the women with "...the best sense of humor," is a play on the fact that EVERY STUDY that comes out says that a "sense of humor" is the most important thing a person looks for in a partner. And everyone pretty much feels like that's a load of crap. Because if Roseanne Barr was working at a strip club, a lot less guys would be interested than the one that looked like Pamela Anderson.

I used to play on that whole premise of surveys and what people like, if I met a woman and she started asking me what my interests were. It just seemed so much like the type of question you'd ask on a dating service, that I'd respond by saying "I can tell you what I don't like. I hate walks on the beach. Absolutely hate them." The woman would either smile at the sarcasm. Or get a weird look on their face and ask, "What could you hate about a walk on a beautiful beach?" At that point, I realize I'm probably with the wrong person, but depending on my mood, I might say "Well...the sand just gets in my shoes. The seaweed that washes up is disgusting. And if you aren't careful, a seagull craps on your head. And don't even get me started on the amount of sunscreen I need to use" At that point, they realize they're with the wrong person.

Humor is such an interesting thing. For example the pirate joke told in the story, is soooo much funnier if you drio the word "d--k". Which is surprising, because "d**k" is a funny word (much like the word "p-nis" as discussed in the story) So the joke would go: A pirate walks into a bar, with a parrot on his shoulder and a steering wheel hanging out of his pants. The bartender asks what the deal is with the steering wheel. The pirate looks down and says "Rrrrrrr...it's drivin' me nuts."

Now, the parrot isn't necessary. Just adds a little "color" to the visual. But by avoiding the "d--k" and saying "pants", it makes the "nuts" in the punchline that much funnier, as that's the ONLY blue word you're hearing. So you get that added shock value with the humor.

I hate people that say "I can't remember any jokes." Because, you don't have to sit around memoraizing them. Just remember the five really funny ones. And you can always change the joke, it's the punchline that you need to remember. You can build the story around it (which was, sort of, the premise of the documentary The Aristocrats)

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Josh Board July 14, 2009 @ 12:10 a.m.

A few other things I thought of.

What was that strip club in town, I think it was around 15 years ago...they had a sign that said "100 of the hottest women, and two ugly ones." I always thought that was kind of funny, but had to imagine that the least attractive women working there, had to deal with the drunk patrons that said, "Oh...you must be the one they refered to on the sign."

Anyway...I wanted to comment on the joke about the Santa not "believing in himself." I really, seriously doubt a 9-year-old thought of that. Unless Matt himself, had watched his son working on it for weeks, and coming up with that punch line. It's just way to advanced a concept for a kid to write.

He could've very easily seen it somewhere, and just said it. You didn't know the source, and wanted to be the proud papa.

I remember being 4, and hearing a 7-year-old kid tell someone that he wanted to be an "oceanographer" when he grew up. The adults were so impressed by this answer, that I stole it. For the next few years, any adult that would ask me, would hear that answer. They probably still talk about this genius 4-year-old that wanted to be an oceanographer, and they're wondering what seas I'm exploring. If they only knew it actually lead to a life of putting to use that plagirism I learned so early on.

On the subject of jokes and writing...people with a quick wit are always fun to be around. The things that come out of their mouths.

Since Mary Poppins and the "spoonfull of sugar" came up, I had a joke when Julie Andrews checked herself in for an addiction to pain killers. I said, upon hearing the news, "I don't think it was the pain medication she was addicted to, but the spoonfull of sugar."

The people with me laughed. But I spent days trying to make it funnier. I thought about saying the spoonful of sugar made her addicted to sweets and cookies. Nope. That she tried snorting the sugar like it was coke. Nope. Sometimes the first thing out of your mouth, and the spontanious moment, makes it work best.

And to end with one last observation on strip clubs (haven't been to one in many, many years. honest) The DJs always try to be funny, and never are. Especially when they throw a one-liner out, followed with how we should tip the women because they work so hard.

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