“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.”