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Not to mention a lot more safe. Pick-up jokes are another staple — “Is it hot in here, or is it just you?” — but it’s hard to imagine having the stones to deliver one that uses the word “boner,” and even harder to imagine the girl receiving it with anything less than disgust. (On the other hand, if a shared sense of humor is a sign of compatibility, this one could serve to move things along right quick: “I’m the kind of guy who thinks this sort of thing is funny, and I’m looking for a girl who thinks this sort of thing is funny as well. A girl who can see the humor not only in the line, but in my willingness to deliver it, and in the dynamic it sets up between us. The way it acknowledges the meat-market aspect of the bar scene; the way it gets at the underlying context of my approach without taking it too seriously; and the way it lays my personality out there for you to accept or reject but without being bald about it.” Jokes are a complicated business.)

Robles told the hamburger joke to a fellow bartender, Doug Thompson. Thompson — bearded, inked, and as mellowed as Robles was bustling — works the Turquoise Room in La Mesa’s Riviera Supper Club on University, presiding over a mid-century marvel of a bar that revels in its rock wall, its louche banquettes, and its starry-blue-sky back wall. When I stopped in for a Manhattan and asked for a joke, the hamburger-boner bit was the first one that came to his mind, a few minutes after he admitted to having a terrible head for jokes.

Thompson headed back into the kitchen to see if he could get any jokes for me — the bar was nearly empty, and he is a good bartender, jokes or no jokes. He came back shaking his head. “They’re telling some Michael Jackson pedophile jokes. I didn’t think those would really work.” Which made me wonder about limits — what isn’t funny?

“Racist jokes, I guess,” offered Thompson. “But maybe even that is passing. But I don’t think it is yet. Here’s a perfect example: How does every racist joke start?” How? Instead of speaking, Thompson does an exaggerated look back over each of his shoulders, checking to make sure that no one hears who isn’t supposed to. That’s the joke here: the audience is everything. If the wrong person hears it, a racist joke runs the risk of being not only unfunny but also incendiary.

Who’s Telling and Who’s Listening Both Matter

“I wanted to ask you. I been thinking — if we get rid of all the blacks and all the Jews, what are we gonna do for entertainers? Comedians and things like that?”

— Clint Eastwood in Pink Cadillac, pretending to be a good old boy so that he can infiltrate a white supremacist organization.

I’m not even going to begin to try to sort out all the complexities of comedy and race. I’m merely going to note what’s already been established: when it comes to jokes, who’s telling and who’s listening both matter.

I wanted to go to somewhere where blacks joked among themselves. Maybe a barbershop. Filling my minivan’s gas tank on Palm Avenue in La Mesa, I noticed the African-American gentleman at the next pump sporting a sweet fade. I explained my mission and asked where he got his hair cut. The man smiled. “Isis, over on Imperial and 62nd, over by the trolley stop. They’ve got six barbers there, and they’re all a bunch of comedians.” Perfect. Except, not really, because as it turns out, I’m not black myself.

Isis Salon sits between a panaderia and a neighborhood restaurant in a strip mall tucked against the cliff that rises up from a broad swath of asphalt and trolley tracks and more asphalt. Travelers make their way from trolley to bus stop and vice versa as I head up the short bank, across the narrow parking lot, and into the airy, yellow confines of the barbershop.

“I heard this was a good place for jokes.”

I’m standing there like an idiot — well, maybe not an idiot, maybe only an outsider — holding up my card in a barbershop full of black faces gone suddenly blank, talking to one of the barbers, who happens to be the only guy who made eye contact when I walked in.

“That was a joke right there,” shoots a young man in the corner, and an appreciative chuckle ripples around the room.

The barber gives me a look — you have got to be joking — and keeps working on his customer. “I ain’t got time for joking,” he assures me. I head over to the jokester in the corner.

“What’s up, man?” says the slouching young man from behind his sunglasses.

“Not much. Got a joke for me?”

“I ain’t got no jokes. I’m a serious man. I’m serious. Right now, we’re in a recession.”

There is laughter from behind me, and it occurs to me that there may be several jokes going on here: First, the obvious: whether or not he is a serious man, this man is obviously not serious. He was the first to crack a joke when I came in. Second, the possible: the idea that a recession would stop a man from joking, even — perhaps especially — a man belonging to a group that has a long history of both economic hardship and humor in the face of that hardship. Third, the contextual: who is this guy? Where does he get off coming in here with a notebook and a tape recorder, asking us to be funny? “I ain’t got no jokes” means “I ain’t got no jokes for you.” I’m the joke — white guy coming in and asking a bunch of black men to perform for him.

Am I reaching? Maybe. But the guy won’t even look straight at me; he keeps swinging his head from side to side. I don’t get the impression he’s embarrassed; I get the impression he’d rather not look at me. The next man I ask just looks down — doesn’t raise his head, doesn’t even answer me. I’m done here. I only wish I could hear the conversation upon my departure. It’s not hard to imagine a joke or two flaring up at my expense.

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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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