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.