Dead Baby Jokes Aren’t Funny
At Isis, I was the wrong man for the job. I decided I wasn’t going to be the wrong woman for the job as well. So it was my wife Deirdre who approached a trio of female students on the campus of San Diego State: Erin, Adriana, and Mamet.
As if to deliberately tie herself in with Robles’s material on pirates and bartenders, Erin steps up with this as her favorite of all time: “A pirate walks into a bar, and he’s got a steering wheel on his dick. Everybody’s looking at him. He walks up to the bar, and the bartender is, like, ‘Dude, I’ve got to ask — what’s going on with that steering wheel?’ The pirate just looks down at it. Then he looks up and says, ‘Yeah, it’s driving me nuts.’ ” Everyone laughs.
The girls are comfortable talking to my wife, but that’s still as blue as it gets in the favorites department. Adriana offers this:
“Madam finger’s stuck in the door!”
Mamet goes for a longer setup. “My husband tells me jokes every day, and I honestly don’t retain anything. Actually, I remember one joke — he told me this one: A woman and her husband are living together, and her mom and dad move in with them. The daughter tells her mom that, sometimes, when her husband comes home from work, she likes to just be naked, waiting for him. The old lady thinks, ‘I should do that, too.’ So she does, and her husband — he’s this old-school guy — comes home. She opens the door and he’s, like, ‘Why don’t you learn to iron your dress?’ Because she’s so wrinkled!”
Deirdre asks if there’s anything that no one should joke about. “Rape jokes,” answers Adriana.
Why not rape jokes?
“Because taking a situation that’s disturbing and trying to make it funny,” says Adriana, “I don’t think it goes together.”
“It might make it seem like it’s okay because it’s funny,” adds Mamet. “It takes away some of the seriousness of the situation. Serious things should not be funny. Jokes about starving Ethiopians and things like that. I don’t get furious, but I wouldn’t joke about that.”
Erin gives an example. “Dead baby jokes — that’s pretty serious. Nobody likes a joke about dead kids. There was one written on the wall of my old house: ‘What’s the difference between a dead baby and a rock? You can’t f@#k a rock.’ That’s massively offensive, and there’s not anybody that thinks those are funny.”
But she barely even pauses before correcting herself. “Well, actually, there is. There’s always somebody that finds them funny — there are Holocaust jokes that people think are hilarious.”
So is there anything that no one should joke about?
“It depends on your crowd,” says Adriana.
“Yeah, it’s all context,” agrees Erin.
For example: Adriana is white, and her friend Mamet is black. Says Adriana, “With her, I can tell a black joke because I’m comfortable with her. But if I were to say a black joke in front of a stranger, it would be bad.”
A black joke — such as?
“Why are black people so tall? Because their knee grows!”
Once again: audience matters. So does joke-teller: “I know a racist joke about Middle-Eastern people,” says Adriana, warming to the topic. “Actually, a Middle-Eastern person told me. Why are there no Walmarts in the Middle East? Because there’s a Target on every corner.”
“Ooooh,” say the girls — looking in the direction of the banner advertising the campus Muslim Students Association. The joke — to borrow an image from the political cartoonist Jeff Danziger — hits more like an ice cube down the back than a feather to the ribs. Still, it’s not as if any of them are offended, and no one is objecting that a great tragedy has been made fodder for a joke. No one is saying that serious things should not be funny. In short, no one is adhering to the principle put forward only minutes earlier. Instead, they’re sticking with their second assessment — it’s all context.
I don’t point this out to make the girls look bad or to make them look unintelligent. Lots of thoughtful, sensitive people will espouse this or that limit on what’s funny while chuckling over the slaughter of someone else’s sacred cow. College girls face the real possibility of rape; suicide-bombing, less so. So it’s a little easier to joke about the latter. We can laugh because the horror is out there, at a safe distance, happening to someone else. Mel Brooks put it this way: “Tragedy is when I get a paper cut. Comedy is when you fall down a manhole and die.”
Melinda Wynar has been working with Jewish Family Services as the coordinator for the North County Inland Older Adult Center for the past eight years. The group meets three times a week at Temple Adat Shalom on Pomerado Road in Poway to socialize, listen to speakers, watch movies…and have lunch. There are plenty of jokes here, she says, but few of them are about death.
Wynar is a good deal younger than those she serves — her red hair finds plenty of contrast among the white heads gathered in Adat Shalom’s pale, cavernous social hall. But she’s got plenty of empathy for her elders: “Here, they de-emphasize death, and I’m so glad. People come here because it’s about life, not death. At this point, it’s not a joking matter. You get to a certain age, and the reality is that so many friends are dying, or have died, that it doesn’t become so funny. Here, the humor is a kind of coping technique. It helps to lighten the load.” Before she took this job, she worked at Seacrest Village in Encinitas, “which is the Hebrew home for the aged.” It was there she began writing down the jokes she heard. “I had different clients giving me jokes, and sometimes we would have joke sessions. By the time I moved over here, I had an entire collection. I’d put them in the newsletter. It was just a way of lifting everybody’s spirits.”