Thursday, February 12, 2009

I found an old story of Jenny's

Jenny loved jokes. As a child, she checked out compendiums of old jokes, read them repeatedly, and memorized them so that she could tell them. I found this great story she wrote about jokes and thought I would share it.

Only When I Laugh

These days, it's hard to think about Woody Allen without getting creeped out. But I remember before he was creepy, before he married his stepdaughter. When he just seemed funny. Annie Hall was my favorite movie in those days. I liked the way he began and ended the movie with jokes. He starts with the one about the two women in the Catskills, remember? You know, they're sitting around, kvetching about the food, and one of them says, "Isn't the food terrible here?" And the other one says, "Yes, and such small portions!" He goes on to say -- that's what life is like. It's full of pain and misery and heartache and loss. And it's also much too short. Such small portions! I think sometimes about what the opening joke would be for the movie of my life. I think a lot about jokes, even though I know that it isn't always a good idea to do so. For example, there's a joke that one of my middle-school students told me once. It goes like this: How is a giraffe like a turtle? They both have long necks. Except for the turtle.

I told this joke to my sister and she said, "You know, a turtle does have kind of a long neck." "You're thinking about the joke too much," I said, "it doesn't work if you think about it too much."

But even though I know this -- that it's dangerous to think about jokes too much, because then they stop being funny -- I still think about jokes all the time. I always have. When I was a kid, I would check joke books out of the library, huge treasuries of jokes with names like "Bennet Cerf's Cavalcade of Laughs." And I would study these books,and analyze them, as if they were the Talmud. One joke that confounded me for years was this one: A man walks into a coffee shop and says to the waitress, "I'd like a cup of coffee, with no cream." She answers, "We're out of cream, but I can give it to you without milk."

God, this was baffling to me. I couldn't for the life of me make sense of it. It was like some kind of freaking zen koan. I asked my mother to explain it, but she never could -- to my satisfaction. Why, if there was no cream, was there even a problem? Maybe this should be my opening joke for the movie of my life. I could explain -- that's what life is like. People are always offering you solutions that have nothing to do with your problems.

But is that really how I feel, about life? In my life, and in my jokes, I am more frequently drawn to wordplay. My third grade students like to tell me this joke: Why is 6 afraid of 7? Because 7, 8, 9. I always answer back: Have you heard about the new corduroy pillows? They're making headlines!

But neither of these jokes really work as the definitive opening joke for the movie of my life. Actually, the corduroy pillows one doesn't even work as a joke for third graders. I always get the quiet stare in response. I can almost hear them thinking, "Headlines? What is she talking about?"

There is no heckler as harsh as a third grader when your jokes don't measure up.

Except a 6th grader. I told a group of 6th graders this joke: Have you heard about the new restaurant on the moon? Great food, but no atmosphere! When they didn't laugh, I said, "Oh, maybe you didn't understand that joke." "No, we understood it," they said. Ouch. That hurt.

Maybe you think that, because I am a lifelong teller of jokes, this is the response I fear the most. The quiet stare. The steely look. But actually, when I told jokes as a kid, after carefully memorizing those quips from "The Omnibus of Fun," or whatever other joke book I'd checked out, my most dreaded response was not silence, but laughter. I would stand in front of my family, reciting joke after joke, expecting -- what? Tears? Applause? I'm not sure. But if they dared to laugh at me, I would become enraged.

Once, after they laughed at one of my stand-up routines, I was so furious with them that I sequestered myself in the bathroom for a half-hour. When my mother came to check on me, she found me sitting on the cold linoleum floor, tearing up the toilet paper piece by piece, exacting my terrible revenge on all of them.

Considering this behavior, maybe the right joke to open the movie of my life would be this famous one: There is a man who has been shot through with bows and arrows; arrows are just sticking out of his back. And someone sees him and says, "My god, doesn't that hurt?" And the guy with the arrows says, "Only when I laugh."

MY own vignette, about not wanting my family to laugh at me, reverses the meaning of that joke. The joke itself begs the question, Why would a guy all shot up with arrows be laughing? Why would he laugh, when he hurts? But in my case, the question is, why should it hurt, for them to laugh?

I outgrew that reaction, of course. Later on, I figured out that it was good to be the one that people laughed at. See: it only hurts when you don't laugh. Maybe that is the clue to my opening joke. I want my joke to say, "Life is absurd; it's hilarious; just laugh at it. It only hurts when you don't laugh."

Of course, sometimes there is pain. And what do you do abou this? What if there is heartbreak? Well, if there's heartbreak, then maybe you sculpt your broken heart into a Marcel Duchamp sculpture. Maybe you push at it and prod it until it reels in its own absurdity. How can you not laugh at pop art?

And maybe there is loss (there's bound to be loss). And if there's loss, then maybe you turn it into a song, a song that makes you smile every time you sing it, because it's so damn funny. Just listen to the difference between these two songs: (singing)

On top of old smokey
all covered with snow
I lost my true lover
For courtin too slow.

As sure as the dewdrops
Fall on the green corn
Last night he was with me
Tonight he is gone

And then there is this version:
On top of spaghetti
all covered with cheese
I lost my poor meatball
when somebody sneezed


Anonymous said...

I had to read "an old story of Jenny's"—thank you for posting it! Baby Oliver is stirring... no crying, definitely awake. I'm thinking about what my brave thing for Jenny will be this year. love, H

Meranda said...

Beautiful much wisdom and humor. Jenny's story reminded me that I always loved the last joke in Annie Hall---"this guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, 'Doc, uh, my brother's crazy, he thinks he's a chicken,' and uh, the doctor says, 'Well why don't you turn him in?' And the guy says, 'I would, but I need the eggs."