I only know one joke.
I don’t like jokes, although I like to think of myself as being a funny person, but I’m not big on jokes, because jokes aren’t particularly funny. Rehearsed jokes with a punch-line, I mean. “A rabbi and a priest walk into a bar…” Oh please. Stop it. You’re wasting my time and yours. Naturally funny spontaneous conversation is good, telling jokes is bad.
I was friends with a group of comedians in college, young improv comedians who are now professional stand-up comedians, and they don’t like being funny off-stage. They’re not interested in telling jokes off-stage; telling jokes is their fucking job, after all, and we all need a break from our fucking jobs. Even though I was friends with all these comedians in college, I wasn’t very funny back then, not yet. Still, back when I was in college, I worked for several years in a store that, oddly enough, sold bagels and soft-serve ice cream, which is a very strange combination. I couldn’t eat bagels or ice cream for years and years after that job. I was sick of looking at them. This job helped me to understand things. The way that I felt about bagels for so long, that’s how my comedian friends feel about jokes.
On an unrelated but related note, I was once friends with a professional magician. I’d go to bars with him, and he’d hit on women, and then he’d reluctantly have to reveal to them what he did for a living. The women who didn’t immediately then ask him to do a magic trick always met with his favor. But it was pretty much always the same. 95 percent of the women would instantly ask him to do a magic trick. He wouldn’t want to do this. That’s my job, he’d tell them. They wouldn’t get this; they wouldn’t get what he was saying. “Oh come on,” they’d say. “Just one trick.” So then he’d turn to the annoying woman and ask her what she did for a living. “I’m a dental hygienist,” she’d say, or something like that. “Oh,” he’d say back, “then why don’t you do some fucking dental hygiene-ing for me, right now, for free, in this bar.” Then he’d slam down his drink or something, and then the woman would sort of get it.
None of this has that much to do with anything, I guess, but anyway, I only know one joke. I am not very good at memorizing jokes, plus, like I said, I am not very interested in memorizing jokes. But I remember this one joke because (1) It’s short, and (2) It’s about being Jewish, and I am — technically — Jewish.
I told this joke to a girl the other night and she didn’t get it. Non-Jews never get it. Anyway, here is the joke. Are you ready?
Here is the joke. So–
…Did you ever hear the one about the Jewish mother who ran along the beach shouting, “Help, help, my son the doctor is drowning!”?
That’s the whole entire joke, but non-Jews are always like, “No, I haven’t heard that one,” and then they sit around waiting for the rest of the joke. There’s not any rest of the joke.
It’s a funny joke, I suppose, though the girl I told it to the other night didn’t like it much. But still. It’s funny, I suppose. The mother’s tenacity, her inability to avoid reversion to her life-long habits, even in the face of drowning, of death. “My son the doctor…” Good stuff.
If I had to analyze this joke, that’s what it’s about. The fact that we have so much trouble changing, even when life is changing all around us. It’s a cruel joke, in a way. But then, all jokes are cruel. Every joke is making fun of someone or of something. Take the most innocent joke that you can think of — “Why did the chicken cross the road...” Even that joke is mocking someone: it’s mocking the listener.
A comedian whose name I don’t remember once defined ‘a joke’ as the following: “Telling the truth faster than most people are used to it.” That sounds right to me. But telling the truth, and telling the truth very quickly — well, this can be cruel. But perhaps maybe sometimes being cruel is necessary.
So. There’s the mother; there’s the son, him drowning, the waves. Her running along the beach. And even in the face of this impending death, she feels the need to brag; to humblebrag about her son.
So that’s her. But then, what about her son? He must have heard her yelling those words, as he kept tumbling under the waves. She was clinging to the knowledge that her son was a doctor, a wealthy man, an important man. So, that’s her. But what did her son cling to, as he was drowning? Maybe he was clinging to the knowledge that now — even fucking now — his mother would always be the same; always be concerned with status, with wealth. We all need something to cling to, so maybe he clung to that, his annoyance with his mother, as he was out there in the sea. Though of course, as it turned out, he had nothing at all to cling to, and then the waves swallowed him up for the final time. And then he disappeared, as the joke disappears.
image – U.S. National Archives