Can you tell me a joke? Any joke will do, childish or adult, long or short. I have met many people who say that they can’t, they can’t remember a single joke, yet they must have heard hundreds or even thousands of them in their lifetimes. Most of us have.
My children (aged 9 and 11) are getting to the stage where they can now tell jokes that they didn’t understand when they first heard them. When my daughter was 5 or 6 I remember telling the following joke to her and one of her friends who was visiting for lunch. A man walks into a library and says (loudly), “COD AND CHIPS PLEASE”. The librarian says (quietly), “This is a library, sir”. The man replies, “Oh, I’m terribly sorry,” and then he whispers, “Fish and chips please”. My daughter looked at her friend, possibly a little embarrassed, smiled, and didn’t laugh, because she didn’t get the joke. Now it’s a joke that she tells in her own right, and can explain to her friends why it’s funny.
I was thinking about this yesterday because of this old joke about vampires. Two nuns are walking down the road when a vampire jumps out in front of them. One of the nuns says, “Quick sister, show him your cross”. Her colleague says (crossly), “I’m VERY angry with you Mr Vampire …” This recalls another joke, about a man who rings up the council because he’s having some building work done. He says, “I wanna skip outside my front door”, to which the council employee says, “Do what you like, mate, it’s a free country”.
I don’t need to tell you this, but both of these jokes work best when heard rather than read, because “your cross” sounds like “you’re cross” and “want a skip” and “want to skip” sound the same. The late Max Bygraves used the joke about the vampire and the nuns to explain how some people (specifically his wife) can’t tell jokes properly: the punch-line was given as “Quick, sister, show him your crucifix”, which doesn’t work.
I had to explain both jokes to my daughter. She doesn’t know what a skip is (in the context of building work) and she doesn’t know much about vampires, I’m glad to say. Her main experience of them is through a local pinball machine, “Monster Bash”, my personal favourite. It features 6 different characters from horror movies: Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Mummy, Frankenstein and his Bride, the Wolfman and Count Dracula.
There seems to be a link between people’s ability to tell jokes and their ability to remember the lyrics to songs. Some people I know who are unable to tell jokes are also unable to remember the words to a single song. Before settling down to draft this piece I decided to write out the punch-lines to as many jokes as I could remember in 2 minutes. I got to 25 and then stopped. As I have written elsewhere my brother and I know the words to many hundreds of songs, probably over a thousand. Our repertoire of jokes easily runs to a few hundred too. One night, about 20 years ago, we stayed up until 3 or 4 in the morning retelling jokes we knew, sharing our repertoires. One of my favourite cousins in Ireland is similar: his store of jokes, and of songs that he can sing all the way through, reaches many hundred.
I have a favourite joke. Its lifespan is limited, so I shall finish this piece by sharing it with you. It will only mean something to people over a certain age, those of us who remember what telegrams were.
A dog goes into a Post Office and says to the clerk, “I’d like to send a telegram please”. The clerk gets his pen and paper ready, says, “Go ahead”, and the dog says, “Woof Woof Woof Woof Woof. Stop. Woof Woof Woof Woof. Stop.” The clerk counts up the words and says, “That’s nine Woofs there, sir. It’s the same cost for ten words as for nine. Shall I put in an extra Woof there for you?” The dog looks at him disdainfully and says, “Well, don’t be ridiculous, man. It wouldn’t make any sense then, would it?”