What's so funny?

So, a writer walks into a barbershop...

“Your problem is that you just don’t believe in yourself”
  • “Your problem is that you just don’t believe in yourself”

“This is a joke,” says my three-year-old as she thumps into the kitchen. Patches of red dot her pale cheeks, and I can see nearly all of her tiny teeth inside her wide-open grin. Clearly, it is a joke she has been enjoying, and enjoying to the point of hilarity, for a while now, thanks in large part to the encouragement of her audience — my five-year-old son, who is still deep in the “do it again!” stage of joke appreciation.

Assured that she has our attention, my daughter happily drops trou, and I shoot my wife a look — How does she know that public pantslessness is funny? Has she been watching Jackass when we’re asleep? But that’s not the joke; the joke is the baby blanket she is stuffing down the back of her pants before hoisting them back up, thus giving herself an enormous booty, which she proceeds to waggle in our direction. She tries to sing along to the waggling, but she is choked with laughter.

The big butt is comedy gold — though I’m not sure it really qualifies as a joke. (Setup: I am three years old. Punch line: My butt is absolutely huge — and what’s more, I can shake it.) Still, for surefire, effortless effect, it’s right up there with saying the word “underpants” to my nine-year-old son. Grin. Snicker. A good Freudian might suggest that butts and underpants are funny because of their proximity to the excretory and sexual regions. Because of the way these regions overpower us — the body having its say, willy-nilly — they may serve as a source of embarrassment. (Farts, anyone?) And laughter is a pretty stock response to embarrassment — it takes the curse off. But to my kids, butts and underpants are inherently funny — instant jokes. Why they’re funny never enters into it.

My oldest son is 11, but he’s been working on jokes since forever. I think he was 9 when he proposed a cartoon showing Santa Claus on the psychiatrist’s couch, with the shrink declaring, “Your problem is that you just don’t believe in yourself.” It’s one of my prouder moments as a father. Making jokes is a tough business; why else would I remember these two groaners I sent off to Reader’s Digest lo these many years ago?

“Your whole life is wrapped up in dating all these different women. It’s not healthy. You need to broaden your horizons.”

“No thanks. I’ve already got too many broads in my horizons.”

“Geez — another D in history. I think I must be allergic to it.”

“Why not take an antihistorine?”

Gad. I knew they were horrible — that’s why I sent them to Reader’s Digest. But I still sent them because, dammit, I made a funny. Like the man said, “Dying is easy; comedy is hard.”

Where the Jokes Flow Freely

Thaddeus Robles tends bar on weekends at the Live Wire, a comfortably run-down and raucous neighborhood bar on the corner of El Cajon Boulevard and Alabama. (“Cold Beer, Warm Friends,” reads the glowing sign over the entrance; the inside is low ceilings, low lighting, purplish walls, and a Reader award for Best Jukebox Selection.) Robles collects jokes of every kind as he slides from customer to customer, “from the nastiest to the most racist to the cutest.” He’s been at the Live Wire for a decade, long enough for him to call the place “just part of my life. I have a group of friends that come in the bar — whenever we hear a new joke, we’ll call each other.” Here’s one he picked up recently from the cute end of the spectrum: “A guy goes into the library, and he goes, ‘Gimme a cheeseburger, fries, and a shake!’ The librarian says, ‘I’m sorry, sir, but you’re in a library.’ So he says, ‘Oh, sorry,’ and whispers, ‘Gimme a cheeseburger, fries, and a shake.’”

I went to a bar partly because I wanted to find a third place — a hangout where people felt relaxed enough to let the jokes flow freely. But also because bar jokes are one of the great subjects of the joke canon, great enough to have spawned jokes about the jokes: A rabbi, a priest, and a minister walk into a bar. The bartender says, “What is this, a joke?” Asked for a bar joke, Robles offers another gentle one: “A polar bear walks into a bar and says to the bartender, ‘Let me get a Bud…weiser.’ The bartender says, ‘What’s with the big pause?’ The polar bear lifts his hands says, ‘I don’t know; I was born with them.’ ”

Robles is an archivist, not an inventor, though he shares my regard for invention. “I have a pirate joke that my friend made up,” he says, “and it has nothing to do with the letter R, which is awesome. How come pirates can’t say the alphabet? Because they keep getting lost at C.” (It’s a great joke — even with the heads-up, my mind was racing ahead to something involving “Arr…” and bam, the payoff is way back at C.) Having that archive is one of the tools of the trade, something that makes the Live Wire better than drinking at home. “A lot of customers will come in and say, ‘You got any jokes?’ ” Well, yes — thousands. But which one to tell? “I’ll usually ask them, ‘What’s one that you’ve got?’ and then try to stay in the area they’re making jokes about. Most of the time, I’ve already heard the joke they tell me, and I’ll just say, ‘Yeah, I heard that one, that one’s really good,’ and get on with the joke-telling.”

It’s a smart play. Jokes have a way of sliding to the edges of socially acceptable speech and, sometimes, tumbling right over. Add the congenial atmosphere of the bar and the loosening of social inhibitions brought on by alcohol, and it’s easy to see how things could get tricky. The bartender wants to entertain the customer, not to alienate him — or her. Better to let the customer lead, even if it’s into dangerous territory. “Some people are trying to be funny,” says Robles, “and they’ll tell some racist ones that are pretty bad. I don’t find too much humor in those. But I’m not going to lie and say I’ve never heard a bad joke and laughed at it.” It depends, in part, on who’s doing the telling. “Most of my jokes I get from friends,” says Robles, “but a customer did tell me a really funny one. ‘What’s the difference between a hamburger and a boner? You’re not giving me a hamburger right now.’ It was a girl who told me that one, so that kind of made it a lot more funny.”

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.

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:

“Knock-knock.”

“Who’s there?”

“Madam.”

“Madam who?”

“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 [email protected]#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.”

Jewish Humor

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.”

That said, it’s not as if she doesn’t know any jokes about death. “An elderly Jewish woman decides to have her portrait painted. She tells the artist, ‘Paint me with diamond earrings, a diamond necklace, emerald bracelets, a ruby brooch, and a gold Rolex.’ ‘But you’re not wearing any of those things,’ replies the artist. ‘I know,’ she says. ‘It’s in case I should die before my husband. I’m sure he will remarry right away, and I want his new wife to go crazy looking for the jewelry.’ ”

That joke also gets at what Wynar considers a characteristic of Jewish humor: “Ethnicities make fun of themselves. We have that separateness and that ability to laugh at our ways. Jews have always been shown as enterprising.” And so, a joke: “A fleeing Taliban, desperate for water and plodding through the Afghanistan desert, sees something far off in the distance. Hoping to find water, he walks toward the object, only to find an old Jewish man sitting at a card table with neckties laid out on it. The Arab says, ‘I’m dying of thirst. Do you have water?’ The Jewish man replies, ‘I have no water. Would you like to buy a tie? They’re only $150; this one goes very nicely with your robes.’ The Arab shouts, ‘You idiot! I don’t need one of your overpriced ties! I need water!’ ‘Okay,’ says the old Jewish man. ‘It does not matter that you do not want to buy a tie from me. I will show you that you have not offended me. If you walk over that hill to the east for two miles, you will find a lovely restaurant that has all the water you need.’ The Arab staggers away toward the hill and eventually disappears. Four hours later, the Arab comes back to where the old Jewish man is sitting at his table. The Jewish man says, ‘I told you — about two miles over that hill. Could you not find it?’ ‘I found it all right,’ rasps the Arab. ‘Your brother won’t let me in without a tie.’ ”

It’s not simply the ability to poke fun at themselves, however — it can’t be. Most folks of any maturity can do that, but it’s the Jews who have dominated American comedy in such commanding fashion. (No, I’m not going to make an argument for this.) I mean, if you look at Scripture, the Jews sort of started with a joke — or at least, what sounded like one. When God promised Abraham that his 90-year-old wife Sarah would bear a son, the old man threw himself on his face and laughed. When Sarah heard the news, she laughed, too, and God made a point of noticing it. And when they did have a son, they named him Isaac — “laughter.”

For all his famous anger and jealousy, it seems that Abraham’s God is a God with Whom you can joke — and Who just might joke back. “We are asked to have a conversation with God,” explains Wynar. “To debate, to question. We’re asked to be a participant — so yes, there are definitely jokes about God’s requirements. If you know about our religion and all its prohibitions…we can make fun of them” instead of rejecting them outright. “And instead of saying, ‘Oh, that’s horrible,’ we can laugh, in a sly way.” Consider this (slightly condensed) gem about a rabbi whose earthly desires run up against the High Holy Days: “Rabbi Finklestein was an avid golfer. He was addicted to the game. One Yom Kippur, he thought to himself, ‘Who will be hurt if I go out and play a few holes during recess? Nobody will be the wiser, and I’ll be back in time for evening services.’ So at the close of the afternoon service, he snuck out of the synagogue and headed straight for the golf course. Looking down on him from heaven were God and Moses. Moses said, ‘Look at what that Jew is doing, and he’s a rabbi, yet!’ God replied, ‘I’ll teach him a lesson.’ Rabbi Finklestein tees off, and the ball careens off a tree, strikes a rock, flies across a stream, and lands in the hole. Moses says, ‘Is that how you’re going to teach him a lesson? A hole in one?’ God, with a glint in His eye, says, ‘Who’s he gonna tell?’ ”

“My son sends me jokes on the computer,” says the sweet old lady next to me at the lunch table as we dig into our mushroom soup. “I can tell when he’s stressed — I get all these crazy jokes.” The talk is mostly about film — the group has just heard a presentation by the president of the San Diego Film Society — but a brief conversational foray into the quality of the food does inspire a red-faced gentleman to my right. “Most of the meat in our house is well done — my wife uses the smoke alarm as a timer. She has a black belt in cooking.” I like the second line better — at first, it sounds like an odd compliment. Then you remember that cooking is not supposed to be combat.

“I have a bridge game,” says Lucille as she puts on her coat. But she has time for one or two. “A little boy comes home and his mother says to him, ‘Bubbeleh, what did you learn in school today?’ He says, ‘I learned my name is not Bubbeleh — it’s Irving.’ ” Marvelous, as long as you know that “bubbeleh” is a term of endearment, the sort a Jewish mother might lavish on her darling boy. I get it and laugh, and she rewards me with another: “Three men in Europe decide they’re going to go and do well in America. The first one says, ‘We can’t go with the names we’ve got. We have Yiddish names; in America, it’s vernischt. So we’ll change our names.’ He says, ‘My name is Beryl — I’ll become Buck.’ ‘Your name is Chertl — you become Chuck.’ Schmertl says, ‘Ich fun ist.’ ”

She’s got me — I think I see where the joke is going, but I don’t know what Schmertl said, so I don’t laugh. She hurries to explain — “Schmertl doesn’t want to go.” Because, if he went, his name would become Schmuck. Oh, now I get it…”Tell the Bubbeleh joke,” says Lucille. “That’s better. The crazy thing is, the goyim have now incorporated these words, but they don’t really know what it means. They think it means idiot, or fool.” When what it literally means, of course, is penis.

Humor as Prophylactic

Once inside the intensely purple storefront for Dr. Love’s Erotic Superstore on Garnet in Pacific Beach, you hit a wall of pink — the Bachelorette Department. “Probably our biggest sales time is June and July, when everyone is getting married,” says Jodi, who’s been here six years. “We do a lot of bachelorette party sales. Pretty much everything has a plastic penis on it.” She is exaggerating, but not by much. Twenty years after big booties and “underpants,” the new surefire laugh is — Penis!

“Are penises funny?” I ask.

“Yeah, I think so. Before I worked here, there was a girl — I remember going over to her house, and she had a penis pillow on her couch, and I thought that was pretty funny…. Penises are very funny, especially when you wear one on your head or drink out of a penis straw. We have a penis sippy cup, and I think if anyone saw a bunch of a girls at a bar, sipping out of penis sippy cups, the person would laugh.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s not expected, you know? Don’t you think it would be funny?”

It better be. There are plenty of humorless dildos and herbal performance enhancers on the shelves at Dr. Love’s, but it feels as if at least half the store is given over to merchandise tinged with chuckledust. Pinocchio-themed briefs, cut to allow for a growing nose. For the ladies, the I Rub My Ducky Bathtime Massager. Sweeten’D Blow, a flavored gel packaged like Sweet’N Low. Door hangers reading “Do not disturb — blowjob in progress.” The list goes on and on. “Some people buy them for gag gifts, and some people actually use them,” explains Jodi. (She isn’t sure which category the inflatable lamb falls into — though she notes it’s most often purchased for bachelor parties.)

And then there are the slogans daringly printed on bumper stickers and T-shirts. “Please do not laugh out loud,” reads the sign over the bumper sticker rack. “Some people take it seriously and apologize,” notes Jodi, making the sign one of the more clever jokes in the shop. “And some people do laugh outrageously.” As I read the stickers, I’m thinking the laughs are more “I can’t believe someone would put that on their car” than “Gosh, that’s hilarious!” “Let go of my ears, I know what I’m doing.” “I do what the voices in my pants tell me to do.” “I’m easy if you’re hard.” Sigh. Some are downright frightening: “Wanna come up and see my chainsaw?” “No more Mr. Nice Guy — down on your knees, bitch!”

The T-shirts are more impressive, if only for the raised level of social aggression and the increased proximity to person — i.e. not just on your car, but on your body. “I [email protected]#$%d your boyfriend.” “[email protected]#k me, I’m legal.” A picture of a vibrator with the caption, “Doesn’t talk back.” I can see people finding these funny — what bugs me, again, is that whole question of audience. You put this shirt on, and you tell this joke to everyone who sees you. If someone isn’t on board with the humor, well, f#$k them. Serves them right for looking at you.

“Sales have slowed on the shirts,” says Jodi. “We sell the onesies more than the shirts.” About those onesies: “I have two kids, and I wouldn’t — well, the cussing ones, I don’t know if I would put one on a child.” (“Little [email protected]#$%r.” “Formula is for pussies.” I confess to chuckling at “Are you my daddy?”) Interesting addendum from Jodi: “We picked up a lot of the guy shirts, but we didn’t do very well with them.” Is it funny when a girl wears a shirt reading “Blowjob Queen,” but not when a guy wears one reading, “I Love Strippers”? Why or why not? Penises are funny — that much we’ve established — but does having one make it less okay to joke this way?

There’s another sort of joke that shows up at Dr. Love’s — the customer’s. “People get really nervous, and making jokes is their only way of dealing with being in here. It helps break the ice — if you can joke about it, it’s not so hush-hush. Sometimes, you’re showing them stuff, and they’re just laughing about it. It kind of offends me, because I work here. But you can just tell that it’s the only way they can be okay with me talking about it to them.”

Jodi sympathizes — up to a point. “When I first started here, I had never stepped into a store like this. I came here pretty much because I needed a second job, and it was all new to me. It was hard to keep a straight face sometimes when people were buying stuff, and I would make jokes about it. But then I realized how seriously people were into this stuff. Now, I’ve been here six years, so I’m numb to it. Plus, I understand about people’s preferences.” It’s not hard to believe — five minutes of conversation is enough to see that she is the sort who would be a puzzlement to an older generation: the piercings below her lip and the armful of tattoos would seem to mark her as aggressively countercultural, but she’s really not. She’s professional and personable.

Her sympathy runs dry, however, when the joke is the only thing the customer wants. “People waste your time. They’ll come in and ask what something is, just to hear you say it. It’s funny for them. I get a lot of phone calls, and they think they’re being funny — it’s a joke for them. One time, the guy said, ‘Do you carry midget porn?’ I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘Do you carry midgets having sex with dogs?’ I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘Do you like to have sex with dogs?’ I could hear people laughing in the background. I just hung up.”

It’s humor as prophylactic — you put it on so that you don’t get contaminated. “Sometimes,” says Jodi, “a girl will come into the store to buy a vibrator, and she’ll have a friend with her, and the friend is embarrassed to be in here. She’ll make fun of her the whole time they’re here — she doesn’t want to be seen with her. The friend that’s buying will be, like, ‘Shut up!’ You can tell she’s a little bit offended.”

Dr. Love’s is at the cute ’n’ cuddly end of the sex-shop scale. The Crypt, a leather shop on the corner of University and Park, is a little more rough trade — fewer gag items, more actual gags. I tell the friends-buying-vibrator story to staffers Tony and Sarah. “There are mocking jokes, and there are joining jokes,” says Tony. “If somebody’s really uncomfortable, they’ll make jokes to separate themselves. There’s a different feel to the laughter. You can feel it when laughter is intimate, when you’re sharing something. When you’re trying to separate yourself, there’s definitely a difference.”

Sometimes, the jokes rise up from that intimacy — inside jokes based on shared experience. Other times, the jokes can help to create it — by removing some common obstacle. Embarrassment, for instance. Says Tony, “It’s amazing how many people — very vanilla-looking — come in here, and the first thing they do is run over to the bondage wall and hit each other with something. It makes them laugh, and the laugh breaks the tension. The best way to break the tension is to make a joke.”

Girls Love a Sense of Humor

The website for Pure Platinum Gentlemen’s Club — an empurpled low-slung box plunked down alongside the 163, a little ways past the In-N-Out on Kearny Mesa Road — promises “gorgeous exotic dancers, unforgettable couch dances…and we even supply the witty bartenders!” Further down, the site claims that the club features “Kearny Mesa’s Most Beautiful Women with the best sense of humor.” (Emphasis mine.) Apparently, it’s not all about the free lunch buffet and the pole dancing. Apparently, a guy also goes to a gentleman’s club to find a woman (either behind the bar or on the stage) who will laugh at his jokes — a whole ’nother sort of intimacy for hire.

Even at noon, it’s dark inside Pure Platinum, but it doesn’t take long for your eyes to adjust so that you can see the curly, sparkly streamers hanging from the black ceiling and the bunches of balloons tied along the edge of the stage — two girls are having a birthday today. And while the bass and beat make it a little hard to hold a conversation, it means that you get to lean in a little closer to make yourself heard.

Jackie is not a dancer; rather, she is one of the witty bartenders, serving both dancers and girls as she clips along in high, chunky-heeled black boots. She reminds me that witty doesn’t always translate to jokey. “I don’t tell a lot of joke-jokes,” she says, “but there are a lot of dirty one-liners. It’s the easiest place for one of us to walk into a one-liner.”

There are any number of settings where a guy who delivered a dirty one-liner to a girl would count himself lucky to get nothing worse than a roll of the eyes. But here, I’m thinking, things are more complicated — the gentleman is paying, and what he’s paying for is a certain sort of pleasurable social experience, and not the sort that might get referenced in that dirty one-liner. A smile here is just good business. He can get the eye-roll at home.

“Why do the customers tell jokes?” I ask.

“I think they want you to think that they’re funny,” replies Jackie. “A lot of girls say that that’s important in a guy — that the guy has a good sense of humor. If you can make a girl laugh.…”

“Is it true?”

Jackie laughs. “Yes!”

Ah, but what makes a sense of humor a good sense of humor? Is “good” just another word for “shared”? Here’s Ted Cohen in his slim book Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters: “It is a general thesis of mine that a deep satisfaction in successful joke transactions is the sense held mutually by teller and hearer that they are joined in feeling…All you can say of the fellow who doesn’t laugh at your joke, at least all you can say when it has been established that he understands you, that he gets the joke, is that he is not like you…what has failed is the effort to achieve an intimacy between teller and hearer. It is a failure to join one another in a community of appreciation.”

“There’s one guy,” says Jackie, “he brings in these papers with jokes on them, twice a week. I think it’s for us. Sometimes, though, we don’t really get them — they’re kind of Old People jokes. But we don’t tell him. I’m going to go and borrow them for you.”

She heads over to the guy about five stools down from me. He’s not exactly Old People; his rounded face has just begun to crease, and while both hair and mustache are silvering with age, I don’t have much cause to put him past, say, 45. (Of course, “Old People” is a relative term…) She leans over the bar to speak to him, and he hands her a sheaf of printer paper folded in half and slightly rumpled from being shuffled through, which she brings back to me.

The sheets contain a printed-out email, the sort that might get circulated among friends or trusted co-workers. It’s dated today, subject line: Signs of the Times. A few samples: a sign in a subway reading, “Notice to Night Link Passengers: Ladies, the poles are fitted for your safety — no dancing.” Another subway sign: “Keep back from the platform edge or you may get sucked off.” Sign above a storefront belonging to Mr. Toscana: “Mr. Toscana has had an expensive divorce and now needs the money, so sale now on!” A picture of two small dogs on a couch — one barking in the ear of the other, whose eyes are squeezed shut. Caption: “How many times have we just thought, ‘If I just close my eyes, the bitch will go away’?” A stripper joke, a sex joke, and two jokes about relationships gone bad — it’s sort of perfect.

Another middle-aged guy comes blinking his way in from the brightness outside and takes a seat at the bar. Almost before his backside touches the chair, a girl has snuck up behind him and tickled his flanks. It’s clear he is both known and liked here. A couple of other girls wander over and beam their hellos through bright smiles. Before long, the first girl plunks down beside him — right next to me.

There are a number of dynamics at work when an older guy is talking to a younger girl at a bar, and the girl is wearing a bikini top that she is willing to take off in exchange for money. Here is one of them: she is, in some sense, exposed and vulnerable and on the verge of becoming even more so. But then again, so is he — she’s after his money. I’m thinking about this and listening to the two of them make small talk about his job when the man looks down at the girl’s belly and asks her, “So, are you pregnant?”

She gasps a little. “What? No!” A moment’s pause and then, “Why, do I look like it?”

The man laughs and jostles her shoulder. “I’m joking!”

A Spoonful of Sugar

It’s Wednesday night, which means it’s time for the Dreamgirls Revue at Urban ’Mos on University, and producer/performer Chad Mitchell has just burst from between the heavy black curtains that serve to transform the club’s dance floor into a stage. But you almost wouldn’t know it — between the makeup and the blue satin dress fronted by the iconic striped apron, Mitchell looks very much more like a glammed-up Julie Andrews from The Sound of Music than a 38-year-old guy from Encinitas. Which is, after all, the idea.

The music swells, and the song begins, Mitchell lip-syncing to perfection and the crowd — a mix of straight and gay — roaring its approval. “The hills are alive…”

The sound of a machine gun interrupts both singing and music. Mitchell/Andrews looks worried, then begins again. Again, gunshots. Our heroine, flustered, draws a gun of her own and fires, and the interruptions stop.

“I’m Julie Andrews,” begins a voice-over the sound system (it’s a bit taken from MAD TV). “Of all the films I’ve done in my life, most people remember me for Mary Poppins and SOB, where I show my hooters. Ah, those were the days. What most people don’t know is that the original version of Mary Poppins was too mean-spirited and scary even for Disney. They edited the following scene out of the picture. Take a look and I think you’ll see why.”

Mitchell then launches into “A Spoonful of Sugar,” twirling about the tiny stage with a spoon in one hand and a twittering toy bird in the other. But before she gets to the verse about the robin feathering his nest, she gets tired of the twittering, pulls out her revolver, and dispatches the bird in dramatic fashion. Again, the audience roars with laughter. Mitchell’s deadpan never wavers.

The honey bees that fetch the nectar

From the flowers to the comb

Never tire of ever buzzing to and fro

Because they take a little nip

From every flower that they sip

And hence (Mitchell pulls out an oversized straw)

They find (Mitchell pulls out a plastic baggie marked COCAINE)

Their task is not a grind.

Mitchell buries the straw in the coke, and the soundtrack blares a huge snort before the song launches into Andrews’s upper-register acrobatics. When the singing resumes, the speed has been turned up, and Mitchell begins to dust the stage, the curtains, and everything else he can reach in manic fashion. The crowd explodes.

“That whole number,” says Mitchell — later, backstage — “was kind of my idea of what would happen if Julie Andrews had taken the wrong side of the tracks. Obviously, it’s a salute to The Sound of Music. But the movie was set during the war,” and part of the joke here is that “somebody’s taking a shot at her because they’re sick of her singing. It’s obvious but it’s funny. Shooting the bird — would Julie Andrews do that? No — that’s the whole thing, the juxtaposition. And doing the coke at the end, well, that’s obvious — a spoonful of sugar! And then what do you do when you’re tweaked? Well, you clean! She has to clean because she’s freaked out of her mind. It’s taking something out of one context and putting it into another.”

The Julie Andrews bit is pretty tame. Later in the show, Mitchell will dress as Cher and deliver caustic “phone calls” in between bits of “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap.” In one, she plays a young woman calling an older woman asking for help with female trouble. The older woman suggests countering “bad bacteria” with the “good bacteria” found in yogurt. “So it’s like a battle of good and evil in my vagina?” asks Mitchell. The music cuts to a Simpsons outtake: The Itchy & Scratchy Show…

Says Mitchell, “My thinking has always been, if I can make people feel something, I’ve done my job. Whether they laugh or whether they’re revolted or because of their religious beliefs — at least they’ve responded. If they actually get up and leave, I love it because they got a rise. Because they felt something. People are so shut down today. They don’t talk to each other; they don’t look each other in the eyes. If someone gets up and walks out, I’ve done my job.”

But it’s not his goal. “It’s all about how much time an individual is willing to commit to understanding something, finding meaning in it. If you get up and storm out and write some politically charged blog and assassinate someone’s character, I think you’ve shot your load too quickly.”

For example: Delta is a 33-year-old actor from Long Beach. Part of his act is a straight-up impersonation of Darlene McBride, a fictitious country singer from MAD TV who, he tells me, “sings things like ‘Hey, señorita, put down that fajita/ Don’t tell me you’re eating for two…Get your butt back to Mexico!’ People post comments on YouTube — ‘You’re so offensive.’ But essentially, I’m onstage as an obese Latino, impersonating a woman, impersonating a racist comic. I would hope that somewhere in those five levels a person would look at it and say, ‘He’s just joking.’ ”


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I'm imagining the flurry of forwarding this article is going to inspire. That dude sitting at the bar will have them in his pocket next week.

"Knock, knock." "Who's there?" "Anita." "Anita Who?" "Anita better punch line."

The classic knock knock joke I love is the one that goes:

knock, knock.

Who's there?

The Interrupting Cow.

The interrupting Cow, Who?

(now, during that last line, you're supposed to interrupt with a "moo", before they finish and get to the "who?" part).

People either already know this joke, or they inevitably mess it up.

Sometimes they don't repeat "The interrupting cow, who?" Or...they just say "What? What does that mean? What's an interrupting cow?"

Instead of them just following along the knock/knock rule of repeating, and adding the "who".

thank you. i am officially confused! interrupting cow???????

I just finished reading the cover story. It was great, although...I can't help but wonder if Matthew had a conversation with his wife that went like:

"No, you don't understand. I'm going there for the jokes. Seriously."

I think the idea of the strip club having a sign that says something about the women with "...the best sense of humor," is a play on the fact that EVERY STUDY that comes out says that a "sense of humor" is the most important thing a person looks for in a partner. And everyone pretty much feels like that's a load of crap. Because if Roseanne Barr was working at a strip club, a lot less guys would be interested than the one that looked like Pamela Anderson.

I used to play on that whole premise of surveys and what people like, if I met a woman and she started asking me what my interests were. It just seemed so much like the type of question you'd ask on a dating service, that I'd respond by saying "I can tell you what I don't like. I hate walks on the beach. Absolutely hate them." The woman would either smile at the sarcasm. Or get a weird look on their face and ask, "What could you hate about a walk on a beautiful beach?" At that point, I realize I'm probably with the wrong person, but depending on my mood, I might say "Well...the sand just gets in my shoes. The seaweed that washes up is disgusting. And if you aren't careful, a seagull craps on your head. And don't even get me started on the amount of sunscreen I need to use" At that point, they realize they're with the wrong person.

Humor is such an interesting thing. For example the pirate joke told in the story, is soooo much funnier if you drio the word "d--k". Which is surprising, because "d**k" is a funny word (much like the word "p-nis" as discussed in the story) So the joke would go: A pirate walks into a bar, with a parrot on his shoulder and a steering wheel hanging out of his pants. The bartender asks what the deal is with the steering wheel. The pirate looks down and says "Rrrrrrr...it's drivin' me nuts."

Now, the parrot isn't necessary. Just adds a little "color" to the visual. But by avoiding the "d--k" and saying "pants", it makes the "nuts" in the punchline that much funnier, as that's the ONLY blue word you're hearing. So you get that added shock value with the humor.

I hate people that say "I can't remember any jokes." Because, you don't have to sit around memoraizing them. Just remember the five really funny ones. And you can always change the joke, it's the punchline that you need to remember. You can build the story around it (which was, sort of, the premise of the documentary The Aristocrats)

A few other things I thought of.

What was that strip club in town, I think it was around 15 years ago...they had a sign that said "100 of the hottest women, and two ugly ones." I always thought that was kind of funny, but had to imagine that the least attractive women working there, had to deal with the drunk patrons that said, "Oh...you must be the one they refered to on the sign."

Anyway...I wanted to comment on the joke about the Santa not "believing in himself." I really, seriously doubt a 9-year-old thought of that. Unless Matt himself, had watched his son working on it for weeks, and coming up with that punch line. It's just way to advanced a concept for a kid to write.

He could've very easily seen it somewhere, and just said it. You didn't know the source, and wanted to be the proud papa.

I remember being 4, and hearing a 7-year-old kid tell someone that he wanted to be an "oceanographer" when he grew up. The adults were so impressed by this answer, that I stole it. For the next few years, any adult that would ask me, would hear that answer. They probably still talk about this genius 4-year-old that wanted to be an oceanographer, and they're wondering what seas I'm exploring. If they only knew it actually lead to a life of putting to use that plagirism I learned so early on.

On the subject of jokes and writing...people with a quick wit are always fun to be around. The things that come out of their mouths.

Since Mary Poppins and the "spoonfull of sugar" came up, I had a joke when Julie Andrews checked herself in for an addiction to pain killers. I said, upon hearing the news, "I don't think it was the pain medication she was addicted to, but the spoonfull of sugar."

The people with me laughed. But I spent days trying to make it funnier. I thought about saying the spoonful of sugar made her addicted to sweets and cookies. Nope. That she tried snorting the sugar like it was coke. Nope. Sometimes the first thing out of your mouth, and the spontanious moment, makes it work best.

And to end with one last observation on strip clubs (haven't been to one in many, many years. honest) The DJs always try to be funny, and never are. Especially when they throw a one-liner out, followed with how we should tip the women because they work so hard.

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