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If you’ve already heard this one, don’t stop me

December 24, 2009

I was at school, walking through the culinary building, when a kid came out of the chefs' lab.

"That smells delicious," I said. "What is it?"

"This week we're doing Mexican food," he said.

"So, you know how to make an authentic Mexican chili?" I asked.

"I'm not sure," he said. "Do you?"

"Sure," I said. "Take away his blanket."

He stood there, a confused look on his face.

"Make a Mexican chilly?" I said. "Take away his blanket? Get it?"

"Yeah" he said. "I do now."

"But you're not laughing."

"I just don't think it's all that funny," he said.

"Yeah, well, it's not like the neutron that went into the bar."

"A neutron went into a bar?"

"Yeah. He orders a beer. Then he hands the bartender dollar bill, but the bartender turns it down and says, 'No charge.'"

Another confused look on his behalf and another explanation on mine.

"No charge for a neutron, see?"

"Yeah, sure," he said. "Well, I gotta get back in lab."

He left and I went on my merry way.

So was I disappointed he didn't laugh at either of those bits? No, and I'll tell you why.

Maybe he didn't laugh at the jokes when he heard them, but there's always the chance he'd laugh later, when he gets them. And even if he never gets them (or doesn't like them if he does), he might've found our interaction itself amusing just the benign ridiculousness of a corny old guy telling corny old jokes.

How can I be so sure of myself? Simple, I have to, since I'm a compulsive joke-teller. And what's more, I have been, as long as I can remember. In fact, I remember telling that Mexican Chilly classic in second grade, after I'd heard it from my mother. She'd also told me its companion piece - The Mexican Weather Report: Chili today and hot tamale.

OK, so maybe you don't consider them world-class wit, but they sure had my fellow eight-year-olds in stitches.

My "material" pretty much stayed in the "silly little kid" genre (Q: What's the biggest pencil in the world? A: Pennsylvania. Q: Why won't there be any more popcorn in the theater? A: Because all the colonels have gone off to war. And so on). But when I hit fifth grade, my repertoire really took off. It was due to two major influences.

One was the older boys in the neighborhood, who were now in junior high -- adults with access to full-fledged adult humor. All of it was pretty much dirty jokes, and a whole lot of it was funny as well. I found out if a joke is dirty and funny, most people will enjoy it. You just have to know your audience, since there are some poor souls who won't laugh at something mildly risque, even if it's wildly funny. So often the art is not a matter of telling a joke, per se, but of telling the right joke to the right person. This is something I'm still learning.

Went to the dentist last

week - tried to have some

wisdom teeth put in.

The other asset to my joke-telling was befriending my boon companion, Ralph Carlson.

When it came to humor, Ralph had it all. He could quip, banter and pun, and he had a sardonic world-view that when put into words, was hysterical. Beyond that, he was a great joke-teller. Hanging out with him was one continuous, fun-filled shtick.

Looking back, I don't know where either of us heard our jokes. Keep in mind, in those days of propriety and censorship, the only way you could hear dirty jokes was if someone told them to you. So I guess the route of transmission was from adults and then to kids, either directly or through eavesdropping (the barbershop was a great source for eavesdropping, especially on Saturday mornings when the place was packed and the wait was often the better part of an hour).

Did you hear about the restaurant on the moon? The food's great, but there's no atmosphere.

The older I got, the more jokes I learned. The more jokes I learned, the more jokes I told, and the more jokes I told, the more I learned how to tell jokes.

It's a fine art, really. Keep in mind, no one is born telling jokes, and no joke is inherently funny. What makes the joke and its teller funny are two things timing and delivery.

I could tell some jokes exactly the way I heard them because the person who told them to me did it perfectly. Two guys who could were my pals Bill Gokey and Bruce McNamara, Sr .Most jokes, however, needed to be tweaked and punched up: They struck me as funny, but not as funny as they would be if they were set up and delivered better. And working on them, aside from making people laugh, is what I love about jokes.

It's a whole creative thing, like customizing a car or altering clothes to perfection - adding this, moving that, changing this, polishing that, and so on. But unlike cars and clothes, the only way to tell you've perfected a joke is by people's reactions. And if you're looking for a real reaction, you better be on your game, because people may smile out of politeness but they won't laugh out of it.

Then, there was the furniture maker who fell into his upholstery machine and now is

fully recovered.

Sadly, I think joke-telling is a dying art. And even more sadly, darn few people are even aware of it, much less mourn its passing.

The whole impetus behind joke telling entertaining friends - is a leftover from earlier times, back when if people wanted music, magic, dance, humor or anything beyond the everyday, they had to provide it themselves.

But no more. Now that job has been taken over by All Things Electronic. Given I-pods, cell-phones, computers, t.v.'s and the rest, the need to make actual contact with another human has almost been eliminated.

Go in any public place and see how many people are either hooked up to their cell phones or laptops, grooving on their I-pods, or staring at a TV. In such an environment, a guy telling jokes is about as quaint and passe as a phrenologist or snake oil salesman.

So will I ever stop telling jokes?

Yeah, probably.

But if I have any say in the matter, it'll be after my own calling hours.



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