Copyright @ 1971 by Isaac Asimov
Houghton Mifflin Co., Publisher
Park Street, Boston, Mass.
PART 1. ANTICLIMAX
IT SO HAPPENS that I have no intention of just telling jokes. There are thoughts I have about humor generally, and about certain jokes specifically, and I want to include the thoughts well as the jokes.
In order to do this, I intend to speak freely (and sometimes at considerable length) before, after, and between the jokes, whenever this seems advisable to me.
It is certainly any reader’s right to ignore my comments and just proceed from joke to joke, leaping over the intervening material if he so wishes . I couldn’t stop him, but he would the loser in that case.
To begin with, I ought to present my own theory as to what constitutes humor and what it is that makes people laugh. I disclaim any deep understanding of psychology or any extensive background in what others have had to say on the subject.
However, I have been a practitioner in the field for many years, and I claim the right to speak from experience.
It is my feeling, to put it as succinctly as possible, that the one necessary ingredient in every successful joke is a sudden alteration in point of view. For instance -----
Jones was having his first date with Miss Smith and was utterly captivated by her. She was beautiful, and intelligent as well, and a dinner proceeded, he was further impressed by her faultless taste. As he hesitated over the after- dinner drink, she intervened to say, “Oh, let’s have sherry rather than brandy by all means. When I sip sherry, it seems to me that I am transported from the everyday scenes by which I may, at that moment, be surrounded. The flavor, the aroma, bring to mind irresistibly — for what reason I know not, — a kind of faerie bit of nature: a hilly field bathed in soft sunshine, a clump of trees in the middle distance, a small brook curving across the scene, nearly at my feet. This, together with the fancied drowsy sound of insects and distant lowing of cattle, brings to my mind a kind of warmth, peace, and serenity, a sort of dovetailing of the world into a beautiful entirety. Brandy, on the other hand make me burp.”
In this joke, the alteration in point of view concerning the lady, from a picture of ultimate refinement to one of common humanity, is particularly extreme, and I chose it for that reason
The alteration in point of view produces an incongruity which elicits a laugh and a feeling of pleasure. The sharper the incongruity and the more suddenly it can be introduced, the more certain the laugh and the louder and longer it will be.
It is for this reason that in any good joke, the change in point of view should come, with as little warning as possible, in the last sentence. And it is for this reason, therefore, that the last sentence is so often referred to as the punch line, for what is wanted is an effect as sudden and startling as a punch in the jaw. (A joke is the change in point of view comes with the final syllable — all the better.)
Although the presence of an incongruity is necessary for laughter, it is not sufficient . A joke is nothing in itself; it must be told. A joke is a social phenomenon; an interaction among people. Like a glass of wine, or like a common sorrow—but
with fewer side effects and with utter lightheartedness — it breaks down reserve, eases tension, establishes contact.
But to be told effectively, a joke must be told well, and talents in that respect vary. In general, even those who tell jokes well are quite apt to find that their talent is not universal. A jokester may be able to handle slang perfectly and yet not be able to do the mock-refined. Or vice versa, for that matter.
In the case of Joke 1, it is necessary to be able to manufacture flowery prose in an offhand, unstrained manner. The joke won’t work otherwise. Nor will memorizing do any good. Delivering a memorized joke deprives it of spontaneity and gives it a mechanical tang that is somehow noticeable and sure to lessen the impact on the audience.
If, then, you can’t handle the necessary prose spontaneously, don’t tell the joke. There are always many that will suit your particular bent, whatever it is, and since nobody is all-talented you need not feel cheated or deprived. Here’s a joke, for instance, that practically anyone can make a reasonable stab at.
“Oh, poor Mr. Jones,” mourned Mrs. Smith, “Did you hear what happened to him? He tripped at the top of the stairs, fell down the whole flight, banged his head, and died.”
“Died?” said Mrs. Robinson, shocked.
“Died!” repeated Mrs. Smith with emphasis. “Broke his glasses, too.”
Here the change in point of view, from the deep tragedy of accidental and unlooked -for death, to a sudden consideration of the comparatively trivial misadventure that had happened to accompany it, can also be effective in raising a laugh. A small laugh perhaps, for the joke, being short, does not lead the listener along the false path for as long, nor bring him up short as sharply.
Still, Joke 2, being short and simple, presents no difficulties and can scarcely be mishandled. For the beginner, a simple joke with a sure but small laugh is preferable to an elaborate one which may elicit a large laugh — or none at all.
In both 1 and 2, the change in point of view is from something we can take seriously to something else we can take much less seriously. This somehow runs counter to the natural progression of thought designed to make a solemn impression.
In dealing with a series of phrases, we tend to list them in such a way as to move on to progressively more serious things, saying, for instance, “Not merely did he save the town, he saved the entire country,” or “He sacrificed his money, his health, and finally his life to the great cause. ” In doing this, we achieve a climax.
To reverse this seems so unnatural as to produce an incongruity in itself. That is the humor in the satirical cry of “For God, for country, and for Yale.” To go from the more to the less serious is to go from the sublime to the ridiculous, producing what is called bathos or anticlimax, and (what is more to the present purpose) laughter, if it is properly handled.
Here is another anticlimax:
For thirty years, Johnson had arrived at work at 9 A.M. on the dot. He had never missed a day and he was never late. Consequently, when on one particular day 9 A.M, passed without Johnson’s arrival, it caused a sensation. All work ceased and the boss himself, looking at his watch and muttering, came out into the corridor.
Finally, precisely at ten, Johnson showed up, clothes dusty and torn, his face scratched and bruised, his glasses bent. He limped painfully to the time clock, punched in, and said, aware that all eyes were upon him, “I tripped and rolled down two flights of stairs in the subway. Nearly killed myself.” And the boss said, “And to roll down two flights of stairs took you a whole hour?”
This makes three anticlimaxes in a row and that is not accidental. The exact manner in which the jokes were to be presented in this book was a matter of anxious editorial discussion.
The system I favored to begin with was that of telling the jokes in no particular order, putting them down just as they occurred to me, in imitation of what would occur at a joke-telling session. This would surely give the book an air of spontaneity, which would be desirable, but it would also give the book an air of incoherence, which would be undesirable.
A possible alternative was to divide the jokes into a large number of very narrow categories such as Fences, Manhole Covers, Tents, and so on, with one or two jokes in each section and all the categories arranged in alphabetical order. This might make the book particularly useful for after-dinner speakers who were searching for a funny story on some specific topic, but it would make the book too formal and bind me into a strait jacket. I was vociferously against this.
We therefore hit upon a compromise. Let there be categories, but let them be few and broad, and let them deal with types of humor rather than with specific subject matter . Let them be arranged in the order that would appeal to me best and let the jokes within each category be arranged as they occurred to me. In that way, we would end up (if all went well) with both coherence and informality.
One of the most basic categories in humor is Anticlimax, and I have chosen to let that be the first.
A condemned spy was being led out at dawn to the wall against which he was to be shot at sunrise . It was raining with ferocious intensity. On either side of him was a line of soldiers and to one of them the condemned spy said bitterly, “What beasts you all are to march me out to be shot in a rain like this.”
And the soldier replied with equal bitterness, “What are you complaining about? We’ve got to march back.”
The incongruity present in jokes often serves to illuminate facets of life more truly (and surely more tersely) than many a long, closely reasoned psychological treatise. Life is often incongruous and the silliest juxtapositions can be dreadfully characteristic of even highly intelligent men.
If someone has worn glasses all his life and spent much of his emotional strength striving to keep them unbroken, the fact of shattered glasses may momentarily fill his mind and replace even the greater fact of death, as in Joke 2 . As an example from real life, I remember the case of a friend who once told me of the time when a rather new car of his had been stolen. “The thing that griped me the most,” he said, “was that I had just filled the gas tank.”
Similarly, we must recognize the existence of the sad fact of insensitivity to the suffering of others when our own inconveniences are involved. In Joke 3, the employer found his own inconvenience at his employee’s lateness of more import-ance than the latter’s serious accident.
Yet we laugh!
Where an anticlimactic incongruity becomes sufficiently sharp, when, in particular, it is something as serious as death that is downgraded by another’s mere inconvenience — we have an example of what is sometimes called black humor.
The very name indicates that we somehow feel the joke isn’t “really funny” and that, perhaps, we are a little ashamed at ourselves for laughing. We shouldn’t be . It is precisely the fact that we laugh that demonstrates our humanity. We recognize the incongruity and it is the recognition that elicits the laughter.
If it happened that, for some reason, we really felt that our own inconvenience took precedence over another’s much deeper tragedy, we would find no incongruity in a joke that took that position, and hence we would not laugh.
Black humor, by the way, must be distinguished from sick humor. The former deals with the tragic, the latter with the grotesque and! or disgusting. Fashions are unpredictable and there are times when numerous sick jokes make the rounds. The response to these by a humane audience is very often a grimace and not a laugh, and regardless of fashion, I rarely find them worth telling, out of consideration for the discomfort of both the audience and myself.
Naturally, there are no sharp boundaries, and sickness grades. imperceptibly into blackness so that it is difficult to tell sometimes whether a joke is one or the other. For instance —
Smith met Jones in the clubhouse one day and said, “I understand you exper-ienced a great tragedy last week.” Jones sipped his drink and nodded, his eyes growing dark with the memory. “I was playing a twosome with Brown,” he said, “and the poor fellow dropped dead at the ninth hole.”
Smith said, “I understand you carried him back to the clubhouse. That must have been difficult, considering that he weighed over two hundred pounds.” Jones said, “Oh, it wasn’t the carrying that was hard. It was putting him down at every stroke, and then picking him up again.”
Is this one sick or black? Much depends on the audience, something I will stress more than once in this book. Many a joke is funny to one audience and not to another.
To an audience that knows little of golf, the joke is grotesque and very likely unpleasant. The laugh, if it comes at all, will be uncertain. To another audience, which has had personal experience with the game and which knows, either at first hand or through the behavior of others on the links, how tight a grip the game can seize, the joke is purely black and they will laugh joyously.
But how does one predict the nature of the audience? In some cases, there are reasonable methods. If someone tells of a golfing experience and the others respond with sympathy, you can always wait for a pause and say, “Have you heard .....?”
If a joke-telling session is going on, you might try a small golf joke to test the reaction before investing in a more elaborate one. And if all else fails, you can rely on instinct. The more experience you gamer, the more somehow you can sense what
the reaction of a particular audience will be.
A pompous, well-dressed businessman was encountered in the street by a young urchin who said to him respectfully, “Sir, can you tell me the time?”
The portly man stopped, carefully unbuttoned his coat and jacket, removed a large watch from a vest pocket, regarded it gravely, and said, “It is a quarter to three, young man. “Fine,” said the boy,”and at exactly three o’clock, you may kiss my foot.”
With that, the youngster dashed off, and uttering a cry of outrage, the businessman set off in angry pursuit . He had not been running long when an old acquaintance grasped his elbow and brought him to a halt.
“Why are you running this way at your age?” demanded the friend.
Gasping and almost incoherent with fury, the businessman said, “That little brat there asked the time and when I told him it was a quarter to three he told me that at exactly three, I should kiss his foot.”
At which the other said, “So what’s your hurry? You still have ten minutes.”
A number of jokes in this book have been deliberately bowdlerized. Thus where a joke as ordinarily told would make use of a word not ordinarily heard in polite society, I try to use some equally effective word or phase that is more acceptable.
(Editors note - - this work was copyrighted in 1971.
You may update it yourself)
The necessity for doing so has been diminishing drastically in recent years. There was a time not too many years ago when women generally felt it important to disapprove of dirty words. Whether this was hypocritical or sincere depended on the individual, but either way the stand had to be respected. To tell a dirty joke before an audience that feels compelled to be (or pretends to be) embarrassed and disapproving is not only bad manners, but bad joke-telling. There will be no real laugh.
Nowadays, the sexual revolution and the common use of dirty words in books, on the stage, and even in the movies, has broken down feminine reserve. I find myself very rarely in any gathering in which the women bother to pretend that they are real offended by dirty words.
Even so, the question of bowdlerizing may arise. It is my feeling that there is nothing wrong with being fastidious, when this will not utterly ruin a joke. If a joke simply must have a dirty word and if the audience will not object, then the word should certainly be used. Otherwise, if a suitable polite synonym exists, why waste the dirty word when not needed, thus making it less effective through overuse when needed?
In this book, (remember, Editors note just above).I deliberately bowdlerize too much rather than too little.. For one thing, the readership will, I imagine, be a heterogeneous one and I do not wish to offend anyone needlessly. For another, by being careful when I can be, I hope I will be forgiven those few occasions when the joke really forces the use of an improper expression.
As an example of how damaging even mild bowdlerization can sometimes be, consider Joke 6. Does anyone really think the boy said “Kiss my foot!” to his dignified victim? Can there be any doubt that in the joke, as properly told, he said, “Kiss my ass!” How much weaker it is in the foot version!
Again, in Joke 1, the young lady who rejects the brandy would, under most joke- telling circumstances, have said, “Brandy, on the other hand, makes me fart.” My own experience is that the laugh is much louder then.
So don’t bowdlerize unless you must . If the audience is exclusively male, or if it is bisexual but all good friends, or if it is an audience which has had no experience with one another but has been softened up by several drinks apiece, or if several jokes, unbowdlerized, have already been told and enjoyed —then go ahead.
At Gladstone’s home, guests were engaged in a discussion of the knotty Irish Home Rule problem while waiting for their eminent host to make his appear-ance. Voices rose and tempers flared to no avail, and finally one guest said in resigned despair, “Well, there is one above who alone understands.”
“Yes,” said Mrs. Gladstone, brightening, “and the Prime Minister will be right down.”
This is an example of a particularly specialized joke, deliberately told here in an uncompromising fashion. The anticlimax is sufficiently absurd in itself for a laugh to arise even from those who have never heard of William Ewart Gladstone, or never knew that he was prime minister of Great Britain on four occasions in the late nineteenth century, or that in his old age he fought unsuccessfully for Irish Home Rule. Nor do they have to know of the endless political in-fighting, and the long- drawn-out and frustrating complications involved in that issue (something like the Vietnam issue in contemporary America).
Naturally for those history buffs who do know all this and who know moreover that Gladstone was a notoriously moral person who always somehow gave the attitude of having a private pipeline to God (rather like our own William Jennings Bryan), the joke is clearly going to be far more successful.
What do you do then? Do you wait for the proper audience, which may come rarely or never, or do you waste the joke on an ordinary one?
What you ought never to do is to try to educate an ordinary audience to be a proper one. If you begin the joke with a preface, telling everyone all about Gladstone, and then tell the joke, you will end with polite smiles from all at best. Nothing will turn off an audience faster than any indication that they don’t know enough to appreciate a joke — all the more so if this happens to be true. Far better to leave them ignorant and garner the minor laugh that will come even so. Otherwise, play it safe. A compromise which sometimes works if done well is to in corporate a little bit of education into the joke, without making it overly obtrusive. Suppose you began the joke: “When William Gladstone was prime minister of England for the fourth time toward the end of the nineteenth century, guests at his house were engaged in a discussion of the knotty Irish Home Rule problem which was then convulsing all England. While waiting for their eminent host......”
It sounds stilted and may not strike you as worth the effort (you are the judge), but it might increase the laugh among an audience educated in some field other than history.
Moskowitz was retiring from business, and it occurred to him that he ought to take up golf as a means of diversion. One morning, therefore, he was out at the club bright and early, with a new bag of clubs and a caddy.
“Caddy,” he said, “I know nothing about the game. What am I supposed to do?”
The caddy, sighing softly, said, “You take this club; you hold it at this end; you hit the ball with the other.” “And where do I hit it?” “To the green over there. Do you see the little flag? There’s a small hole under it and you have to get the ball into the hole.”
Moskowitz nodded. He stepped in front of the ball, took a mighty swing, and hoisted the ball high in the air. Straight and true it winged its way toward the green in a graceful parabola. The caddy, eyes wide and face a mask of astonishment, hastened out to the green and there, nestling in the cup, was Moskowitz’s indubit-able ball . It was a hole in one.
Moskowitz came trudging up, picked up the ball, and said calmly, “‘What next?”
The caddy could only gasp. “You go on to the next hole.” Moskowitz did so.
Another swing, another mighty heave. This time the ball hooked somewhat, hit a tree, rebounded sharply, and rolled onto the green in the direction of the hole. Heart in mouth, the caddy ran to the green and there in the cup----you guessed it: another hole in one.
Moskowitz, utterly unperturbed, scooped up the ball and advanced to the third hole. The caddy, much too far gone for words, accompanied him.
A third swing and once again the ball went flying. This time it few a trifle short, but bounded briskly forward across the green, aiming straight at the hole. Slowly and more slowly it went and finally halted — at the very lip of the cup.
Moskowitz came up at last, looked at the ball, turned to the caddy,shrugged, and said, “Oh well, a beginner’s a beginner7
Until now, I have used no names at all in the jokes, or have used names which, in English-speaking surroundings at least are thoroughly bland — Smith, Jones, Robinson, Letson and so on.
The matter of names is an important one. If the joke is short you can profit by doing without names altogether. Attaching names to characters always means running the risk of stumbling over them, reducing the free flow and, therefore, the possible laugh. In longer jokes, however, this risk is outweighed by the trouble you would have in keeping the characters’ straight. If you are reduced to saying, “Then the other guy said---- I mean the guy who was holding the horse, not the first guy---“ you have lost. In that case, introduce Smith and Jones and Robinson, too, if necessary — and try not to stumble. But then why Moskowitz in this case?
In the world of jokedom, there are ethnic stereotypes. The Jew is not, traditionally, a sportsman; and while in real life, these days, the golf links are full of Jews, some of whom are even named Moskowitz, the stereotype lingers and has force. In a joke, you may carefully say that a man knows nothing about golf, or have him say it, yet neither alternative is as forceful as having the fact fixed in the listener’s imagination by having him picture a short, stout man who has spent his life in the garment district. There is no better way of doing it than to call the man Moskowitz, or some other clearly Jewish name. In this way, the name itself helps clear the deck for the eventual laugh.
Naturally, any other Jewish name would do; or, for that matter, some name attached to some other nationality which, in your opinion, would be associated by the audience with non-golf.
The general rule is: Let stereotypes work for you. And remember, stereotypes do not have to be accurate to be effective.
Jokes are primarily verbal phenomena and nowadays there is a great deal of humor to be found in visual phenomena such as the movies or television. This does not mean that the pictures are a dead loss. There are scenes that can be adapted to the ear, particularly if they involve pictorial clichés with which everyone is familiar, so that the need for description is minimized.
For instance, everyone (or so nearly everyone that the exceptions do not matter) knows the stylized bars shown in movie Westerns. There are the swinging doors, the poker games, the professional gamblers, the hairy miners, the dance-hall girls, the bar itself, the bartender, and the inevitable cold-eyed lanky hero walking in.
My most fondly remembered scene of this type was in a Bob Hope picture, with Bob playing an effete easterner trying to make out among the tough guys of the West. Since everyone (or so nearly everyone that once again the exceptions do not matter) has seen Bob Hope, he needs no description and the clear memory of him and his mincing walk will set anyone up for a laugh.
The scene in the bar was even more stereotypical than usual, with hard-as-nails westerners coming up to the bar, and giving orders like: “Let me have a shot of redeye,” and “Give me a slug of rotgut.”
In the midst of all this, Bob Hope entered rather daintily, advanced to the bar, and said in a mild voice, “I’ll have a sarsaparilla’ please.”
A dead silence of stunned astonishment fell over the roughnecks in the bar. All eyes turned on Bob, who became aware of the unfavorable attention and quickly added in a throaty growl, “ — but in a dirty glass.”
Naturally, you must select such episodes with care . You can not depend on visual effects and expect to get away with having. to describe in detail a scene the listener has not seen. Most of all, the joke cannot depend for its laugh on a final “— and you should have seen the expression on Bob’s face.”
You, remembering it, will laugh, but the listeners, not having seen the expression, will look at you with emotions varying from distaste to hatred.
Moskowitz was having his teeth examined and the dentist shook his head sadly. He said, “I am terribly sorry, Mr. Moskowitz, but you need a complete mouth job from wisdom tooth to wisdom tooth, both top and bottom, and this will cost you $3500.”
Moskowitz looked glum indeed. He said, “I’ll be frank with you,doctor. I’m afraid that $3500 is more than I can possibly afford. Is there no way of making the price more reasonable?” “Not with me, I’m afraid. I could not do it for less. However, I can recommend another dentist, a younger man, who might possibly be able to give you a better price.”
Moskowitz went to the younger man, who, after the examination, said, “I’m afraid, sir, that you require a complete mouth job and that will cost you $1700.”
Moskowitz, however, was cautious. Saving money was one thing, but the condition of his teeth was also important. With some hesitation, he said, “Doct-or, I’ll be frank. You’re a young man and perhaps you have insufficient experience. My regular dentist asked for considerably more money, and while I don’t object to saving money, I don’t want to do so at the expense of my teeth.” The young dentist said, “That is a very sensible attitude on your part, sir. I am indeed young and I am trying to establish a practice. That is why I am offering lower prices. As to my competence, I did precisely this sort of job on a Mr. Cohen two years ago. I will give you his telephone number and you may ask him if he is satisfied. If he says he is, we can talk further.”
“Thank you,” said Moskowitz. And that evening, he called Cohen and presented his problem. Cohen, having listened, began politely, “As it happens, Mr. Moskowitz, I have a hobby ---- ‘ Moskowitz interrupted at once. “Yes, Mr. Cohen, but we can talk about that later. Right now, I am inquiring about your teeth.”
“I quite realize that,” said Cohen coldly, “but if you don’t mind I will answer your question in my own fashion. As I said, I have a hobby. It consists of swim-ming in the nude . Every morning, except when the weather is too cold or too stormy, I go down to an isolated part of Jones Beach at 6 A.M. when I know I will be ompletely undisturbed. Taking off all my clothes, I venture into the sea and have half an hour of delicious enjoyment.”
Moskowitz interrupted again, “I am delighted you have so entertaining a hobby, Mr. Cohen, but really it is your teeth I am interested in.” “Do you mind,” responded Cohen, even more coldly than before. “Now one morning last week, after having disported myself in the water as is my wont, I emerged to dry myself and dress when I noticed a young lady approaching me who apparently had the same hobby I had. She was beautiful and had no clothes on, not a stitch. Naturally, I was very horribly embarrassed and didn’t know what to do or where to turn. The young lady, however, seemed not the least put out. She smiled in most friendly fashion and came closer and closer till our bodies touched. And for the first time in two years, my teeth stopped hurting.”
This is my idea of a nearly perfect joke. The tale is interesting in itself and, properl-y told, can mislead the listener entirely. To play fair with the audience, Mr. Mosk-owitz should interrupt twice to ask about teeth . But after the second interruption, Cohen’s story must become sufficiently interesting to make the listener forget about teeth altogether, so that when the final punch line brings everything suddenly and unexpectedly back to teeth, the change in point of view is sufficiently extreme to create pandemonium.
This is a long joke, of course, and can be made considerably longer. In fact, the version I have included here is substantially shorter than the one I tell.
A long joke is the culmination of the jokester’s art, but it bears its corresponding risks. In telling a long joke, there must not only he intrinsic interest but definite mild humor throughout. If it is only interesting, then the audience, following this ’ tale with absorption and gravity, may get out of the laughing mood, and the punch line will then fall into a well of dreadful silence . You want, as far as possible then, to keep the audience on the verge of laughter throughout.
One way is to insert small subsidiary points of humor, here and there. As an example, I often start the joke by having the first dentist announce to Moskowitz, in as pretentious a manner as I can manage, “My dear Mr. Moskowitz, my investigation presents me with an interesting problem, for you require what we in the dental profession call, in technical terminology, ‘a complete mouth job of all the teeth.’”
In my experience this small anticlimax never fails to get a chuckle, and to set the mood for the rest of the joke.
As you yourself repeat the joke, you will almost automatically develop other points here and there, and with each such development you may stretch the joke out longer. (This is creative joke-telling . In time, any accomplished jokester, in adopting a joke, is bound to make it his own in this fashion, and tell it differently than any other would.)
But why Moskowitz and Cohen, by the way? Because when I tell the joke I use a thick Jewish accent (the only one I can handle well) and for such an accent, names such as Moskowitz and Cohen are essential.
The accent is useful in a long story. Properly done, the humorous turns of phrase and the manglings of pronunciations can keep the audience giggling and allow laughter to remain on instant call. Still, the Jewish accent is not essential. The joke is funny in itself and you can tell it with a Swedish accent or none at all. In the version I give here, though I keep the names Moskowitz and Cohen, I use formal and correct language. This, initself, can be made to add to the humor. If you make the characters with names like Armstrong and Favisham, and use language so correct as to be stilted, you will get the same effect.
Which brings up the question: When ought one to use an accent in telling a joke?
The basic answer is: Only when you can do it well.
Unfortunately, the number of people who think they can handle some particular accent is far greater than the number of people who actually can; a poor accent is embarrassing at best and downright insulting at worst, to any member of the audience whose ethnic group the accent is supposed to represent
Rather than risk a poor accent, then, tell the joke straight shortening it if necessary or using other devices to inject humor. You will be better off.
There are cases, of course, in which not only is a foreign accent almost compulsory, but the foreign language too, and its absence can only be mourned ----
TREASURY of HUMOR
by: ISAAC ASIMOV
Henry VIII, a bluff and hearty, but pathologically tyrannical king (especially in his later years) appointed an ambassador to France at a time when relations between the kingdoms were poor indeed.
The ambassador was a reluctant one, particularly because of the truculent nature of the message he was to carry. “Your Majesty,” he said diffidently, “King Francis will be perfectly capable of removing my head on receipt of a message so phrased.” “Fear not,” said Henry. “Francis well knows that if he were to behead my ambassador, the head of every Frenchman in my dominions would be removed within twenty-four hours.”
“I am sure of that, sire,” murmured the ambassador, “but consider that among all those French heads within your domain, , not one will be found to fit my shoulders.”
The firm of Moskowitz and Finkelstein was in deep trouble, and Moskowitz could stand it no more. Suicide seemed logical and it was on suicide he decided. He took the elevator from the tenth floor on which the offices were housed, to the seventieth floor which was the observation tower. With one last short prayer, he jumped.
As he passed the sixtieth floor, be recognized through the window the representatives of the most important department store chain in the world. He caught just a snatch of phone conversation which went, “All right, then, we’re going to push velvet garments next year -------“
Down, down, fell Moskowitz, and passing the tenth floor , through the window he saw Finkelstein, sitting depressed at his desk.
“Finklestein,” he cried, “cut velvet! Cut velve-e-e-e —“
Jones, although ordinarily eloquent, had the misfortune of stuttering badly when emotionally moved. Once, when walking with his friend Smith down a crowded city street, he said with great excitement, “L - l -1-look at that d-d-d-dame. Wh-wh-wh-what a f-f-f-f-f-f-figure.”
“Where? Where?” demanded Smith, equally excited, once Jones had managed to get his message across.
“Too late,” said Jones, quite calm. “She walked into a building.” A moment later, he said, “L-l-1-l-look at that c-c-c-car. N-n-n-n. never saw s-s-s-s-s-s-s-s —
“Where? Where?” demanded Smith again. “Turned the corner,” said Jones briefly.
A few minutes passed, and Jones began again, “L-l-l-l-l-Iook — Smith, weary of having everything over before Jones could finish, said, “It’s all right. I see, I see .
There was a brief pause and then Jones said, “But if you saw it, why did you step in it?”
Mrs. Clare Boothe Luce, well-known playwright and wife of the late publisher of TIME became a Catholic in middle life and had, of course, all the enthusiasm of the convert. Under President Eisenhower, she was appointed ambassador to Italy, and while she was there (an apocryphal story goes), a reporter once spied her in earnest conversation with the Pope.
It occurred to him that a conversation between Pope and ambassador might have enormous news value, and he drifted closer in a attempt to overhear.
He finally made it, and the first words he heard were those of his Holiness, saying in accented English, “But you don’t understand Mrs. Luce. I already am a Catholic.”
My wife and I were once listening to Peter Ustinov on a television talk show. The interviewer remarked that Ustinov was one of the few Englishmen who could speak American convincingly.
All at once Ustinov demonstrated by ceasing to talk with an English accent and speaking exactly as any carefully educated American might.
At this, I turned to my wife in utter and honest (I swear it) astonishment and said, “But if he can talk regular, why does he bother with an accent?”
One evening, Beatrice Lillle was part of a dinner party that included a fabulously beautiful showgirl who sat at the table, rarely speaking, but presenting a perfect profile for the breathless admiration every man in the place.
At another table was a friend of Miss Lillie’s. Hastily, he scribbled a note and sent it to her by way of the waiter. Miss Lillie opened note which read: “My God, Bea, who is that incredibly gorgeous creature at your table?”
Beatrice Lillie scrawled an answer; the waiter carried it back to the questioner. He opened it hastily and found written thereon, “Me. !!!"
Mr. Chauncey Depew, lawyer, Senator, and one of the great wits of the nineteenth century, capped it all by attaining the age of ninety-four. But he didn’t always win.
Once, very late in life, he was at a dinner sitting next to a young lady who was wearing an off-the-shoulder dress of extreme cut.
Depew couldn’t help but eye the effect in astonishment. Finally, he leaned toward the young lady and said, “My dear girl, what is keeping your dress on you?”
And the girl said demurely, “Only your age, Mr. Depew.”
I was having lunch with a Catholic priest, and I couldn’t resist telling him the story of what happened once when I was giving talk at a Catholic college.
A priest was showing me and a group of other people around the campus, and at one point he ushered us all into the elevator. All entered but myself, and I politely gestured the priest to precede me. For a moment, we kept everyone waiting while each of us tried maneuver the other into the elevator. Finally, the priest gave in and got on, and I followed him with a somewhat smug smile.
Chuckling a little, he said, “Well, I lose in humility that time.”
The Catholic priest to whom I told the story said, “It made me feel good to win in humility, didn’t it?”
“Yes,” I said, “it did, rather.”
And he said, “We’re acquainted with that feeling in our profession. We call it the I’m-the-humblest-man-here-and-proud-of-it syndrome.
During a Yiddish play being given on Second Avenue (the old center of the Yiddish theater district), the curtain fell suddenly and the manager of the theater stepped out before the audience in the last degree of agitation.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “I am distressed to have to tell you that the great and beloved actor, Mendel Kalb, has just had a fatal heart attack in his dressing room and we cannot continue.”
Whereupon a formidable middle-aged woman in the balcony rose and cried out, “Quick! Give him some chicken soup.”
The manager, surprised, said, “Madam, I said it was a fatal heart attack. The great Mendel Kalb is dead.”
The woman repeated, “So quick! Give him some chicken soup.”
The manager screeched in desperation, “Madam! The man is dead! What good will chicken soup do?”
And the woman shouted back, “What harm?”
There was a time when every small town in the Midwest seemed to have its village idiot (anyway, one that was slow - - very slow, let’s say.) and Douglas, who lived in Hixton, Wisconsin, just such a town, wanted to display the local dullard to a visitor. “Watch this,” he said. Hey, Elmer.” Elmer shambled toward them, a very foolish grin on his face. “Hello, Doug. ” he said.
“Hey, Elmer,” said Douglas. “I’ve got something for you.” Doug. held out his hand, and on the outstretched palm were a nickel and a dime. “You can have one of these, Elmer. Which one do you want?” Elmer fumbled at the nickel. “I’ll take the big one, Mr. Douglas. “
Douglas Jones put the dime away and grinned at his visitor. He whispered. “There.
“Isn’t he a nut?” But the visitor’s sympathies were aroused. He made his excuses to Douglas and hastened after Elmer. “Listen, Elmer,” he said, earnestly , “don’t you know that the small coin is worth twice as much as the large one?”
“Oh sure, mister. I know that.” “Well, then, why do you let them fool you like that?” The smile vanished from Elmer’s face. “Because,” he said, “the very first time I pick up the dime, mister, they will stop playing the game.”
Old Mrs. Tompkins loved to hear a fiery sermon. She would ensconce her comfortable bulk in the pew, rock back and forth in time to the minister’s cadences, take a dip of snuff, and cry, “A-a-a-amen,” at every piece of ministerial denunciation.
When the minister spoke harshly of sex, drinking, smoking, drug-taking, dancing, and gum-chewing, she approved heartily, taking snuff at each item and emitting her rolling “A-a-a-amen.”
Finally the minister began, “And now let me talk about another vicious habit that, fortunately, is going increasingly out of fashion. I refer to the deplorable practice of snuff-dipping —“
Whereupon Mrs. Tompkins sat bolt upright and muttered under her breath, “Wouldn’t you know? He’s stopped preaching and begun meddling.”
Cecil B. De Mule was well known for his spectacular motion pictures in which the lavish use of special effects sometimes utterly drowned out their more prosaic virtues. He had filmed everything, from enormous pagan orgies to the parting of the Red Sea, but (one thoroughly apocryphal story goes) he planned, shortly before his death, the most magnificent of all his magnificent spectacles.
He was going to film the six days of creation — the coming of light, the forming of the Earth, the separation of the sea from the land, the appearance of sun, moon, and stars, and the coming of life.
The whole spectacle was to cost uncounted millions of dollars, and for this purpose a huge valley in Spain was rigged up with incredible engineering devices. The process could be carried through only once. To try it twice would have meant undoing all the first attempt had brought about and multiplying the cost tenfold.
To guard against all eventualities, therefore, C. B. De Mille set up four separate camera crews on four separate peaks overlooking the valley, each under instructions to film everything. The creation was then carried through and everything worked perfectly. De Mule himself was reduced to awed and speechless tears at its magnif-icence, and when it was all over he hastened to check on the camera crews.
He put in a call to Camera Crew 1 on the specially installed telephone lines. “How did it go?” he asked. “Gee, Mr. De Mille,” came back a shocked voice. “I don’t know how to tell you, but when the creation started, we were all so fascinated by it that we actually never thought to roll the cameras.
Quietly, C. B. De Mille uttered a few imprecations, but after all he had expected trouble. That was why he had four camera crews. He put in a call to Crew 2.
“Gee, Mr. De Mille,” came back a terrified voice. “I can’t explain it. We were all set, but it turned out we just didn’t have any film. Somehow no one had ever even thought to bring any. Mr. Dc Mille, I could just die.”
“Do that,” ground out De Mille, and he rang up the third. “Gee, Mr. De Mille,” Came back a panicky voice, “we were ready, we were running, we were loaded, we took everything, but Mr. De Mille, I don’t know how it happened but we just somehow never took the cap off the lens.”
Now C. B. Dc Mille was really in a state of shock . He had only one camera crew left and it was with a trembling hand that he dialed the final number. For once a robust, cheerful voice answered, “Hello, Mr. Dc Mille said, “Is everything all right?” “Couldn’t be better,” said the cameraman cheerfully. Wild hope sprang up within De Mille’s heart. “You have film?” “Of course.” “The right film?” “Of course.” “The cap is off the lens?” “Of course.” “There is nothing wrong?”
“Not a thing.” “Thank God.” “Relax,” said the fourth cameraman. “We’re in perfect shape, so let’s get started. . We’re ready whenever you are, C.B.”
Cabot Martingale, a Boston Brahmin of the staunchest sort had, as it happened, never seen, or even read, any play by Shakespeare. When this fact came out, his friends were appalled, and one of them brought him a Complete Works of the great man. “You simply must read this,” he said.
Weeks later, the two met again, and the friend said, “Well, Martingale, have you read any of Shakespeare?” “Every word,” said the Brahmin. “Every word.” “And what did you think of him?”
“Why, I thought the man extraordinary. His ability with the language was almost beyond belief. I don’t think there are twenty men in Boston who could equal him.”
Finkelstein, who had been out of town for a long, long time,.went to New York on a visit and met his old friend Moskowitz. They greeted each other enthusiastically and it was not long before they were asking after each other’s business affairs.
“Alas,” said Moskowitz, raising a mournful eye to heaven, “two weeks ago, a vicious fire swept my establishment and reduce it to ashes. Were it not for the heavy insurance I carried, I would, be an utterly ruined man. And you, Finkelstein?”
“How odd, but my own situation is rather similar. I had an establishment in Miami Beach, and last autumn a hurricane came in off the sea and destroyed it utterly. It is with the insurance money only that I am now able to come to New York to visit you and re-establish mu business.
“Is that so?” said Moskowitz thoughtfully. “But tell me, friend, how does one go about arranging a hurricane?”
Pierre Laplace was a mathematician and astronomer who, in Napoleon’s time, wrote a ponderous five-volume work on celestial mechanics. In it, using Newton’s law of gravity, he painstakingly worked out the motions of the solar system in the finest detail.
Napoleon, who fancied himself (with only partial justification) an intellectual, leafed through the early volumes and said to Laplace, “I see no mention of God in your explanation of the motions of the planets.”
I had no need of that hypothesis, Sire,” said Laplace politely. However, another astronomer, Lagrange, hearing of the remark, is reported to have said, “But it is a beautiful hypothesis, just the same. It can be used to explain so many things.”
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