There are all kinds of good jokes. Some of my favorites are jokes that use language against itself, puns and their wittier cousins, like this Henny Youngman joke about his uncle the lush.
"My uncle the lush is sitting in a bar one day. He looks up and sees a sign on the wall. Sign says, "Drink Canada Dry.' So he went up there."
Same uncle goes hunting.
"My uncle went hunting. He's driving through the mountains and he sees a sign says, "Bear Left.' So he went home."
Steven Wright's jokes are like this. Steven Wright is like Henny Youngman slowed way down.
I'm not going to start. Once you start doing Wright's jokes, you can't stop. You want to read some, you can go here.
I also like jokes about how silly people can be. Not stupid. Silly. There's a big difference. And I only like them when the joke includes the implication that we are all silly like the people in the joke sometimes. When the joke is about how silly other people can be, it's not a joke, it's just an expression of smugness.
I'm not crazy about insult comics like Don Rickles, but they can be funny because everybody in the room is a target. You don't go see them to hear other people made fun of. You go to hear yourself called a hockey puck.
My very favorite jokes are the kind that do the same work as tragedy. Jokes that are in fact mini-tragedies, except that somehow at the end they make us laugh instead of cry. These are jokes that remind us not how silly people can be but how painful it often is to be a human being.
That was Richard Pryor's genius.
Some very funny people can't tell a joke. My friend Gary is one of the wittiest people alive. His mind works at the speed of Groucho. But whenever he tries to tell a joke with a set-up, a story, and a punchline, he always blows it.
He just can't get the rhythm.
He can't dance either.
I can tell a joke. But I can't make them up. I have to steal other people's material.
Milton Berle is my patron saint.
Some people who can't tell a joke think they can, to the embarrassment of everyone around them. Some people who can't write jokes still try to do it for a living, which explains most sitcoms. Some of these people who try and fail to write and tell jokes actually have no senses of humor. They think they do. They think they know what a joke is.
What they know is what a joke sounds like.
They know what jokes are meant to do.
They've read Freud and grasped that jokes are often expressions of anger or hostility. They know that sometimes the best jokes are shocking, outrageous, even offensive. They've heard Pryor and and they've heard of Lenny Bruce. They've seen Animal House one too many times. They've been told that certain words are funny all by themselves. Like bratwurst. Bratwurst is a funny word. Order some in a restaurant with a straight face. I dare you. There are lots of words like bratwurst. It doesn't matter what they mean. Their actual meaning has nothing to do with their funniness. Put them in a sentence, and that sentence will sound like a joke.
Rat poison, for instance.
Creme brulee? Not so much.
But knowing all this, these people without a sense of humor will try to write a joke.
And come up with something like this: "We need someone to put rat poisoning in Justice Stevens' creme brulee."
Recently, Al Franken had the opportunity to teach Ann Coulter how to tell a real joke. He did it by telling her one of his own, which happens to be an example of my favorite kind of joke. Franken's joke goes like this:
Like they do every Saturday night, two elderly Jewish couples are going out to dinner. The guys are in front, the girls riding in back. Irv says to Sid, “Where should we go tonight?”
Sid says, “How about that place we went about a month ago. The Italian place with the great lasagna.”
Irv says, “I don’t remember it.”
Sid says, “The place with the great lasagna.”
Irv says, “I don’t remember. What’s the name of the place?”
Sid thinks. But can’t remember. “A flower. Gimme a flower.”
“Tulip?” Irv says.
“No, no. A different flower.”
“No, no. A basic flower.”
"That’s it!" Sid turns to the back seat. “Rose. What was the name of that restaurant…?”
Franken taught Coulter a few other things while he was at it. He did it in front of an audience at the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles where he and Coutler were invited to debate by the University of Judaism.
Because, as Franken says, you can't have freedom without the truth.