A nerdy paper I much enjoyed writing had a catchy title, something like “A Discourse Analysis of the Narrative Joke”. It featured my father-in-law, Brad, the best joke teller I have ever known personally. He told me several jokes which I recorded and then analyzed.
Not many people tell long jokes. I would love to do so if not for the uncomfortable fact that I don’t remember them. I’m still stuck on knock-knock jokes. Who’s there? Banana. Banana who? Ba-na-na-NAH.
Though many things can make us laugh, not all of them are jokes. Jokes differ from other funny occurrences by being much more generalized and always prepared. A joke consists of the set up and the punchline. Its content can be dirty, clean, or offensive; its structure is of either the riddle or narrative variety.
Knock-knock jokes are an example of the riddle form. Easy to remember and good for a quick laugh, the riddle type of joke may be the most common. The set up is pitched as a question with hopefully no response. The teller can then gleefully deliver the punchline.
Pause please, I’m looking for jokes about Coronavirus and I’m finding plenty of articles expressing indecision over whether or not it’s okay to laugh at Coronavirus jokes or memes, but I’m not finding any actual jokes. Do people think that a meme takes the place of a good riddle joke? A picture with a funny caption is much like a cartoon, is it not? Here are some examples of riddle jokes:
Why didn’t Natalie Wood take a shower on the boat?
She wanted to wash up on shore.
What do Princess Diana and Pink Floyd have in common?
Their last big hit was the wall.
Let’s not overthink this. Riddle jokes are almost always in poor taste. Regardless, we laugh. We can’t help ourselves. But context is everything with a riddle joke, and if you don’t know who Natalie Wood was or can’t remember how Princess Di died, then there is no humor here. Sigh. What is the world coming to when there is so much funny fodder and no good riddle jokes?
If the riddle joke is a lost art, say it isn’t so, then I might also be out of luck trying to find a good narrative joke. So I’m going to tell one of my father-in-law’s jokes, preserved not by memory but transcribed in my notes. These are his actual words, real, live words, so please excuse the grammar. I hear his voice as I type them.
The Lawyer and the Sharks
Then they tell the story about the doctor and the lawyer and the priest who were out on a fishing boat about two hundred yards off shore. The tide was going out from the island. All of a sudden their motor broke. They went to use the oars that were in the boat and they were rotten. They had never been used and they just fell to pieces.
So there they were about 200 yards offshore, the tide was coming out, they were getting washed out further to sea and they said, ‘Well, I guess we could swim for it. Two hundred yards isn’t too bad.’
Then this pack of hunter sharks came in and started circling the boat. And they were getting washed out further from the island. So finally the priest said, ‘Look, I’ll offer up my best prayer to God,’ and he said, ‘I’ll swim to shore, God will protect me. I think the sharks will let me alone.’
By this time there’s quite a crowd watching them from the beach. So the priest dove into the water. Well, he didn’t get five strokes until the sharks were all over him and a frothy, bloody stain came to the top of the water and that was the end of the priest.
Then the doctor said, ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I’ve spent my lifetime helping mankind.’ He said, ‘Maybe God’ll protect me.’ So he dove in and he didn’t get six strokes until, same thing, blood and froth and bits of skin and hair flying in the air. That was the end of the doctor.
So the lawyer, of course he waited until last, but then he jumped in and he just swam right to the shore and the sharks just parted for him as he went along. And when the lawyer got to the shore and he walked up on the beach, the local residents came running down to him and said, ‘How did that ever happen?’ and they said, ‘That wonderful priest and that wonderful doctor, the sharks ate ‘em up.’
The lawyer said, ‘Simple. Professional courtesy.’
Most of the story jokes that I could find on the internet were not nearly as long as the ones my father-in-law used to tell. (Yes, sadly, he passed in 2004.) He loved to embellish his stories with little details and comments like the one about the lawyer being the last to go. Brad was an obstetrician/gynecologist at the top of his field who didn’t appreciate lawsuits over events where nature had taken its course. What you have to understand about Brad is that he could tell this joke to a lawyer friend and definitely get a laugh.
The same key components which occur in the structure of a story–orientation, evaluation, complicating action, and resolution–also take place within the structure of the narrative joke. Repetition is vital to the minimal structure of the joke due to its reinforcement of key points for the listener who may not have gotten it all the first time. Introduction and transitional phrases, plot and vocabulary are all repeated.
In the plot of “The Lawyer and the Sharks”, three is an important number. The three professionals think of three ways to get to shore–the motor, the oars, and swimming; and three times something goes wrong all of a sudden. Then the same three men take turns diving into the water.
The sequence of threes establishes a pattern and the breaking of that pattern feeds into the unexpected. The lawyer, for example, does not say a prayer but jumps into the water and is unharmed. This is unanticipated. In the joke the unexpected follows the breaking of the pattern and sets up the listener for the joke’s punchline which, if you knew Brad, you should have been expecting.
How many Irishmen does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
After I published this post, I found The Big Apple 300+ Coronavirus jokes. Where did the Terminator find toilet paper? Aisle B, back. And more!!
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