Intrigo: Death of an Author
This film tells us that the gulf between what we want to know and what we can know may never be illuminated.
A joke should have the perfection of a haiku. Not one extra word. No wrong words. It should seem to have been discovered in its absolute form rather than created. The weight of the meaning should be at the end. The earlier words should prepare for the shift of the meaning. The ending must have absolute finality. It should present a world view only revealed at the last moment. Like knife-throwing, joke-telling should never be practiced except by experts.
For many laymen, a joke is a heavenly gift allowing them to monopolize your attention although they lack all ability as an entertainer. You can tell this because they start off grinning and grin the whole way through. They're so pleased with themselves. Their grins are telling you they're funny and their joke is funny. The expert knows not to betray the slightest emotion. The expert is reciting a fact. There is nothing to be done about it. The fact insists on a world that is different than you thought. The fact is surprising and ironic. It is also surprising--you mustn't see it coming. That's why the teller should not grin. His face shouldn't tell you it's coming. If the joke is also vulgar, so much the better, but it must never exist for the sake of vulgarity. That's why "The Aristocrats" is not only the most offensive joke in the world, but also, in the wrong hands, the most boring.
"The Aristocrats" was even the subject of a 2005 documentary. It is an inside joke among professional comedians, who sometimes compete at telling it when they gather. Every version of the joke is different. In its classic form, a vaudeville team walks into a booker's office, to pitch their act. "What do you do?" asks the booker. One of the entertainers describes a series of obscene, perverted, scatological acts, involving persons of all ages, races, disabilities, grotesqueries, perversions and sexual orientations, and additional other partners whether animal, vegetable or mineral, and not neglecting incest, bestiality, matricide, bodily waste, vomiting and other sudden voidings, necrophilia, bondage, whatever. It is described in racist, sexist and obscene terms. The description of this disgusting performance is prolonged for as long as possible.
"Okay, okay! What do you call your act?" the booker finally asks.
In the documentary, many of the comedians agree that the best version of "The Aristocrats" they've ever heard was told by Gilbert Gottfried, at a Friars' Club roast of Hugh Hefner soon after 9/11. He told a joke about 9/11 and the audience, containing many other professional comedians, shouted: "Too soon! Too soon!" Gottfried was dying. In desperation, he switched in midstream to the Aristocrats. He knew that every comic in the room would know what he was doing. He told it with the speed and urgency of a drowning man dictating his last will and testament. It was a brave and brilliant tactic, and in a way asserted our right to laugh in the shadow of tragedy.
In the movie. I think George Carlin is the best of some 100 performers listed in the credits. He observes that most comics don't "tell jokes." They do routines based on their observations of life. This is true. I was honored one day to be sitting at lunch at the Pritikin Longevity Center with Buddy Hackett. He was joined by friends who came to visit him. I recall Soupy Sales, Jan Murray and Carl Reiner. None of them told a single joke.
A lady approached the table. "Buddy," she said, "have you heard the one about..."
"Yes," said Buddy Hackett. "Lady, excuse me, we're all professionals at this table. Tell your joke to the amateurs over there."
Buddy was a student of the science of comedy. His favorite Las Vegas stage was at the Sahara. "I was offered twice the dough to move to a certain hotel," he told me, "but nothing doing. Comics who work that room always flop. There's a physical reason for that. The stage is above the eye lines of too much of the audience. At the Sahara, the seats are banked and most of the audience is looking down at the stage. Everybody in the business knows: Up for singers, down for comics. The people want to idealize a singer. They want to feel superior to a comic. You're trying to make them laugh. They can't laugh at someone they're looking up to."
I remembered Hackett's Law one day when Errol Morris was hosting a screening of his "Gates of Heaven" at Facets Cinematheque. People watching that great film have never been able to agree if Morris is ridiculing his subjects, or ennobling them. Facets has a flat section of seating and then the seats angle up. I was precisely on the dividing line. The people behind me were laughing. The people in front of me were quiet. Their seating instructed them how to react.
But I stray. Regarding the art of the joke, I offer myself as an experienced student. As a freshman in high school, I memorized all the cuts on an LP of great comics, and performed Hackett's "The Chinese Waiter" routine at a lunch of the Urbana Rotary Club. I remembered all my lines, but I flopped. I was trying to make the dilemma of Hackett's waiter clear. The genius of the routine is that the waiter is clear only to himself. Hackett's delivery hurtles straight ahead, never pausing for the audience: "No! No! One from Column A! Two from Column B!"
I wanted to perform stand-up. I idolized Henny Youngman, and later Rodney Dangerfield. They practiced the humor of paradox, based in ancient Jewish tradition. The world conceals its traps from us. In a crazy situation, strict logic must be applied. Things are the opposite of what they seem. This world view was distilled into jokes by generations of Catskills comics, who reached an eerie perfection. Irony is a weapon against the inevitable, but don't depend on it. You'll probably lose anyway, but not in the way you think you will. Audiences had already heard half of the jokes, but the humor was in the delivery. Here is a template for the perfect Catskills joke:
Notice the economy. Not one adjective. No names. No descriptions of anything. Go in, kill, get away.
I am discussing here jokes. I am not discussing comic monologues. No Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby, Sam Levinson, Myron Cohen, Eddie Murphy, Garrison Keillor, Sarah Silverman. For that you need to be an actor, missus, and also if you were a writer it wouldn't kill you. To tell jokes, an actor we don't need. We need a demonstrator, to reveal the treacherous nature of the world, which is waiting with betrayal, humiliation, impotence, defeat, cuckoldry and the merciless application of logic. You think you've said something, and the ground shifts under your feet. Observe the ground shifting here:
We are talking your basic jokes here. Anyone can tell them if they have any kind of an ear and apply themselves. We are not talking comedy routines, like you see in a comedy club. For that you need talent. It takes a hell of a lot of nerve to walk out on the stage of a comedy club. You could die out there. That's how comics talk: I killed. I died. Standup comedy is a mental blood sport. Using only the weapon of your mind, you cause other people to laugh. "Ninety-nine percent is in the delivery," Buddy Hackett told me. "If you have the right voice and the right delivery, you're cocky enough, and you pound down on the punch line, you can say anything and make people laugh maybe three times before they realize you're not telling jokes."
One of my friends for 30 years was the Broadway star, movie actor and veteran of the Canadian Catskills circuit, Lou Jacobi. He loved to tell jokes, and I was his willing pupil. Standing up to give the toast when Chaz and I were married, he got a big round of applause.
Lou Jacobi told a joke in a reasonable tone of voice, as if he were explaining something.
Lou made an observation one day that revealed an instinctive understanding of the underlying nature of jokes. He told this story:
After the story, I asked Lou, "Why didn't he drive to Miami?"
He said, "Miami doesn't take long enough to say." His answer was so subtle and perceptive, and depended so much on the musical nature of comedy, that you may have to tell the joke a few times both ways to see what he meant.
I am not writing these lessons to prepare you for Vegas. Possibly you may be able to risk amateur night at a comedy club. Standup comics make it look easy. It isn't easy. But if you master these ten rules, you can kill at a dinner party. Break them, and you die.
1. Know the joke. Know it cold. Know it. Know it. Anyone who gets halfway through a joke and says, "And then, ah...let's see...I think he says something like..." should be stabbed with a dinner knife.
2. Never step on the punch word.If at all possible, the punch-line should end on the word that reveals the joke. Study the examples above. Never add one single word after the punch word. For example, this not good:
3. Use a four-letter word if the joke requires it. For example:
4. Never explain. "See, there's this playwright named David Mamet writes fuck all the time..." If you think you have to explain who David Mamet is, (a) don't tell the joke, and (b) make some new friends.
5. Do not elaborate unnecessarily. Some fuckwits consider you to be their captive audience. Because the structure of a joke allows them to monopolize your attention, they spin it out endlessly, while you, their helpless victim, stare at them with glazed eyes. Example:
6. Never repeat. The deeply clueless are so pleased with their so-called wit and so convinced of your stupidity that they tell their joke a second time. "Yeah, because they were just married, see, and she looked really sexy to him..." They usually chortle all the way through, their way of demonstrating their joke is so funny.
7. Beware of accents. Very few people can do them well. This includes a surprising number of people who think they can. I once knew a guy who did superb accents, but would never stop. One joke after another. German, Irish, Russian, Greek. Relentless. He was so goddamned satisfied with himself. Unless you know what you're doing, risk only an extreme version of your own ethnic accent. Related to that...
8. Be careful about ethnic or religious jokes. If you have to look around the room to check for anybody you might mortally offend, you probably missed someone. This is just common sense. If you risk such a joke, it should depend on the subject to make any sense at all:
9. If it's a long joke, it may better funnier if it is told quickly. That in itself will be funny:
10. If the joke really works, you can bend a few rules, but not Rule #1.
Okay, you're on your own. I hope you get to be good, or at least better. I will provide you with an all-purpose joke as a starter. To adapt this joke, simply change the identity of the lady:
All the photos of stand-up comics are © Leo Hochberg; permission kindly granted. They and many more taken by Hochberg at the weekly Stanford Comedy Show in Palo Alto are here.
If you got nothing else out of this entry, you got this link.
"Take my wife--please!"
Never interrupt someone telling a joke
In appreciation: Ruth and Lou Jacobi. (Photo by Roger Ebert, Toronto 1999)
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