Broad Humor

    I wrote a whole book once of jokes singled out for their absolute omnipresence, what a layperson might call “old jokes”, or, if they were people were as old as the jokes, “chestnuts”.  The book was presented in the form of a quiz: if the jokes were really all that stale, you would be able to fill in the blank I left for the punchline.  I made the point that telling a joke where everyone can see the punchline coming can have its own uses: you can groan or sigh FOR the audience as you reach the punchline, you can come up with a new punchline and surprise the audience, you can come up with a counterpunchline, building on the expected line.

    Or, if you wanted to go for the easy prize, you could just tell the joke and hope you told it better than anyone else, and that even if everyone had heard it before, they’d be pleased to find an old friend being treated with respect, and let you get a cheap laugh.

    In none of this was there any consideration of who came up with the joke, or could be considered its author.  This was an era of common knowledge jokes and comedians who used jokes to produce what was called an act.  This is now looked down upon as an inferior art form to what comedians do NOW, which is form their acts out of the very stuff of life and make you laugh at your shared experiences.  GOOD material, thus, is material which could not be used by any other comedian, as it would not come out of their life experiences, and thus sound false.  I blame the Sixties and the coming of the Singer-Songwriter to replace a generation of singers who sang whatever song they thought sounded good when they sang it.  (The top ten lists of those days would list a song and then the fourteen or fifteen different artists who had recorded it.)

    I am, myself, old school, or as I like to say it, one of the Bennett Cerf school of jokes, with an attitude of “Who CARES who told it first?”  (Bennett Cerf, for those unfamiliar with him, was a star editor at random House who produced joke books on the side.  Someone whose name I’ve forgotten said of him “Bennett Cerf is a comedian the way Willie Sutton is a banker”, referring to the famous bank robber.)

    I am also a student of old jokes, as mentioned before, and thought I would look over a few postcard artists who dealt with the same joke, but gave it enough of a spin (they hoped) to make it look new.  The joke involved here is demonstrated in the postcard at the top of this column, which gets points for A) giving us an action shot at the station and B) adding the joke about “background” to the gag, which most of our artists did not.

    This is the basic form of the gag as seen in most postcards: a lady in an ice cream parlor confiding her philosophy to a friend.  She is cheerful, and the cartoonist has not winked at us from behind the cartoon by having the soda jerk or the companion smile knowingly at us.  AND she takes up only one stool, though the way she’s sitting makes it look hazardous.

    This lady, however, is calmly taking up TWO stools, with a smile as big as…her personality.  I think the cartoonist has backed off from the joke a little too much, since though the counter man’s face is deadpan enough to reinforce what she has just said, she has apparently ordered only coffee, shaking our faith in her travel experiences.  The cartoonist has also hobbled his joke by having travel broaden one’s KNOWLEDGE, which is not what’s being drawn here.

    THIS lady, however, though she is also getting only coffee, gets a thorough smirk from the counter help AND trembling commentary from the two stools she is sitting on.  She is obviously related to women in other postcards with different jokes, like “Three Stool Fanny” or “I Have Such an Awful Hangover”.

    And here is the broadest expression of the joke, where I will contradict myself by removing a point for taking us out of the café.  I don’t think much of the artist’s style here, but I have to admit it’s one of the simplest forms of the joke, whatever else I think of the forms involved.

    I hope I have broadened your knowledge of well-traveled jokes.  If I get desperate, I may present a chapter or two from my bygone joke quiz, and you can see what else you already knew.

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