When Jokes Are Reduced To Punch Lines

I remember my parents and their friends telling jokes as a regular part of the day’s entertainment, much as these days people watch cartoons on TV.
And people don’t read books of jokes so much any more either.

The well-oiled joke was indeed the best medicine and arguably did more for political and economic advancement than all the staples of television: the news clips and soap operas and reality TV shows.

I also remember Party Games. No, dear, this involved more than throwing the best-looking girl in the swimming pool or spiking the punch. There were Charades, which traditionally dissolved into hysteria before anyone could even take a guess at the tableau played out by arbitrarily drawn teams of tipsy revelers.

Then there were the word games such as Word Association and Capitals. In word association the starter came up with a random word and then, going around the room, Jokegame123 the players had to come up with properly associated words – fast. This offered an interesting insight into the popular subconscious. Capitals involved the first player starting with a word. The next player had to start the next word with the last letter of that word and so on round the circle, at speed. It’s harder than it sounds.

Then there was a lovely game called Tombstones, which my mom invented. The principle was to come up with the most unlikely tombstone engraving for any particular person. The funniest one was the winner. Imagine for instance a literate, wise and meaningful inscription on George W. Bush’s tombstone.

Although we cannot be considered particularly old or even noticeably middle-aged (to one another anyway), my contemporaries and I sometimes become nostalgic about those days, when a joke was a joke. It could be so funny you would cry and sometimes so cogent you could laugh yourself to death.

Recently we were reminiscing about those endless days in the sun, with wine and whisky flowing and great pots of steaming barbecued meat and corn. Out of this came a new, latter-day party game that I shall call Punch Lines. The idea is this: to provide the punch line of known joke. Those who are familiar with it can then have a good laugh at the memory of it and those who don’t know the joke are free to guess how the joke goes.

It’s a joke form for the new millennium: fast, diffuse and everyone gets to have a say. New jokes come out of old jokes. Politically incorrect jokes become acceptable because they are all in the ear of the beholder. No one gets laughed at for telling a joke badly. Joke telling takes on a lateral thinking aspect that is lacking in the old music hall “I say, I say, I say…” school of wit. It’s a kind of a broad network search for a consensus of what is funny. Democracy made jolly. Or we try.

The other night Priscilla came up with this punch line: “So the guard said, ‘Hans, bring the steamroller.” None of us knew the joke so Priscilla provided the second-last sentence in the joke. “The Jewish prisoner answered: “Squash”. We were still unsure. Priscilla gave the third last sentence. “So the guard gave the Polish prisoner a racquet and told him to go and play tennis.” We got it then. There was a bit of clucking and couple of wan smiles. Priscilla was not happy. “That was the funniest joke I had ever heard when I was 14, back in the seventies.”


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