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September 16, 2009

You know my name (look up the number)

I’d like to open with a joke. You may have heard it before, but like “The Aristocrats,” the humor is all in the telling, and the timing seems right, so bear with me.

I don’t know when I heard this joke for the first time, but the most vivid telling I can recall was presented by my stepfather at a family dinner a number of years ago. I can’t even hope to approximate his exact wording, so I’ll reconstruct it in my own way:

One night, shortly after his arrival in the penitentiary, a new inmate is lying in his bunk, trying to fall asleep. Just as he’s drifting off, he’s awakened by the sound of a distant voice yelling a brief phrase, possibly a single word. And as he’s sleepily trying to figure out what it was that was said, he hears laughter.

A few moments later, he hears another exclamation. This time, he hears it clearly; it’s a number. (I guess it doesn’t really matter what number it is, but for the sake of the telling, we should assign a specific number. Thus …) “43!” And, a moment later, there is more laughter. A few minutes later, someone else yells out another number. “112!” Again, more laughter. This goes on for 20 minutes or so, and after awhile, our hero falls asleep.

The next day, the rookie inmate asks a sympathetic trustee what this was about, and the trustee tells him that’s how they tell jokes in the prison. Since they don’t really get any new material, they just assign numbers to their jokes and save the trouble of weaving an elaborate setup for a familiar punch line. (Kind of like when geeks recite catch phrases from Monty Python sketches, you know?)

Thereafter, our man takes the time to learn the jokes, and after a few weeks, he starts to feel comfortable enough to participate. So, when the numbers and the laughter start one night, he waits for his opportunity and, with anxious enthusiasm, at a quiet moment yells out, “60!” But, and I’m sure you could see this coming, no one laughs. A few minutes later, someone else yells out a number; this time the laughter is wild. Disappointed, our protagonist falls asleep.

The next day he goes back to the trustee and asks why nobody laughed when he called out his number. The trustee smiles wistfully and consolingly offers, “Well son, some people just can’t tell a joke.”

Yeah, that’s a pretty good joke, but it’s dangerous. It is loaded with potential for failure, as my stepfather, John, discovered all those years ago, because it is about not being able to tell a joke, and my stepfather was not nimble with humor. His telling of the joke was particularly unfunny, awkward, an uncomfortable experience. When he delivered the punch line, all we could do was groan and agree that some people really can’t tell a joke.

John died four years ago last Friday, on the fourth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. He died peacefully (but unexpectedly) in his sleep from complications associated with congestive heart failure. He was in the hospital awaiting surgery for a fractured hip. My mom was sitting nearby. I hadn’t spoken to him in over a year, and the animosity between us made it difficult for me to maintain a relationship with my mom. I envied the ease with which he slipped away, but I felt bad for my mom; she continues to mourn.

Some time after that long-ago dinner and John’s attempt to tell that joke, my stepmother, Elaine, who wasn’t at that earlier event, attempted to tell the same joke at another family get-together — with equally unfunny results. My niece and I shared an awareness of the irony. Perhaps the joke is cursed by its subject matter. Maybe it is irresistible to people who have no joke-telling ability. Maybe my version is equally lacking in entertainment value.

Or maybe it comes down to affinity. In the context of the joke, is the teller honestly trying to entertain his listeners? Or is he awkwardly trying to establish a rapport that isn’t there? Is this the fault of the speaker? Or should we as listeners make a more generous effort to appreciate the messages being conveyed by the speakers in our lives?

For further consideration: Try to find a situation in which you can say these words: “Do you two know each other?"