Jokes are our friends that accompany us through life—at least he good ones are. They made us laugh when we first heard or read them, and they make us smile as we summon them up from our memory. That, at any rate, is my experience at age 92. They come in certain groups according to nationality and such, and though they tend to involve others, they may implicitly affect us as much.
French jokes. Pierre and Maurice, two entrepreneurs (note the French-derived word), meet on a Paris street. Pierre exudes wealth, whereas Maurice reeks of poverty. M.: How did you make it so rich? P.: I knew that Frenchmen go down on their women and read that their favorite fruit is oranges. So I devised a cream for orange-flavored pussies.” They meet again years later and now Maurice looks rich and Pierre poor. How come? M.: I devised pussy-flavored oranges.”
Again. Pierre and Maurice meet on a Paris Street (it’s an old joke with old names, nowadays it might be Yves and Thierry). Impoverished Pierre asks wealthy-looking Maurice how come? M.: I invented nightingale-tongue pate. P. : How is that possible? Nightingales are so small and their tongues even more so. M.: Well, we mix them with horse. But it’s very equitable, fifty-fifty. One nightingale’s tongue to one horse.”
Romanian jokes. In the Ceausescu dictatorship era, Antonescu meets Joanescu on a Bucharest street. A.: How are you doing in these parlous times? J.: I turned spy for the government. A.: Funny, so did I. And what do you think of the government. J. : Exactly what you do. A.: Sorry to hear that. Now I shall have to turn you in.
Again, An American comes to Bucharest and stays with a Romanian friend. He wants to meet one of the fabled Romanian beauties. R. takes him to a nightclub and the women are indeed great. A.: How do I get one of those? R.: Easy. They are just hundred-Lei whores. [Note currency that sounds like “lay.”] A.: Hell! Take me somewhere with better women. R. does, and here the women are gorgeous. A.: I really want one of those. R.: Simple; They are just three-hundred Lei whores. A.: Christ! Take me to a better place. R, takes him to the best nightclub in Bucharest with fabulous women in haute couture dresses. A.: There, it’s one of those that I want. R.: No problem. They are just five-hundred Lei whores. A: Damn! Are there no respectable women in Bucharest? R.: Of course. But they will cost you a thousand Lei.
Italian joke. Two business friends are vacationing seaside, and when they return to the hotel restaurant late, all that is left are two fishes, one big and one small. First friend takes the big one. Second friend grouses: “Some people are real swine.” “Why?” asks the first. “What would you have done? “ Answers the second, “I would have taken the small one.” “Then why do you grouse? That’s the one you’ve got.”
Greek jokes I have already quoted the Serbian saying, After shaking hands with a Greek, count your fingers. Also the true story told by Frank Harris of a high diplomatic meeting in Athens, where a proud Greek was showing off his gold pocket watch. It was making the rounds of the table when it suddenly disappeared. Said the host: “I will extinguish the light, and whoever pocketed the watch as a joke can discreetly return it next to the clock on the mantel.” When the lights went on. No watch, and the clock too was gone.
Scottish joke. Alleged inscription on a public toilet wall: “Here I’m dying brokenhearted,/ Paid a penny, only farted.” Scots are supposed to be miserly, but actually are, I’m told, extremely generous.
Jewish jokes. Abraham and Sara are in their bed, when a robber breaks in and rapes Sara, then leaves. Abraham slaps his wife hard. Sara, plaintively: “But Abraham, I was forced.” Abraham: “It’s not for being raped. It’s for having so clearly enjoyed it.”
Again. Two Jewish immigrants meet on a New York street. Asks one: “Where have you been all this long time?” Answers the other: “I was at home, polishing my English.” Responds the first: “You should have been Englishing your Polish.”
German jokes. A somewhat butch German woman doesn’t have a private bathroom and so uses a public one. How does she avoid being seen in the total nude? “I just wash my top half down as far as possible. Next, I wash my bottom half up as far as possible.” “Yes,” says her interlocutor. “But how do you wash your possible?”
Again. (I have used this one before.) The new maid is told that the dog’s name is Hercules. Says she: “I’ll just call him Kules. I’ll be damned if I’ll call a dog Herr [Mister].”
Hungarian jokes. From the works of F. Karinthy. An admiral is proud of the admirable names of the Navy’s ships. They are called things like the Unsinkable or the Indomitable. Yes, says the vice admiral, but won’t it delight our enemies to have sunk the Unsinkable? So, says the admiral, let’s call them the Unnecessary and the Disposable. Yes, says the vice admiral, but what will it look like on maneuvers in the Mediterranean when all our ships are called things like the Useless and the You Can Have That One? Admiral Well, we’ll install a device that changes the name from Unsinkable to Useless the moment the ship goes under.
A man has seen Garbo in “Anna Karenina” a hundred times. Why? his friend asks. It’s because she is stripping for her suicide by train as she takes off her clothes, and is in her undies as the train arrives. I keep hoping, says the man, that one day the train will be late.
A different type of joke is the epigram. A serious insight tersely expressed would be a maxim. When a maxim is clever, it becomes an aphorism. When an aphorism is truly witty, even outright funny, it is an epigram. Typical aphorisms are Stevenson’s “The cruelest lies are often told in silence.” Or Mark Twain’s “Good breeding consists in concealing how much we think of ourselves and how little we think of other persons.” An aphorism is Wilde’s “A man cannot be too careful in choosing his enemies.” An epigram is this of Wilde’s about Dickens: “One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.” Or this: “The youth of America is their oldest tradition. It has been going on now for three hundred years.” Or again his: “To love oneself is the beginning of a life-long romance.” Now here is Dorothy Parker upon the news of the death of taciturn Calvin Coolidge: “How do they know?” Or herewith Sydney Smith on Macaulay: “He has occasional flashes of silence that make his conversation perfectly delightful.” Or this, from a famous French courtesan, la Belle Otero: “God made women beautiful so that men would love them, and he made them stupid so that they could love men.”
I could go on forever, but let me conclude with one of my own modest contributions. The history of art stretches from Anonymous to Untitled--from when only the work mattered to where only the signature does.