I need to write something so I’ll write about a joke.
It all starts while I’m trying to put my son to bed. He’ll do anything to stay his sentence; he’ll offer up adorable tidbits of his day, protest the injustice of bedtime in general (“it’s summer, Aba!”) and, like clockwork, he’ll remember that he’s hungry/thirsty/tired etc. Once all of these issues have been negotiated and he’s run out of excuses — sometime around ten PM, an hour after his bedtime — he’ll resort to the nuclear option: he’ll ask me something so unexpected that I can’t help but address it. Sometimes it goes like this:
“Dad, what happens when we die?”
“Dad, can I be a detective when I grow up?”
“Dad, why don’t I have a younger brother?”
Each one of those immensely loaded questions must be dealt with delicately — kids remember these conversations for decades. On this particular night the nuclear option was triggered with a simple question:
“Dad, can you tell me a joke?”
“Let me think about it.”
Honestly, all I could think about were the inappropriate jokes I had swirling around my brain. Like the one about the penguin whose car broke down near Phoenix. He went into the shop and the mechanic told him to come back in an hour once he’s looked at the car. So our friend the penguin walks around town and since it is late July he buys some ice cream. By the time he gets back to the shop the ice cream has melted all over his chin and face. The mechanic takes one last look at the car and then turns to the penguin and says:
“Well, pal, looks like you blew a seal”
To which the penguin replies –
“Nah, it’s just ice cream.”
So I continued to rack my brain and all I could think about were raunchy Rodney Dangerfield-esque jokes (“My wife and I were happy for twenty years. Then we met”). Then I thought about how Rodney Dangerfield’s real name was Jacob Cohen and how un-funny that name is. Then some more jokes about sex, Polish people, Georgian people, Yemenite people, blonde women, fat people and your mama. You get the point. Nothing that a seven year old would understand without me entering into conversations that I’m not ready to have yet.
Twenty minutes go by and he’s still wide-awake.
“Dad, are you still thinking of a joke?”
I broke into a cold sweat. My life flashed before my eyes and none of it seemed funny. The more I thought about it the more I realized I don’t know a single joke in Hebrew that would make a 7-year-old laugh.
I’m a terrible father. Seriously. I didn’t have a single joke to tell the kid. The harder I thought the only jokes I could think of were incest, cannibalism and Holocaust jokes. (“What did the neo-Nazi ask the Jewish bakery owner? How much does this hallah cost?” oof… that is sooooo wrong, why can’t I get that out of my head…) The situation is even more absurd when you consider that I write satire for a living. What kind of lame excuse for a father – for a satirical writer – am I? I can’t even think of one joke to tell the kid.
Fortunately, the two hours at the pool and the basketball practice wore him out. He passed out and I was given a reprieve with which to find a joke appropriate for a second grader.
I asked a coworker first thing in the morning for a joke. After an hour thinking about it he came up with this one:
What’s the difference between a hooker and a drug dealer?
A hooker can wash her crack and sell it again.
I told him that I was pretty sure the kid didn’t know what a drug dealer was. Nor did he have a firm grasp on what a hooker was (though I’ve heard him call his friends a “ben zonah,” which translates loosely as “son of a whore”) and I certainly didn’t want to to introduce him to the concept of crack cocaine. God knows I have a whole rant about Reagan and the introduction of crack cocaine to LA in the 80’s that I wasn’t going to delve into.
Another co-worker offered up an equally useless joke:
How many flies does it take to screw in a light bulb?
Two, but I don’t know how they got in there.
I laughed but admitted that it probably would be lost in translation. Also, it was sexual in nature and obviously inappropriate for kids.
I scoured the internet in English and in Hebrew for some kind of joke but couldn’t find anything that would both demonstrate what a joke was and also, make him laugh.
The following night, desperate and exhausted, I lay next to him in bed hoping he would forget about the whole joke thing but like all kids everywhere – he remembers everything.
“Dad, what about that joke?”
I felt like I was the joke. I must have heard thousands – hundreds of thousands – of jokes throughout my life. I’ve seen movies with jokes, I’ve read jokes in books and online and yet now, put on the spot, I couldn’t think of a single joke. So I did what I do when I’m daydreaming in a meeting at work and someone asks me a question: I bullshit.
“Knock knock” I say
He doesn’t answer.
“You’re supposed to say ‘who’s there?”
“No, wait until I say, “Knock knock”
“I haven’t said ‘knock knock’ yet.
“You’re supposed to say Ma (Mi) who?”
“Why are you calling me Mami?”
He laughed for twenty minutes straight. In fact, he laughed so hard he almost peed his pants.
Admittedly, it’s not that funny, but for the first time in a while, I didn’t feel like such a terrible father. I wasn’t the butt end of some cosmic joke.
Most importantly, when he remembers his first joke twenty, thirty, forty years from now, he’ll remember his less-than-hilarious father teaching him his first joke.
And isn’t that what life’s all about? Fragments of happy memories we share with our loved ones.