Friday, July 06, 2012

The Most Classic Jokes in History

My Fellow Comedists,

I am working on my contribution to this year's Lighthearted Philosophers' Society gathering. Part of my argument involves distinguishing between those jokes that are merely funny and those that are truly sublime. So, please help me find examples. I am looking for the greatest jokes ever. Not your favorite jokes, but the most important ones, the ones that transcend joking and reach a whole new level. The jokes that are so classic they define genres.

Consider what is probably the tightest joke ever written, Henny Youngman's famous one liner, "Take my wife...please."
The set up of a given joke generally sets a scene involving a concept or narrative that is familiar to the audience. He told many jokes about marriage:

"My wife dresses to kill. Unfortunately, she cooks that way, too."

"My wife and I have the secret to making a marriage last. Two times a week, we go to a nice restaurant, a little wine, good food...She goes Tuesdays, I go Fridays."
So, when he invites the audience to "take his wife," everyone thinks this is the preamble to a set-up of a marriage joke, a sort of lead-in that was common amongst Borscht Belt comics.But no, it IS the set up, a three word set-up. And the punchline? A single word that takes you from "here comes a marriage joke" to "he's a Jewish man with an overbearing Jewish wife who is making his life a living hell" in one syllable. You get complete incongruity, two distinct interpretations, one explicit and one hidden until the punchline, all packed into in four monosyllabic words. That is why this is the Mona Lisa of jokes; a joke that is universally revered, despite most people having no idea why. The other jokes are funny, but "take my wife...please" is sublime.

I'm looking for those jokes. Some are the jokes that made careers -- Gallagher's "Why do we drive on a parkway and park on a driveway?" Others are common property, the chicken crossing the road, "Yo mamma's so fat that when sits around the house, she sits around the house." I am looking for the jokes that are so classic they embody types of jokes.

Any ideas?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve