Authors: Andrew Hudgins
Thank you for downloading this Simon & Schuster eBook.
Join our mailing list and get updates on new releases, deals, bonus content and other great books from Simon & Schuster.
or visit us online to sign up at
This book is for my longtime joke-swapping buddies—Chase Twichell, Tom Doherty, Dan Thrapp, Jim Cummins, and Rick Anderson—and to the memory of my father-in-law, Tom McGraw, a wonderful laugher.
Though I’ve been a serious poet, a student of poetry, and a teacher of poetry for forty years, I can’t recite from memory ten consecutive lines of William Butler Yeats, Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, or even Robert Frost, about whom I’m writing a book. But I can tell you the knock-knock jokes I heard when I was ten, all of them, and every week I still read
, the children’s comic strip in the Sunday paper, just in case it runs a pun or knock-knock joke I don’t know. (“Q: What do you call a cow with two legs? A: Lean beef.”)
Since junior high, I’ve been a joker, a punster, a laugher—someone who will say almost anything for a laugh. I don’t mean the chuckle that greets the mild obligatory jokes that ease the congregation into the sermon or punctuate an after-dinner speech—though I enjoy those too. What I love is raucous gut laughter—the kind that earns angry stares from the tables near you in a restaurant and makes strangers in the mall exchange knowing looks about the
prevalence of drug use among nearsighted middle-aged bald men in polo shirts and chinos. Laughing until you are weak, gasping, holding your sides, barely able to stand is like a drug. I have laughed until I have fallen on the floor in public places. I couldn’t have stopped myself if I wanted to, and I didn’t want to.
I love how jokes either work or don’t. You are either a funny man or a fool, and to my anguish I am often a fool. I live uneasily with the fact that my joking sometimes makes others uneasy: uneasiness is the spring of the jack-in-the-box. Jokes delight us by making us nervous and then relieving the nervous tension. Pleasure needs friction as well as lubrication: the friction comes from fear and pain; wordplay releases the tension. Jokers make us anxious because they want something from us. Or to be more precise: I make you nervous because I want something from you—laughter—and to make you laugh I have to juggle subjects that make you laugh.
Shortly before his death in 2009, Fritz Darges, a Waffen-SS officer, told a German newspaper that he still believed Hitler was a genius, “the greatest man who’d ever lived,” and he’d gladly serve him again. I don’t exactly take Darges as my hero, but there is one moment in his life I ponder with renewed delight as well as a frisson of incipient panic. Darges was awarded two Iron Crosses and a Knight’s Cross, but the bravest thing he ever did—also the stupidest—took place in a 1944 strategy meeting in Hitler’s famous Wolf’s Lair when he was serving as army adjutant to the Führer. As Hitler and his staff officers consulted a large map stretched out on a table, a fly buzzed around the confined bunker, landing first on the map, then Hitler’s shoulder, and then the map again. Annoyed, the Führer ordered Darges to kill it. Without a moment’s hesitation, Darges informed Hitler that the fly was an airborne pest and therefore the responsibility of Nicolaus von Below, the nearby Luftwaffe adjutant.
I love the joke, but I love, fear, and identify with the impulse that drove Darges to tell it. By 1944, when he’d been Hitler’s
adjutant for fifteen months, he must have had an inkling that the Führer wasn’t blessed with a wide and generous sense of humor. Didn’t matter. Darges had his joke, it was a good one, and he had to tell it—and the joke is funnier now because it was dangerous then. In fact, Hitler turned to Darges and screamed, “You’re for the Eastern Front!” Darges’s cleverness wouldn’t be a tenth as funny if he’d cracked wise to an indulgent and chuckling Uncle Adolf.
Darges’s impulse is one I know well. I’m one of those compulsive jokers whose need to laugh can seem peculiar, immature, and even socially corrosive to those who do not share it. Our need to tell jokes trumps our sense of propriety and good sense. Here’s an example. After a section of this book was published in The
, I received an e-mail from the poet Chard deNiord, who reminded me of a joke I told at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Drinks in hand, Chard and I were talking to the poet Richard Wilbur. I was in awe, almost cripplingly so, that I was
having a drink with Dick
—he asked me to call him Dick—
, the man who had written some of the best poems of the last century, not to mention the libretto for Leonard Bernstein’s
. Because the joke had been burning a hole in my mind for a couple of days, I asked Dick if he’d heard the latest O. J. Simpson joke. Only a month before, Nicole Simpson had been murdered along with her friend Ron Goldman, who had dropped by her house to return a pair of glasses left at the restaurant where he waited tables, and I was fascinated by the jokes the murder had inspired.
“No,” Wilbur replied warily. I doubt many people in his circles luxuriate in jokes about tabloid murders, but my social discomfort made me stupidly stubborn. I’d already committed myself to telling the joke, hadn’t I? Wasn’t it better to be a boor than a coward or a tease?
“What’s the first thing Ron Goldman said to Nicole Simpson in heaven?” I asked.
Even more warily than before, the poet who had translated Molière, Corneille, and Racine into English, asked, “What?”
Chard tells me that he laughed. Wilbur, the most gracious genius I have ever met, chuckled politely. And I let out a belly laugh at my own joke. “I’ll never forget how unabashed you were and how much I admired you for that,” Chard wrote. I was startled by his admiration, because I
abashed. At the time, I thought I’d made a fool of myself, and in retrospect I’m sure of it. My insecurities and obsessions had turned me into a clown. But I’m pleased Chard laughed and holds the memory fondly in mind. That’s a pretty good payoff for telling a joke pinned to a crime rapidly passing into the vast chronicles of celebrity homicides. Still, a clown knows the cost of being a clown. For a laugh, I exploded any chance of becoming friends with Mr. Wilbur, a poet I admire immensely. But the clown also knows the joke was especially funny to Chard because he heard it against the background of Richard Wilbur’s wariness.
Here’s another story. Again it takes place during the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, during my first summer teaching there. To my discomfort, I was a junior colleague to Anthony Hecht and John Hollander, poets whose poems and essays I’d read, admired, and studied for a quarter of a century. Hecht and Hollander’s mandarin erudition was intimidating, and the one time I finagled a seat at Tony Hecht’s lunch table, he offered only short, distracted answers to direct questions. I read his shyness as distaste for me and for my poems, which I assumed (and still assume) he found crude—the unrefined product of an unrefined mind. And by God, when people think I’m a vulgarian, I’ll do my damnedest to prove them right. I can’t stop myself. Freud would call this impulse a minor manifestation of the death wish. Edgar Allan Poe more resonantly termed it “the imp of the perverse,” a phrase that captures the ornery humor of deliberately discharging a pistol into one’s metatarsals to astound
people with my talent for insouciantly crippling myself, and then limping off on bloody feet as if I had accomplished something—the limp of the perverse.
During their poetry readings both Hollander and Hecht paused to sip water. As they did, each remarked that the poet Randall Jarrell had once observed that sipping water during a poetry reading was the single most pretentious thing a poet can do. It did not occur to me that they, famous as they were, might feel self-conscious reading to a room full of writers. But I was. And in my insecurity I thought it might be funny to follow their lead and then go further. At the podium, I held up a glass of water, reminded the audience what Jarrell had said, and speculated that Jarrell might not have known there is a pretentious side of the glass and a non-pretentious side.
I placed my finger on the lip of the glass closest to me and said, “This is the pretentious side.” Then, pointing to the far side of the glass, I pronounced, “And this is the unpretentious side. Do you know why?” Someone said no, and I tipped that side into my mouth. Water poured out the lower lip of the glass and down my shirt and pants. It’s a junior high joke I’d often heard of but never seen, so I was surprised at how thoroughly I drenched myself with a small cup of water. The audience sat still for half a breath, before someone laughed and the laughter took off. But only half the audience joined in. The non-laughers obviously thought my clowning was a breach of the decorum of poetry readings—precisely the thing the laughers enjoyed. From what I gathered later, Hollander and Hecht perceived my buffoonery as a barely concealed way of calling them pretentious. That was not my conscious intention, though now, to my regret, I see that interpretation is inevitable. After the reading, a small group laughed with me about the reading and my stunt, among them the wonderful playwright Horton Foote. His pink face shining with amusement, Horton took my hand between
his and said he’d love to direct me in a play. He’d seen the teasing and playfulness I’d intended, and appreciated my playing with the audience instead of ignoring their presence. Maybe he shared my discomfort with the near-religious solemnity that often accompanies literary readings. His kindness saved me from even more self-loathing than I later felt. But as I put the glass to my mouth, when I was already committed to the act and couldn’t back down, I understood that I was as likely to annoy people as amuse them, though I only wanted to entertain, to jest.
Being a jester is, historically, a high-risk profession. In medieval and Renaissance courts, jesters softened with humor truths forbidden those without official license to amuse the monarch. But a successful jester needed tact and a discerning alertness to the king’s mood. After assuring us that it was extremely rare for a jester to be punished, Beatrice Otto, in
Fools Are Everywhere
, goes on to recount enough beheadings, stranglings, disfigurements, banishments, and autos-da-fé to give even the most benign wit a reason to think twice before teasing a king.