Text: “Write if you find work”
My dad told me that this is something his father would say to him every time he would leave the house for school in the morning, or really any time he went anywhere. He describes it as a depression era phrase, referencing how people had to leave their homes to find work in other cities, corresponding with their loved ones if they were successful. Obviously in this context, the phrase isn’t being used literally, but in a light humorous way. My dad was elementary and middle school age when he encountered this phrase, and certainly was not expected to go out and find a job to support his family. The phrase essentially served as a repeated dad joke during his childhood.
The use of this phrase as it appeared throughout my dad’s childhood can be interpreted in a few ways. If we are looking at it through the lens of humor that relies on incongruence, the joke is relatively self explanatory. The incongruence here lies in the fact that it is not typical in modern Western society to task a young child with finding a job. There is also incongruence in using a phrase from the 20’s and 30’s over 40 years later, because the language doesn’t match the time period. The appeal behind incongruent humor is it is surprising and allows us to subvert societal norms in a risk free way. My grandfather’s use of the phrase in this context could just be a simple manifestation of this concept. Additionally though, it is important to note that the origin of the phrase in the Great Depression may hold some significance. My grandfather’s parents would have experienced the Great Depression firsthand, and I have been told they were relatively poor. My grandfather grew up in the rural midwest on a farm, and his upbringing was frugal and money conscious. These Depression anxieties likely would have been transmitted to my grandfather as a result. Jokes have historically served as an outlet for releasing anxiety, often by subverting the source of anxiety, or making light of it. It’s possible that my grandfather’s use of this phrase was to cope with and release anxieties about money and survival in a capitalist society. Turning this phrase into a joke told to a child, pokes fun at, and rejects the American capitalist belief that one should constantly be concerned with making money. It makes the idea of finding work light hearted, rather than urgent and necessary to survival.
Text: “The Cemetery is full of people who couldn’t be replaced”
My dad told me he remembers hearing this from his father on occasion. He describes it as a reminder that you can always be fired or replaced, and not to take yourself too seriously. He notes that it was essentially a warning about excessive self importance. My dad remembers being met with this phrase if he was being big headed, or cocky.
This phrase is somewhat of a cross between a proverb and a dark joke. It’s not metaphorical in the typical sense of a proverb, but it uses pre-formulated language to communicate the largely agreed upon idea, that excessive self importance is a bad thing. It’s interesting to note that my grandfather grew up Christian in the Midwest on a farm. This community typically frowns on self importance, so his use of the phrase may reveal rural Christian American beliefs. Then there is the other aspect of this phrase, which is that it makes light of mortality, and the dissolving of identity through death.This phrase falls into the camp of dark humor, which as a genre serves a few societal purposes. It’s possible to apply Peter Narvaez’s idea that in the television age, we are inundated with images of death and destruction while being told that we should mourn for individuals who we have no direct relation to. Dark humor becomes a way of rebelling against the societal pressure to mourn, as well as the institutions that put these tragedies in front of us on a daily basis. In addition, jokes about death such as this one, deal with the inescapable fact that no matter what, death is inevitable. Unlike Narvaez, I also believe that dark humor serves another purpose as a coping mechanism to deal with heavy subjects such as mortality.
Q: “What’s black and white and black and white and black and white and black and white and red all over”
A: “A nun falling down the stairs”
My aunt describes hearing this on the school bus riding to and from middle school. She mentions that sometimes the joke was preceded with the well known riddle, “what is black and white and red all over”, to which a classmate would answer, a “newspaper”. Then the asker would propose the above question.
The above text is a cross between a riddle, and a dark joke in my interpretation. Going off of Oring’s argument, riddles question reality, disrupting the rigid categories we use to control the world. They transcend our perception of reality, which is an act of rebellion in itself. This riddle could certainly serve this purpose. An important factor beyond this interpretation, is that the joke/riddle was circulated among children. It’s a widely held folkloric idea that children’s folklore often rejects institutions. This is because children are so highly institutionalized on a day to day basis, especially in a school setting, where this joke/riddle was told. Another societal function that riddles serve in some cultures is to aid in education. Their structure is helpful for practicing memorization, and they provide an exercise in logical thought, as well as language manipulation. Interestingly, this joke subverts a well known riddle, to which the answer is “a newspaper”. I could see this subverted riddle emerging partly as a way of rejecting the institution that is public school, and its education tactics. Additionally, the subject of the joke/riddle is a nun. Nun’s are representative of yet another institution, one of Christianity. Of course there is also the basic factor of this joke being slightly gruesome and dark, referring to blood and injury. This could be an example of Narvaez’s idea of rebelling against societal pressure to mourn foreign tragedies. But it is also likely that children would gravitate towards gruesome or dark humor simply because it is not what the institution deems “school appropriate”.
“A moil was retiring and at the end of his career. He went to a tailor, and said ‘I’ve been saving the foreskins from all of the circumcisions I’ve performed in my career.’ ‘I would like you to make something for me out of them.’ He hands the tailor a jar filled with these foreskins. The moil comes back in a week and the tailor hands him a wallet. He said ‘that’s it?’, ‘All of that material and it’s just a wallet?’ The tailor says, ‘rub it, it turns into a suitcase’”.
This is a joke my dad heard from his “old dirty grandfather” when he was young. He prefaced the joke by explaining that a moil is a rabbi that performs circumcisions. Both my dad and his grandfather are Jewish.
This text qualifies as a dirty joke in that it deals with socially taboo material such as circumcision, genitalia, and masturbation. This joke toys with what is socially acceptable, especially told to a relatively young child. It is humorous because it is shocking and a little bit grotesque. Telling jokes with “dirty” material is an act of rebellion against social norms, which explains some of the appeal. I also can see this joke as told in this setting as an initiation, or a rite of passage. The fact that this joke was told to my dad at a young age by his grandfather leads me to believe that there was some sort of knowledge exchange or initiation occurring, from an older male member of the Jewish community, to a younger member. Puberty can be seen as a significant rite of passage, and this joke which discusses circumcision, genitalia, and alludes to masturbation, could be an unofficial signifier of male coming of age. This joke is likely only told in male jewish spaces, given that it deals with a Jewish tradition that only applies to males. It could be an indicator of comradery and masculinity in these spaces. In a way, by telling this joke to my dad, his grandfather introduced him to this boys club, signifying his coming of age. It is also interesting that the joke deals with circumcision, which is done at a young age, along with a reference to masturbation, which typically is associated with puberty.