March 15, 2010


As a little kid, quite a lot of my time was spent listening to and telling what we called "dirty jokes."

Some of these were straightforward and followed a familiar logical pattern, and were thus easily construed, even by me. For example, the endless variants of the "mommy mommy" joke, in which parental euphemisms for sex organs result in a punchline when used by an ingenuous child upon observing, say, mommy's monkey eating daddy's banana.

Most, however, were, and remain, unfathomably obscure, the result of my own naivety in such matters compounded by countless retellings by other naifs. They took the form of jokes, and we all laughed vigorously at the punchlines (which we could identify because they came at the end, and were related with an imitation of a "knowing" emphasis.) But as I understood and remembered them, they made very little sense. Reverse engineering them to try to arrive at the original joke is sometimes possible. Every now and again, I'll accidentally happen on the original joke, slap my forehead, and exclaim something like "oh, so that's why she was in the closet with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches!" (Something I'd been wondering about for thirty years or so.) A great many of such puzzles remain unsolved. I'm pretty sure, in most cases, it's better that way.

The popularity of "mommy mommy" jokes, and their comprehensibility, isn't hard to explain. It is an exaggerated, satirical recapitulation of a very common, relatable situation, in which parents and the society they represent attempt to obscure the truth with euphemisms. It's enjoyable to observe that whole system come crashing down. Also, of course, it's an excuse to say "swear words," which is always fun, regardless of whether the story in which they occur makes any sense.

Most of these jokes are too gross and nasty to cite here even in mangled form. However here's a very tame example, which I, as a five-year-old, placed in my mental "dirty jokes" file because it involved underwear.

The original joke was one of those "good news/bad news" jokes. As I learned much later, this is how the real joke went:

Staff sergeant: okay men, listen up. I've got some good news, and I've got some bad news.

First the good news: after three weeks in this godforsaken trench, I'm pleased to report that we finally have a change of underwear.

Now, the bad news: Murphy, you change with Maseroni, Jones, you change with Parkinson…

Here's the joke as I remember it being told to me, and as I told it many many times throughout my childhood:

Army guy in a war: I have some good news and some bad news.

First, the good news: we were changing our underwear.

Now, the bad news: Michelangelo.

It always got a laugh, I swear. Must have been the underwear.

Posted by Dr. Frank at March 15, 2010 08:58 PM | TrackBack

The latter joke made me spit wine down myself. Bravo!

Posted by: Leah at March 15, 2010 09:42 PM

you could probably tell the michelangelo version to a lot of thirty-somethings i know, and you'd draw some laughs.

Posted by: gnarles at March 16, 2010 01:29 AM

When I was in fifth grade, I laughed at a joke with the punchline "No soap; radio." Turns out, it was a fake joke designed to expose kids who laugh at jokes that they don't understand.

Posted by: Bill at March 16, 2010 02:14 AM

Ah yes, "No soap; radio". I remember falling for that once.

I also remember a strange joke from about 4th grade:
Q: Why is Peter Pan green?
A: You'd be green too, if someone hit your peter with a pan!

...even now that I know what a "peter" is, it's still odd. I mean, Peter Pan wears green, he's not green-skinned.

Posted by: Duncan at March 17, 2010 03:41 PM

Does anyone else remember a preponderance of scary/funny jokes with the punchline, "I got ya where I want ya, an' now I'm gonna eat ya?" The joke's protagonist always thought that this line (heard in a supposedly haunted house or wherever) meant his imminent demise, but in the end it would turn out to be spoken by a monkey addressing his own booger or something. There were a hundred variations.

Posted by: Adam at March 17, 2010 07:41 PM

How about, "When the log rolls over, we will all be dead"? Same basic idea and everything, but it usually turned out to be ants on piece of poo, floating around in the toilet of a haunted bathroom.

Posted by: buzz at March 18, 2010 05:09 PM

My five-year-old son is currently entrenched in this practice, and it's driving me crazy. Mostly because I can't rightly share all the good ones I know.

Posted by: alecia at March 18, 2010 08:44 PM