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Fall 2015

On Jokes

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James Lasdun

I don’t have the type of mind to which jokes naturally adhere. The only one that has stuck in my adult life is the Woody Allen line This is my grandfather’s watch; he sold it to me on his deathbed, and it turns out I don’t even have the wording right. The way he actually says it is: I’m very proud of this gold pocket watch. My grandfather, on his deathbed, sold me this watch.

Either way, I’ve been trying to figure out why I find it so endlessly amusing. There’s the self-mocking Jewish joke aspect—the stereotype of tightfistedness exaggerated to a point of absolute caricature—but that doesn’t seem enough to account for its staying power. There’s the joy of having a bright, precise two-act drama staged for you in a few words, with the incorrigible grandpa at his last gasp, and the grandson unwittingly (or is it more a kind of tender tactfulness?) overlooking the stinginess as he rejoices in his possession of the family heirloom. But that has more to do with good storytelling instincts than humor. Then there’s the fact, if you look close, that you’re actually getting two jokes for the price of one. The Jewish joke—the sanctioned tribal laugh at its own expense—is completed as the expected words “gave me” are comically usurped by the actual words “sold me.” Only at this point do you ricochet back into the earlier phrase “on his deathbed,” which suddenly becomes funny too: a second punchline. It’s here, I think, that the joke transcends itself. Under cover of completing its ad absurdum exaggeration, it thrusts your amusement right up against the source of everything comedy exists to ward off, namely death, or the fear of death. Even as you laugh at the old scrooge’s futile avarice, a reverberating force drives your laughter in the opposite direction, into an amazed delight at his tenacity, his defiant refusal to stop being himself. We’re in Beckett territory suddenly, the realm of “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

There are more elegant statements about death. Larkin’s garotte-like pentameter Most things may never happen: this one will comes to mind, as does Woody Allen’s own line It’s not that I’m afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens (which I rediscovered while Googling the correct wording for this one). But I don’t know any that make me chuckle as dependably as this does. Like the watch itself, which turns from incidental prop to little glinting emblem of both mortality and endurance as the line loops through your mind, it just keeps on ticking.

James Lasdun's latest book is Bluestone: New and Selected Poems.


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