The Tournament of Books  |   A champion is decided as The Good Lord Bird meets Life After Life

Ads via The Deck

Punchlines

Dark Material

There is a brand of humor with an inherent meaning so dark that, even though we may wish we hadn’t laughed, we’re programmed to think it’s funny. An explanation of a joke about a pedophile.

Alex Mirutziu, Self portrait with black tape in false lube, 2007. Courtesy of the artist and Sabot Gallery, Cluj-Napoca.

The joke:

A pedophile and a little boy are walking through the woods at night. The boy says, “Mister, I’m scared.” The pedophile says, “You’re scared? I’m the one who has to walk home alone.”

Before I became a parent, I worried that it might change me in ways I didn’t want it to. Would I replace any of the vowels in my child’s name with a pretentious “y”? Would I stop myself before shouting things from my car window? Would I suddenly become Tipper Gore? So far, the answers are no, no, and not with these legs.

I also worried that I would be obligated to stop finding certain jokes funny. I’m hard to offend, and I like it that way. But just wait until my baby reaches the age of the boy in the woods. The often-quoted truism “tragedy plus time equals comedy” usually refers to a single event with an agreed-upon ending—a Seven Years’ War, or a Krakatoa. They resonate, but they exist at a remove. The crimes perpetrated against children are ever-present, and there is no shortage of parents suffering every day through ordeals I can only imagine.

How do I justify laughing at this joke? Make no mistake, I do laugh at it. I think it’s pretty great.

And I do imagine them. Having a child has turned my house into Schrödinger’s box. Every time I step inside the door, nothing is certain and every sickening detail from every news item I’ve ever read is possible—until I hear some familial noises. So how do I justify laughing at this joke? Make no mistake, I do laugh at it. I think it’s pretty great. Charles Bukowski is often cited as the source, but I have to believe that every joke Bukowski ever told he learned in a bar. Though its provenance may be unclear, its longevity shouldn’t be surprising.

In his lifelong study of folklore, the great scholar Alan Dundes frequently deconstructed the jokes we laugh at, including the sick ones. Naturally, he wrote about “gallows humor,” but he was careful to distinguish it from something called “executioner’s humor”—jokes told not by the man in the noose, but by the hangman, the one complicit in the awfulness of the situation. According to Dundes, cracking wise means the hangman acknowledges the murder, admits his role in it, and by owning it, believes himself absolved from guilt. From Dundes’s and Thomas Hauschild’s Auschwitz Jokes:

Auschwitz is a problem for the conscience of modern Germany, and that is no doubt why Auschwitz jokes exist and circulate. It is not easy to make light of Auschwitz and the travesty of human decency that occurred there. At least the Auschwitz joke cycle indicates that Germans, or at any rate some Germans, are admitting that the tragic events of Auschwitz did happen… [The] jokes would seem to be an admission that the horrors of the death camps are a reality that has to be faced. But the reality is so ghastly, so terrible, so frightful that it is difficult to confront. This is surely another reason why these jokes are recounted. They allow the joketeller and his audience to admit that Auschwitz is a part of German history…

The principle remains the same for less atrocious failings—at one point or another, we’ve all been the executioner. We can hardly be compared to Nazi death camp guards, but when we make a joke about the environment while tossing our disposable diapers; when we call ourselves Cruella de Vil for the way we’ve treated a sales clerk; even when we say “first world problems” to mitigate a selfish gripe, we’re following in their spiritual footsteps.

Outwardly, we’re rooting for the little boy in the joke, but our connection is to the man. The boy—to add insult to injury—isn’t even the protagonist here. He’s an accessory. He’s also the straight man, for lack of a better term. Not only is he about to meet a dreadful fate, but we’re to believe that his fate is secondary. We’re being asked to identify with a pedophile, and we’re not being eased into it.

As the novelist Brock Clarke writes, “The ability to empathize with the people we hate is exactly the quality which makes us human beings, which makes you wonder why anybody would want to be one.”

Why It’s Funny

In many jokes, the setup line is something of a joke in itself. Jesus Christ is golfing with some friends; three nuns walk into a strip joint; a horse wakes up in bed with a giraffe. Some jokes are so weighted toward the setup that it becomes a larger comment on the joke. A good example of this would be Eddie Murphy’s classic, “A bear and a rabbit are taking a shit in the forest,” although it’s kind of a cheat, since in his preamble, Murphy says this is a joke for kids.

 

The setup can also act as a mission statement for the joke and, sometimes, the whole act. Andrew Dice Clay’s first HBO special begins with a cold open: “So I’ve got my tongue up this chick’s ass…” In other words, get ready, because I’m about to sift the prudes from the hip. I’m giving you permission to be hip. This is what to expect, and if you laugh, you belong here. Few words force you to make that choice as quickly as “pedophile” does.

Consider the word itself. It doesn’t have to be there. You could argue that “A man and a boy are walking through the woods” is funnier, because you’re not tipping your hand early—or maybe you want to downplay the sexual angle. But it’s too oblique; the sense of dread isn’t palpable. “A murderer and a little boy” lessens the impact of the punchline and removes all doubt about the outcome. “Pedophile” works because it’s an audacious attention-getter and it leaves the question of murder up in the air.

How It Wouldn’t Be Funny

A comedian friend once tried out the following joke on me: “The good news is, they found Cecilia Zhang…”

Cecilia Zhang was a nine-year-old Toronto girl abducted from her home in 2003. Police searched for over a year as the case caught attention in the U.S. and her native China. Hopes ran high that she would be recovered alive. A hiker finally found her remains in a ravine—that would be the unspoken “bad news.” Mere days after the discovery, my friend decided the wound was too raw to say the line onstage. Moreover, the joke fails because it just sits there—it’s too obvious. Nothing is up in the air. It’s a second cousin to popular-reference-as-comedy. To justify invoking Zhang, you need something in a different league from the hoary good news/bad news structure.

Joan Rivers would never call any subject untouchable. But she has an innate feel for finding the perfect slant on a taboo. Watch her angrily confront a heckler offended by a Helen Keller joke:

 

The fact that Keller is a figure from history doesn’t soften the impact of the joke for the man who walks out, proving again that time doesn’t always allow for comedy, but history isn’t the point: If you have a deaf or mute son, you might resent someone wishing it on their own child. I’m not sure his heckling warrants this level of vitriol from Rivers—has she made an “Edgar joke” since her husband committed suicide in 1987?—and having a deaf parent isn’t quite the same as raising a deaf child, but Rivers has always known that humor is a way of dealing with pain, not belittling pain. You get through it, as they say, not over it. With the right joke, we can at least start lurching toward the path out of the forest.

 

It comes to this: The pedophile thinks his fear of the woods is somehow equal to or greater than the boy’s fear. We who laugh, laugh because we couldn’t possibly accept this. We know we’re still grounded in at least one way. Liking this joke doesn’t make you a good person, but at least you can say you’re not psychotic for laughing.

Some might say it’s still not funny and thinking otherwise is worse than Hitler doing a Joan Rivers impression. Others might say please, our family tells worse pedophile jokes at Christmas dinner. Maybe it’s Schrödinger whispering in my ear, but I never know these days what’s going to make me clutch my child and turtle myself on the ground. Dead baby jokes, which have a greater pedigree than this one, turn me off completely.

Before my son was born, I knew why jokes like these had the power to shock. Now, I know why they should, and I’m glad they do. When they lose that power, our society will be diminished and, saddest of all, less funny. All my worries tend to have their resolution in my son’s face, and when he’s laughing, it’s ten times as true. They say it’s a lousy world to grow up in. I’m going to make sure he knows it’s a hilarious one.

biopic

TMN Contributing Writer Michael Rottman lives like a lord in Toronto. His miscellany has appeared in print in The Fiddlehead, Grain, and Opium, and online at Yankee Pot Roast, Cracked, News Groper, and McSweeney’s. More by Michael Rottman