Towards the end of last century between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. on a Saturday night, Channel Nine broadcast a television show called Hey Hey, It’s Saturday. It was a peculiar show, featuring a genial host, an ostrich puppet, an unseen voice-over man, a hat on a stick, a band, singers and entertainers and a range of fun games and segments. One of the segments was the Great Aussie Joke. Shane Bourne and Maurie Fields would tell jokes sent in by viewers:
Little Johnny is sitting in the gutter. He’s playing with a bottle. The local priest walks by and says, ‘Little Johnny, what’s in the bottle?’ Little Johnny replies, ‘Sulphuric acid!’ The priest looks alarmed and says, ‘Give that to me! Take this bottle of holy water instead. It’s wonderful. Last week I rubbed some of this on the belly of a lady and she passed a beautiful little baby.’
‘That’s nothing,’ says Little Johnny. ‘I rubbed some of this on my dog’s backside and he passed a Mercedes!’
Who tells a joke any more? When was the last time someone said to you, ‘Hey, heard a good one the other day …’ and proceeded to tell you a joke. ‘Stop me, if you’ve heard this …’ but you never did. That was impolite. And you wanted to see if they could tell it.
‘Hey, I’ve got one for you …’ and that might start a half-hour of joke telling in the corner of the party. The guys who could remember jokes would start trying to top one another and the rest of us would stand around hoping for a laugh.
Because not everyone was a joke guy. I could get a laugh, but I never remembered a joke. Joke guys did, and they’d have a reputation. ‘Here’s Davo. You got one for us?’ And Davo would oblige:
Bloke comes home from work early. Goes upstairs, and there’s his wife in bed. She’s got the covers pulled right up. He looks at her and says, ‘Have you had a bloke up here?’ ‘No,’ she says. So he searches the room and in the corner of the wardrobe he finds a bloke standing there, totally starkers.
‘What the hell are you doing here?’
‘I’m from the council. Pest inspector. Big pest problems around here.’
‘But you’ve no clothes on!’
‘What?’ he says. ‘Bloody moths!’
Jokes die in print. It’s all in how you tell ’em, as the unfunny discovered when they memorised one, and tried to bring it out in the pub. If they didn’t stumble and got to the end without being interrupted, they’d get a polite chuckle. The joke guys got laughs as soon as they said, ‘Bloke comes home early from work.’
And it was a bloke thing. Blokes did jokes. Many a bloke found himself on the end of a bewildered stare when they tried to tell the wife the joke. Because the joke was often on her. The joke often relied on a male view of the world. Jokes about wives, mothers-in-law, blondes, hookers, nymphos: You hear about the bloke who had the dream wife, sex crazed nympho with a flat head whose father owns a pub? Many jokes were not for mixed company. Along with the women, religion and race were the other two staples.
Religious jokes were all about Jews and Catholics—the Protestants weren’t funny. Race jokes were about everyone who wasn’t a white Australian. If other groups were telling jokes about white Australians, they weren’t telling me. We told them though, the Poms, the wogs, the dagos and the Abos—and if they didn’t laugh we thought it was sad, they couldn’t take a joke. Not like us, we Australians. Say what you like about us, we can laugh at ourselves. Could we? Barry Humphries’ Barry McKenzie, an extended joke on the English perception of the innocent Austral abroad, did not find broad appeal locally. The middle classes were horrified when Hoges started poking shrimps on barbies in the United States.
Comedians took joke telling to a professional level. In Australia we saw the British comedians more than we saw Bob Hope. Dave Allen was a huge star in Britain and here. He sat on a chair, smoked and drank whisky. He told jokes about priests and nuns:
Little fella walking into the pub and standing outside is a nun. ‘Before you enter this den of iniquity, think of the damage alcohol will do to you,’ says the nun. ‘What are you talking about,’ says the little fella. ‘Have you ever had a drink?’ ‘No,’ she says. ‘Well how about I get you a drink and then at least you’ll know what you’re talking about. What’ll you have?’ ‘I don’t know,’ she replies, ‘what do ladies usually drink?’ ‘Gin.’ ‘Well, I’ll have gin, but put it in a cup so no-one will notice.’
Little fella walks up to the bar and says, ‘I’ll have a pint of bitter and a double gin in a cup.’
Barman says, ‘Is that bloody nun out there again?’
Allen cut to the chase. Ronnie Corbett was a little man who sat in a big chair. He could take the same joke and chase it around for ten minutes before getting to the punch line.
Watch the Parrot joke on YouTube, which involves an old woman, a parrot and an insurance man. When written out it is devoid of humour, but when Ronnie tells it, he gets huge laughs via some homosexual mincing, some talk of his non-existent fan mail: ‘I get letters from mother addressed To whom It May Concern’, and a side improv sparked from a laugh he gets from the double entendre involved in the word ‘end’.
It’s like we know the joke is going to be lame, but we’re terribly grateful for all the effort you made in telling it.
There were strange fashions in riddles. Elephant jokes: How do you know an elephant’s been in your fridge? Footprints in the butter. Name jokes: What do you call a guy with a shovel in his head? Doug. Light bulb jokes: How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb? One, but the light bulb has got to want to change. Dead baby jokes: What’s blue and sits in a corner? Dead baby in a plastic bag. What’s green and sits in a corner? Same baby six months later. Why dead baby jokes were funny is an entertainment mystery up there with why it was fun to nail a cat to a pole in medieval England.
What happened to the joke? It went online. We are still doing exactly what we did in the bar and the party and the staff room. We are just as eager as ever to make each other laugh but now we do it with the device. We see the funny video, we share it. That’s how it goes viral. We send the funny stuff to one another, or at dinner and at parties we hold out the phone. ‘Stop me, if you’ve seen this …’ but we never do because that would be impolite, and we wouldn’t mind seeing it again.
On Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat we share. That’s why it’s called social media. We share raw footage. Check out Trump shaking hands with Macron. Or anyone else, for that matter. Or Melania disembarking and seeming to refuse to take Trump’s hand. Then we make our smart-arse comments. ‘She doesn’t want to injure his tiny delicate girly hands.’ The joke guys have a new platform. Some raw footage lends itself to embellishment. When Trump was signing executive orders and holding them up to the camera he offered a gift to all who had Photoshop to write their own laws into existence. Many banned tiny hands.
And then there’s professionals. The US talk show kings, like all media, try to go viral every day. Stephen Colbert or Jimmy Kimmel aim for the killer monologue or great idea that we can’t wait to share. Check out actor Andy Serkis reading Trump’s tweets as his character from Lord of the Rings, Gollum. At the time of writing you’ll be laughing along with three million others.
Beyond the political, James Corden has a talk show that airs in the United States at 12.35 a.m. But his Car Pool Karaoke videos—where he and a famous singer drive around singing to songs on the car stereo—is huge online.
We have replaced the joke with the meme. Or perhaps the joke was a paleo meme. It was biologist and God loather Richard Dawkins who coined and popularised the term, inventing it to describe cultural ideas and entities that replicate like viruses and are subject to evolutionary pressures. He noted that fashion and music operated in this way. Now a meme is something that pops in your Facebook feed and can feature anything from a couple of cute cats to a hot dog—the most popular meme in July 2017.
Like the joke, the meme withers away in print. One meme takes a picture of cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants as its foundation. Sponge Bob looks contorted and sick. Above this picture a caption will be posted. The caption is in two parts. The first is a plain statement, the second a sarcastic repetition. I suspect by now, unless you have seen what I am describing, this description—which is accurate—is completely meaningless.
Here are a few more. Look for Salt Bae—a Turkish chef sprinkling salt. Or Roll Safe, an image of a streetwise London guy called Kayode Ewumi pointing at his head in a knowing kind of way. This image you caption with axioms that are wilfully wrong. ‘If I don’t check my bank balance, I can’t be broke.’
I could go on. It’s the internet I’m describing, it’s infinite and somewhat untranslatable. This is where the joke has gone, and it’s wonderful. Jokes, wit, humour, folk wisdom and merriment are alive and well and have never been more varied and accessible. Where once we had only blonde jokes, now we have mansplaining take-downs and manspreading memes.
The old joke tellers were charismatic but often sometimes kind of bullying as well. They commanded the floor and demanded your laugh. If you didn’t, you were derided for not getting it or lacking a sense of humour. Now anyone with an hour to spare can doctor a picture, join in a thread, get a laugh out there for us all to enjoy. Or ignore.
Like jokes, no-one knows why they take off. It’s obvious why we all liked the baby strutting into the back of the BBC interview with Korean expert Robert E. Kelly, but why did everyone spread and then use White Blinking Guy, or Laughing Chewbacca Mask lady let alone Charlie Bit My Finger—now ten years old and up to 851 million views.
So I don’t miss the joke. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t a joke guy. I could never remember them. Like the rules of card games and names of wines they just didn’t stick in my head. There was one, though. I loved it because it was the only joke anyone ever told me that was an anti-Australian joke. I learnt later that it had a proud history dating back to at least the immediate postwar period when the first refugees from Europe arrived. The joke has been easy to keep topical ever since:
Abdul and Mohammed are in detention in Australia. Then, miracle happens, they get their visas granted. As they’re leaving Abdul says to Mohammed, ‘Tell you what—let’s meet in front of the Melbourne Cricket Ground one year from today. I bet in one year, I can become more Australian than you.’
Mo says, ‘You’re on.’
A year later they meet outside the MCG. Mo pulls up in a Commodore, drinking a VB and says, ‘G’day Abdul. Mate, just dropped the wife at a barbie with the other sheilas, and the kids off at footy practice. What about youse?’
Abdul looks at him. ‘Fuck off, towel head,’ he says.