November 30, 2012

Stop him if you’ve heard this one. (David James/Disney-DreamWorks II via Associated Press)

Ah, Lincoln. Emancipator. Orator. Patron saint of the bad joke. 

I haven’t made it to the Spielberg film yet (still waiting for my stovepipe hat to come back from the cleaners), but I hear it gives the joker in Lincoln due credit. Still, no single movie can possibly hope to encompass all of Lincoln’s wit, if “wit” is the word I want. His contemporary, writer Sarah Jane Lippincott, might have preferred another. P.M. Zall quotes from her “Records of Five Years” the observation that “I really think that Mr. Lincoln’s propensity for story-telling has been exaggerated by his enemies. I had once the honor of conversing with him, or rather of hearing him converse, for several minutes, and in all that time he only told four little stories.”

In tribute to the man, relying on my copy of Zall’s “Abe Lincoln Laughing: Humorous Anecdotes From Original Sources by and about Abraham Lincoln,” here are eight of the worst jokes Abraham Lincoln ever made.

8. Critters. “I heard a good story while I was up in the country. Judge D was complimenting the landlord on the excellence of his beef. ‘I am surprised,’ he said, ‘that you have such good beef. You must have to kill a whole critter when you want any.’ ‘Yes,’ said the landlord, ‘we never kill less than a whole critter.’ “

7. All Right. After Secretary of War Edwin Stanton replied to a telegram demanding urgent instructions with “all right, go ahead”: “I suppose you meant,” said Mr. Lincoln, “that it was all right if it was good for him, and all wrong if it was not. That reminds me,” said he, “of a story about a horse that was sold at the cross-roads near where I once lived. The horse was supposed to be fast, and quite a number of people were present at the time appointed for the sale. A small boy was employed to ride the horse backward and forward to exhibit his points. One of the would-be buyers followed the boy down the road and asked him confidentially if the horse had a splint. ‘Well, mister,’ said the boy, ‘if it’s good for him he has got it, but if it isn’t good for him he hasn’t.’”

6. Broke. Addressing a gathering of newspaper editors, “Mr. Lincoln said that he was very much in the position of the man who was attacked by a robber, demanding his money, when he answered, ‘My dear fellow, I have no money, but if you will go with me to the light, I will give you my note.’ “

5. Bridge to Hell. “I once knew,” Lincoln said, “a good sound churchman, whom we will call Brown, who was in a committee to erect a bridge over a very dangerous and rapid river. Architect after architect failed, and, at last, Brown said, he had a friend named Jones who had built several bridges and could build this. ‘Let us have him in,’ said the committee. In came Jones. ‘Can you build this bridge, sir?’ ‘Yes,” replied Jones. ‘I could build a bridge to the infernal regions if necessary.’ The sober committee were horrified. But when Jones retired, Brown thought it but fair to defend his friend. ‘I know Jones so well,’ said he, ‘and he is so honest a man, and so good an architect, that if he states, soberly and positively, that he can build a bridge to Hades, why, I believe it. But I have my doubts about the abutment on the infernal side.’… When politicians said they could harmonize the northern and southern wings of the democracy, why, I believed them. But I had my doubt about the abutment on the southern side.”

4. Fleas. From Lincoln secretary John Hay’s diary: “The President said the Army dwindled on the march like a shovelfull of fleas pitched from one place to the other.”

3. Good news? (same source): “Tonight the President said he was much relieved at hearing from Foster that there was firing at Knoxville yesterday. He said anything showing Burnside was not overwhelmed was cheering: ‘Lil Sally Carter, when she heard one of her children squall would say, “There goes one of my young ‘uns, not dead yet, bless the aloes.”‘”

2. Contagion. From the Feb. 17, 1864, New York Post’s “Several Little Stories by or about President Lincoln”: “One of the latest reported is his remark when he found himself attacked by people asking favors. ‘Well,’ said he, when the contagious disease was coming upon him, ‘I’ve got something now that I can give to everybody.’”

1. The Farting Carver. (via William Herndon): “Well there was a party once, not far from here, which was composed of ladies and gentlemen. A fine table was set and the people were greatly enjoying themselves. Among the crowd was one of those men who had audacity — was quick-witted, cheeky and self-possessed — never off his guard on any occasion. After the men and women had enjoyed themselves by dancing, promenading,  flirting, etc., they were told that the table was set. The man of audacity — quick-witted, self-possessed and equal to all occasions — was put at the head of the table to carve the turkeys, chickens and pigs. The men and women surrounded the table, and the audacious man being chosen carver whetted his great carving knife with the steel and got down to business & commenced carving the turkey, but he expended too much force & let a fart — a loud fart so that all the people heard it distinctly. As a matter of course it shocked all terribly. A deep silence reigned. However the audacious man was cool and entirely self-possessed; he was curiously and keenly watched by those who knew him well, they suspecting that he would recover in the end and acquit himself with glory. The man, with a kind of sublime audacity, pulled off his coat, rolled up his sleeves, put his coat deliberately on a chair, spat on his hands, took his position at the head of the table, picked up the carving knife and whetted it again, never cracking a smile nor moving a muscle of his face. It now became a wonder in the minds of all the men and women how the fellow was to get out of his dilemma. He squared himself and said loudly & distinctly: “Now, by God, I’ll see if I can’t cut up this turkey without farting.”

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.