In a recent column, I referred to an ancient joke about a city slicker who hands a $15 bill to a hick town cashier and asks for change. The hick gives the slicker two sixes and a three.
I said the story was so old it probably appeared in the original Joe Miller joke book. Stan Lichtenstein of Bethesda says I'm wrong about that.
"The first Joe Miller," he writes, "was published in England in 1739, without Joe Miller's knowledge or consent."
Stan explains that Miller was an illiterate actor "whose principal object in marrying was to have a wife who was able to read his lines to him."
Miller specialized in comedy roles, but offstage was said to be completely humorless. He couldn't write a one-liner, let alone a book.
Apparently Miller was not popular with his colleagues. As a gag, a contemporary put together a joke book under Miller's name.
"The gag took hold, and an industry was born." It flourished for more than two centuries as dozens of Joe Miller joke books were published, not only in England but in this country and in many others.
The Joe Miller name and the jokes attributed to him have been around for so long that "a Joe Miller" is now recognized by millions of people as a generic term that refers to any joke that has a long white beard.
In yesterday's column, I used the name of a more recent humorist in a generic description of a weird gadget. I referred to the gadget as a "Rube Goldberg contraption" because Rube used to do a daily comic strip that often featured the wild mechanical inventions of his fertile mind.
Sometimes, it should be noted, young people become confused when they attempt to use proper names as generic terms. On the boob tube a few days ago, a glib announcer looking for a colorful way to say a man had dropped out of sight for a while said, "He did a Houdini."
The reference was to Harry Houdini, and the implication was that Houdini had gained fame by making himself disappear. The truth is that the great magician made other people disappear but never, as far as I can recall, made himself disappear. What Houdini was really noted for was his uncanny skill as an escape artist. He'd permit himself to be handcuffed, wrapped in chains, nailed into a crate and dropped into the river. Two minutes later, he would be swimming toward shore.
But Harry Houdini has been dead for 52 years, and this generation's perception of who he was and what made him famous is about as sharp as Joe Miller's sense of humor was.
FREE LUNCH REVISITED
In a recent column, I reported that when Col. Vincent F. LaPiana complained to TWA about a meal served to him aloft, he was told that the meal was a "gratuity" for which he had not paid. Jim Green of Sterling, Va., makes this comment on that item:
"In November of 1977, I flew from San Francisco to Washington on a TWA flight. For some unknown reason, I was never even offered a meal. I declined the booze when it was offered. Maybe that's why I got no meal. Afterward I wrote a letter to the TWA headquarters office in New York and received a check for the missed meal.
"This shows that the top people at TWA do have a price tag on their meals. They are not a gratuity."
FROM BAD TO WORSE
Remember Phil Brown, who received an incomprehensible tax notice from the D.C. Department of Finance and Revenue in October?
One thing on that tax form was plain enough. It said in boldfaced capital letters that the amount due was NOT to be paid yet. Wait for a tax bill.
The tax bill has now arrived, and Phil has been instructed to pay the deficiency caused by his arithmetical error -- plus interest from April 15 to Dec. 15.
Phil wonders why they wouldn't let him pay in October and save two months of interest. And he doesn't understand the meaning of the warning that if he doesn't pay by Dec. 15 "additional interest must be added in the amount of 3/4."
Poor Phil. He doesn't even know how much a whole (is, so how can he calculate an amount like "3/4)"?
If we really want to decrease the amount of sex and violence on TV, Herm Albright has a suggestion that gets right to the heart of the matter: "Cancel the pro football games and the antics of the scantily dressed cheerleaders."