The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Gene Weingarten: I declare these jokes groundbreaking

(Alex Fine/For The Washington Post)
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Many years ago, when I ran The Washington Post’s Sunday Style section, a copy editor came to me with an idea for a preposterous, obnoxious, nakedly seditious story. Larry Proulx proposed writing an essay extolling the joys and virtues of jaywalking — as though it was an art form to be refined and savored. I told him that such a story would enrage Washington, whose residents are famous for overly valuing obedience to laws — a place where, for example, sputtering civic outrage is regularly mustered on Metro escalators when some motherless miscreant dares to stand left, or walk right. I knew Proulx’s story would engender fury, so of course I accepted it. We ran it across three full pages, lavishly illustrated with diagrams showing, via dotted lines and vectors, just how to break the law with panache. We photographed Larry, unapologetically jaywalking, in a tuxedo and top hat and with a fancy cane.

People, indeed, went nuts. I, personally, was accused of municipal treason. It was one of the most subversive stories I ever ran in my section — I felt like Thomas Paine. It also made me realize that this word-nerd Proulx had a wild side. He was a guy who knew how to think outside the box.

I hadn’t heard from Larry for almost a quarter century until recently, when he emailed to say he had possibly invented an entirely new form of joke. I listened, skeptical but intrigued. Larry’s new jokes are delivered, always, in two short sentences, the first of which is a declaration, the second a groaningly appropriate exclamation in response. Two of his examples:

“Father O’Reilly, someone stole the painting of the Holy Family.” “Jesus, Mary and Joseph!”

“I love windmills, don’t you?” “Big fan!”

The general engine of these jokes — ironic call-and-response wordplay — is not unique, and lameness as a humor virtue is well-trod ground. But (possibly for good reason) in the 4,000-year history of the joke (the first known one, from Sumeria in 1900 B.C., was about farting), I could find no exact structural precedent for this. Perhaps you can. In the meantime, I shall declare these jokes groundbreaking. I sat down to write some, and thus to claim the canon for Larry … and, um, me.

“North Korea has banned satire and parody.” “No kidding!”

“Releasing emotion while in mourning has huge psychological benefits.” “Good grief!”

“We have nine people in this poker game.” “Big deal!”

“Constipation can last years.” “No s---!”

“Global health authorities are working diligently.” “Who cares!”

“Tying a necktie seems hard!” “It’s a cinch!”

“Your haircut can reveal a lot about you.” “Do tell!”

“Your only choice is to beg for leniency.” “Mercy me!”

“Sorry, you can’t get there from here.” “No way!”

“Horses can be lethal when they stampede.” “Whoa!”

“There are more than 2,000 palindromes in the English language.” “Wow!”

“Let’s buy a bidet.” “I’ll get right on it!”

“Kazoos can make good music.” “Hmm!”

“Whipped cream improves all desserts.” “Sweet!”

“The existence of beauty suggests there is a deity and He is benevolent.” “Good Lord!”

“When I enjoy a cigarette, I can blow perfect circles into the air.” “Holy smoke!”

“Here’s a tip: Give yourself more responsibilities. It builds character.” “Much obliged!”

“Virtue is its own reward.” “Not bad!”

“Stupid jokes can be funny.” “Duh!”

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