I traveled to Iowa recently to attend my niece's graduation. Over brunch, everyone was discussing a story in the news about some idiot kids who burned down one of those landmark Iowa covered bridges. They got caught when they posted photos of themselves standing at the bridge with a container of kerosene. Just despicable. We all tsk-tsked about the fall of civilization and how somewhere, Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep were crying.
And my dad does what he always does when a conversation turns serious. He told a joke. Luckily, he knew one about a single-lane bridge. It goes like this:
Two automobiles are driving across a one-lane bridge from opposite sides. Both drivers come to a stop in the middle of the bridge.
"Back up, please!" yells the first driver.
"You back up. I've got a bad neck!" says the second driver.
"I got here first! You shouldn't be driving if you can't turn your neck!" says the first driver.
"I don't care how long we sit here. I'm not backing up", says the second driver.
"Fine with me!" says the first driver and he pulls out a book and begins to read.
The second driver gets out of his car and walks to the window of the first driver's car. "What's the book?" he asks.
"A Tale of Two Cities," says the first driver.
"Oh! I haven't read that. Can I borrow it when you're done?"
Last weekend, we attended my son's graduation and over lunch, everyone was talking about the nice goodie bags the University handed out at the commencement ceremony. Inside each was a rain poncho. And my dad does what he always does when the conversation turns mundane. He told a joke. It was a long one, not about ponchos, but about Pancho Villa, and he told it so well that when our table erupted into loud guffaws, the students of the esteemed University of Chicago turned in unison and stared, laughter being a seldom occurrence on the campus where "fun goes to die."
During the next forty-two speeches delivered in Hyde Park, I had ample time to think on the rare skill of public storytelling. And I realized that my father possesses a highly unusual skill: he can first extrapolate a joke from any random word and then turn it into a well-told story.
This ability makes my father a popular person at parties. Suavely sipping on his scotch on the rocks, he waits for his opening with the patience of Gandhi. And then snap! I've seen him make a hearing-impaired nun double over in laughter. No one is immune to his charm.
I asked my husband why my dad is so funny. He said, "Ask me 'what's the secret to comedy.'"
"Okay," I said. "What's the secret to ..."
"TIMING!" he said.
Seriously, my dad is eighty-four, English is not his native language, and yet he has a seemingly endless rolodex of material stored in his brain. I wonder if joke-telling is how he learned English?
And where does he get his material? He reads medical journals and The New York Times.
This is all a mystery to me. And since I'm now in the business of writing humorous stories, I've decided to study him. When I told him that I wanted to learn how to be funnier, he said, "Did you hear the one about the teacher who threw sodium chloride at a student and the student claimed it was a salt?"
Thanks, Baba, for all the laughs. Keep 'em coming.
In honor of my witty father, I'm listing two volumes of jokes, toasts, games, and puns. When the likes of Louis C.K. and Chris Rock get to be too much, flip open these books for some old-school laughs. (Actually, the material in these books is so outrageously lame, you'll laugh at what used to pass for funny.) Click on photos for shopping information.
If you like my posts, you'll love my newsletter. It goes out every Friday, and just like the books in the photo above, it is chock full of FUN! (Okay, sometimes I include an obituary, but only funny ones.) Join the hundreds of subscribers by signing up below: