(The following is an excerpt of my newest book, What Is This—Some Kind of Joke? which is finally on sale wherever books are sold. Jewish bookstores, I’m guessing.)
One of the most annoying things about being a humor writer, aside from people constantly telling you that you used to be funnier, is that when you tell people what you do for a living, they all have the same basic reaction.
“Oh, you write jokes?” they ask. “Tell me a joke.”
There’s no other profession where people expect you to do your job, for free, standing on the street or at a simcha, right after you meet them, while they stand there and not pay you. Except maybe magician. Or dermatologist. It’s not like if you told someone you were a teacher, they’d go, “Oh, you’re a teacher? Teach me something.” And then they’d stand there expectantly, and if you don’t tell them something they didn’t know, they won’t value you as a teacher.
I can say this firsthand, because I’m also a teacher. I teach high school English, and no one says, “You’re a teacher? Teach me something.” In fact, I walk into class and the students say, “Oh, nuts! You’re here. Please don’t teach us anything today.”
But that’s it. Even if you say you’re a doctor, at most, people will tell you to look at something. They generally don’t tell you to operate on them in the middle of a wedding.
“I don’t know; there’s a washing station right over there, with pitchers, and these forks look pretty clean. You can just lance it.”
No, at most they just ask you to look at things, because everyone else they try showing these things to makes excuses to leave or just throws up.
But no other job. Really.
“Oh, you’re a barber? I have this hair…”
“Oh, you’re a waiter? Can you get me a drink?”
“Oh, you’re a boxer? Can you punch someone for me? Professionally?”
“Oh, you’re a judge? Who’s taller—me or this guy?”
“Oh, you’re a dog walker? Can you take my kids out for a few minutes?”
“Oh, you’re a babysitter? Hold this one.”
“Oh, you’re a librarian? Can I borrow money?”
“Oh, you’re a lifeguard? I just dropped my hat in the river.”
“Oh, you’re a tailor? Listen, I split my pants. Would you mind joining me under the table for a second?”
“Oh, you’re a dentist? How’s my breath? Relatively speaking.”
“Oh, you’re a chess master? Can you pass the salt?... What’s taking so long?”
“Oh, you’re a shochet?”
Or maybe people do say things like that with other professions, which is why, when you ask most people what they do for a living, they just say, “I’m in business.”
“Oh, you’re in business? Can you… Nah, I can’t think of any freebies. I don’t even know what that means. Everyone’s in business.”
That’s basically like saying:
“What do you do for a living?”
“I do things for a living.”
“Really? Baruch Hashem.”
But I shouldn’t complain. It could be that these people are just looking for clarification as to what I do.
In fact, some people ask me straight out. They go, “What do you mean, ‘humor’? What do you do? You write jokes?”
And I’m like, “Yeah, I write jokes.”
What am I supposed to say? Technically they’re jokes, but not in the way most people think of jokes.
So they say, “Okay, tell me a joke.”
That puts me on the spot, because the vast majority of my jokes don’t make sense out of context. Most of them are parts of articles about 1,500 words long, that take, on average, about six minutes to read.
“You got six minutes?”
And I can’t really tell them a single joke, because I can’t take a line out of my articles. The lines don’t work that way. Half the jokes in my columns require you to have read the beginning of the article. So should I recite the first paragraph of an article?
“Tell me a joke.”
“Sure. ‘Elul is a time to work on our middos, and there is no middah that we need to work on more than that of respecting other people’s feelings. And if you don’t think that’s the biggest middah we have to work on, then too bad on you, because it’s my humor column.’”
This isn’t something they were expecting. They were expecting me to say something like, “A rabbi, a rebbi and a rebbe walk into a beis medrash…” If that’s what you’re looking for, then what I say doesn’t even sound like jokes. It sounds like I’m just complaining about my life. My jokes aren’t really made-up stories. They’re more like things a stand-up comedian might say. But imagine a stand-up comedian had to do his routine one-on-one with a stranger in a huge social setting while yelling over the noise.
“So tell me a joke!”
“Okay, um… What’s the deal with the black box on airplanes?”
“I don’t know! Stop changing the topic!”
“Take my wife! Please!”
“What? I just wanted a joke!”
“I want to die peacefully in my sleep, like my grandfather! Not screaming and yelling like the passengers on his bus!”
“Can we do what I want first? I feel like if we do your thing, we won’t get to mine!”
People tend not to get comedy when you’re yelling it in their faces.
By Mordechai Schmutter
Mordechai Schmutter is a freelance writer and a humor columnist for Hamodia, The Jewish Press and Aish.com, among others. He also has five books out and does stand-up comedy. You can contact him at [email protected]