The Jokes That Last
BURGES JOHNSON has been writing and editing since before the turn of the century. He was a friend of O. Henry, and as a junior editor in the book department of Harper & Brothers he helped Mark Twain to revise his Library of Humor. Forty years ago Mr. Johnson became the editor of Judge, the comic weekly, and in this capacity he tested and sometimes tracked to their source some of the most amusing American anecdotes. It is amazing to find, even in those days before radio and television, how swiftly such folklore sped across the country.
by BURGES JOHNSON
EVER since we came of age as a nation our scholars have been gravely taking inventory of American folklore — the yarns and ballads of the New England coast, the tales of the Louisiana Cajuns, the fables and spirituals of plantation Negroes, and the legends of our mountain whites, our cattlemen, our lumberjacks, our Spanish-Americans along the southern border, our Pennsylvania Dutch. Folklore, the dictionary tells us, is made up of “traditional tales or sayings preserved unreflectively among a people.” Evidently we have a great body of such lore which is not confined to neighborhoods, but is wafted across the continent with a mysterious speed. I am referring to the American anecdote, the funny story, the latest wisecrack, the pithy saying, the far-blown thistledown of our social daily intercourse.
More than forty years ago a whim of fate made me editor of Judge, the humorous weekly. Throughout my editorship Tom Masson, editor of Life, was a close friend and weekly luncheon companion. Professional joke-writers, then as now, were inclined to search ancient files and glean many bits which could be dressed up in new phrases and sold to us at three or five dollars per joke. So we warned each other of these light-fingered gentry; and at the same time either one of us was inclined to boast whenever he thought he had captured a brand-new joke. There was, for instance, the story brought me by a Brooklyn schoolteacher, together with the documents in the case. A small boy had come regularly to her class so unwashed that he was offensive to those around him. In simple Anglo-Saxon, he stank. So finally she sent him home with a note to his mother, telling her to wash the boy before another school day. He returned with an answering note: “My Willie ain’t no rose; don’t smell him, learn him.” While that anecdote was still in proof for our next issue, Masson received it from a teacher in a Western state. Both contributors might have read it somewhere in print, but then my Brooklyn teacher must have gone to the length of forging the mother’s letter in order to make that sale. She was not that sort, I am sure. That was forty-five years ago; and I met the story again, just the other day, dressed up in a new suit of clothes.
I recall a young instructor from the University of Illinois who confided to me a “personal experience.” He had attempted to sympathize with a weepy young co-ed who came to his office to discuss a flunked examination paper, and she had responded indignantly, “I ain’t crying because I flunked; but I came here to get went with, and 1 ain’t yet.” I passed the incident along to sundry colleagues at a national teachers’ convention, only to learn that it was being told currently in North Carolina, Minnesota, and Kansas, and probably in forty-five other states.
There seems to be a grapevine telegraph from campus to campus all the way across America. That professor must have served a hundred colleges who left a note on his classroom door which read, “Professor Brown will not meet his classes today”; then found that some playful student had erased the c from “classes,” and thereupon himself erased the l. Scores of nervous freshmen over the years are on record as having entered the Dean’s office and asked his secretary, “Is the bean dizzy?”
Joe Lincoln was a frequent luncheon companion of Masson and myself, in those editorial days in New York. He told us once of his futile efforts to trace back to its origin a story he had heard in half a dozen towns, always localized, with the names of the participants given.
Aunt Emma, according to the story, was undoubtedly near death, and her anxious relatives hurried to Cas’n Eb’s boat-building shop, since the Cas’n was the only man who could build a coffin this side of Boston. Cas’n Eb was busy over a half-finished boat, but he was deeply sympathetic and said he would get at the job at once. On Thursday it was evident Aunt Emma couldn’t live another day; so they hurried again to Cap’n Eb, who was still at work on his boat. He was most contrite and said he would lay everything else aside and have the coffin ready Friday morning. Sure enough, he was as good as his word and drove up to the house with the casket just in time. But he had been a bit absent-minded and had put a centerboard in it.
In every town where he heard the tale, Joe said that the inhabitants could point out the boatbuilding shop; and they were much annoyed because Chatham or Wellfeet or some other town also claimed the story. Down around Portland, Joe told us, they tell the same tale, only the builder put a rudder on it. Somewhere, in some distant past, Joe believed that the incident really happened.
LAUGHTER, the psychologists tell us, is an involuntary physical reaction following a shock of surprise; and the unbelievable story seems to be one of our favorite ways of providing that shock a way which foreigners neither understand nor appreciate. Our folklore is full of animals who surprisingly talk — the milkman’s horse, the discussion between two Airedales, the ventriloquist’s dog, the parrot reproaching the chickens for swearing, the rooster showing his wives the ostrich egg. But greater in number than all other classifications combined are those anecdotes which depend for their shock upon the startling violation of a taboo. It is true of naughty stories, just as it is of swear-words, that they flourish most lushly where there are most taboos.
Robert Graves, the British essayist, catalogues these taboos under three headings — Sex, Religious, and Lavatory; the violation of one or another of these accounts for ninety-nine out of one hundred stories passed along sotto voce over the forty-eight states and over the generations. Such stories are pure folklore (if you know what I mean by pure), for they have circulated for generations among the rank and file by word of mouth and now are finding their way into print and over the air as the taboos grow weaker.
The story of the four evangelists playing a game of poker is ancient folklore; so ancient that many who do not know the story quote the phrase “No miracles between friends!” without any knowledge of its origin or context. Yet it provokes no laughter among two groups: those who never had felt any reverence for the names involved, and those whose sense of reverence is so great that it instantly smothers the laugh-reaction. I should add a third group — those who have heard it too often. All of our national folklore of this irreverent sort gained most circulation in neighborhoods where religious sentiment was strongest; then died of anemia wherever such use of venerated names and terms failed any longer to shock the majority.
A regained frankness as to sex, and a restoration of common sense in our society today, have brought into the open much folklore which once was furtive, however funny. Highly respectable men and women may now laugh together over whatever is truly laughable; while this new freedom has destroyed much messy trash which startled only because it was merely offensive. Joseph Cummings Chase recalls that when he was a struggling young artist he tried vainly to sell a clever penand-ink sketch of chorus girls in a theater dressing room, entitled “Belles at Evening Peeling.” Life and Judge and all other possible markets refused it because of “indelicacy.” A few years later someone else borrowed the title and easily sold a far cruder piece of work. Within my own memory neither ladies nor gentlemen ever referred to legs in mixed company. If those appurtenances had to be mentioned at all, “limbs” was the word. And in the “Cranford” era, the legs of the grand piano were hidden by pantalets.
The lavatory taboo is nearer death today than either of the others. Its boundaries always were the most difficult to define. Society has chatted freely about stoking our human furnaces, and at the same lime has forbidden any reference to disposal of the ashes. All of the terms which refer to biting and chewing and swallowing and digesting, and all of the parts of us involved in those processes, are not only common subjects for light conversation and even for jest, but are talked about far too much! Many good people seem strangely eager to tell complete strangers all about their tonsils or their appendices or their gastric juices; but at that point the social ban is imposed. All terms which have the remotest connection with removal of waste are interdicted.
The result has been the growth of a vast body of unwritten literature — the folklore of the nonconformist. Little boys learned to giggle at the word “bottom,” and surreptitiously wrote it on walls, while embarrassed mothers searched for substitutes. So powerful did this taboo become, in the not so distant past, that presumably intelligent men have gone to court to have their surnames changed, and judges have approved. Even words which rhymed with forbidden terms have been uttered self-consciously, and conventionbound hostesses were driven to fantastic extremes to find a way of asking the necessary question of a guest. Perhaps patent medicine advertising on printed page and billboard and radio has done more to hasten the demise of this taboo than any other single influence.
The breaking down of such taboos is unpredictable because, like changing fashions, they have no relationship to reason. I recall finding myself years ago in something of a predicament, but it lasted for only a moment. My fellow guests were exchanging the bright or surprising remarks of little children, so I added my contribution: “ Ma, they is a kind of a dog what has two rows of shoebuttons along his stommick.” The social atmosphere at once became chilly. Someone spoke of local politics, and someone else mentioned the weather. I hastened to confess that the anecdote I had just offered was to be found in the current issue of the Ladies’ Home Journal which I had read the day before at a dentist’s office. The atmosphere instantly grew warm again, and there was belated laughter.
Whether we like it or not, the “improper" story, for a few generations the peculiar stock-intrade of the convivial male, has lately undergone a social change. The psychologist has been gravely taking it into his laboratory for analysis to discover why men laugh at it, and what ingredient is owed to doe Miller and what to Freud. The sociologist has been studying it and calls it folklore; and Mr. Bennett Cerf prints it in his column and it becomes literature. This sudden change annoys the moralists; there was a time when any story which was naughty could not possibly be considered funny, whereas now, if it is funny enough, it is apparently no longer naughty.
The anecdotal resources of our nation, both righteous and wicked, constitute most of its nation-wide folklore. We have it all if we add the sayings and superstitions, the conundrums and epigrams and epitaphs, which maybe once had recognized authorship but now, like Mother Goose, are attributed to that most prolific of all our authors and poets, Mr. Henry P. Anon, Parson Weems will be forgotten but the cherry tree story will live forever. Oliver Wendell Holmes’s limerick which ends “And thus did the hen reward Beecher” has become authorless and eternal. Gelett Burgess told me he had met someone who scoffed at his claim to authorship of “I never saw a purple cow” and “I’d rather have fingers than toes,” and declared, “Why, that was quoted by folks long before you were born; nobody knows who wrote it.” The same thing is happening today to Mr. Hughes Mearns, who wrote, “I saw a man upon the stair, I looked again, he was not there.” Folklorists are assuming that it just growed, like Topsy. The Governor of North Carolina who first uttered golden words to the Governor of South Carolina has become a folklore figment, though there are a few elderly folk who think they can name him.
Limericks constitute a division of our national folklore deserving a subheading of their own. Many of them are disavowed by their authors as soon as created, for the pattern of a limerick, both rhyme scheme and meter, is so pert and sassy, regardless of the sense, that it invites irreverence and indelicacy. One wonders whether this ancient lyric form could ever be treated seriously save in Latin during the early Middle Ages. A British compiler wrote to many eminent persons of his day, statesmen, scholars, warriors, and churchmen, asking each to contribute a favorite limerick. It is amusing to note how many, including churchmen, replied that they hesitated to contribute their favorite for reasons of propriety but they willingly contributed the second best.
All of these rhymes and anecdotes and popular sayings have achieved a folklorean accolade when they are no longer repeated in full by intelligent people, who know that all other intelligent people know them. But they are alluded to, for the enrichment of a conversation, and the speaker is repaid by his hearer’s, quick smile of recognition: “For Heaven’s sake, sing!”; “It was bitten off”; “He might just as well have et ”; “O hell, make it Monday!”; “She ain’t no lady”; “Stranger, you want hash!”; “My brother is bringing pineapples”; “We went by way of Dedham”; “Gosh, how I dread it!”; “Must be suthin’ I et “; “Clumsy, ain’t he?”; “Pardon me, SIR”; “Excuse my pointing!”: “The horse blew first”; “Parts of it were excellent”; “All I want from you is seevility.”
In a century yet unborn, solemn professors emeriti will be collecting and struggling to decode these cryptic phrases, and then recording their findings in a learned paper to be submitted to the five-hundredth volume of the Atlantic Monthly.