My best friend John Wahl and I were on a Southern culture road trip, driving my girlfriend’s boaty 1970s-era Oldsmobile along the perfectly straight and empty highway up from New Orleans to the Mississippi towns of Jackson and Oxford, stopping at the homes of Eudora Welty and the late great William Faulkner, arriving at the peak of our trip on the front porch of Elvis’ birthplace in Tupelo, and returning on Dylan’s Highway 61 through Robert Johnson’s Clarksdale, and the storied Greenville of Doe’s Eat Place, arriving back home in New Orleans wearing pants stained by the grease from Doe’s scrumptious tamales and unstoppable grins advertising the fun we’d had. All this tale to be told another time.
For this one, it’s night time in Memphis, after a bucket of ribs, in our hotel room. We’ve each taken one of the double beds, and we’re lying there staring up at the ceiling laughing our asses off. We can’t stop. To this day I remember that episode as the most irrepressible bout of hysterical laughter ever. One of those where you’re almost done, but then your friend cracks up again and you’re back at it, and then he’s almost done but you snort, etc. One of those where snot comes out your nose and your joints ache afterwards. What was so funny? John had told what he introduced as the perfect joke, one that even in his telling left him helplessly doubled over. For a very long time, for years, all either of us would ever have to say was, “That joke,” and we’d at least chortle, and sometimes tell the whole thing over again for a good, head-clearing guffaw.
John’s gone now, yet another tale for another time, but I carry his joke with me, and I’ve shared it with my wife and sons, to a mixed reception. My older son Nick didn’t get it at first. The punning phrase on which the joke pivots confused him, but then when he got it, he really got it. His brother Stephen, ever the rationalist, concurred that the joke was funny, chuckled a bit, but demurred on my insistence that it is somehow the best. My wife Chris, who, it must be said, finds South Park unwatchably disgusting, shook her head and judged, “That’s not even funny.”
I have just described for you our family dynamic in a nutshell. We get along.
At some point I ran across a humorist’s essay, which used this funniest joke ever of mine as an example of how jokes work. The essayist agreed that the joke John had told all those years ago in a shabby hotel down the street from Graceland was in fact perfect. Of course, I shared the essay with my family, each of whom responded exactly as they had when I first shared the joke at dinner. Yet my conviction grew that John had nailed it. The Ur-joke. I knew, of course, that he had not invented it. Part of the fun on our road trip into the funk of Deep Southern-ness was uncovering the magic in old stuff.
Fast forward to last night. From that rib-stuffed, rib-tickling evening in Memphis we have to jump, this is hard to say, forty years. I’m at our local gym on an exercise bike watching a movie on my iPad, well, actually an episode of the old Monty Python tv show, when – I almost slip off the bike – this Python troupe, that has in some ways defined for us what we think of as funny, tell the joke! They not only tell it, they build one of their extended, multi-narrative skits around this joke that in their version makes anyone who reads it die laughing. If you know Python, then you may recall it, and now you’re nodding your head, going, “Oh yeah, that one.” I don’t recall ever having seen this episode, however, wonder if John had, if the comedian who wrote the essay had stolen the idea from Python without attribution, or if perhaps this was and always will be the funniest joke ever, so that these disparate humorists independently arrived at the same conclusion.
Does it matter? The thing, as my family so clearly demonstrates, is that, like pornography, you know funny when you see it. And if it makes you (ahem) respond, with laughter in the case of a joke, then it works. If, like my wife, you combine an eye roll with a slow headshake, it doesn’t. Though in the case of this particular joke, barnacled as it now is for me with a long ago sweet memory of that Southern road trip with my best friend when neither of us had a care in the world, with the shaggy dog dinner table conversations it has sparked, with sober analysis by comedians, and now, I find, with the imprimatur of comedy’s ultimate arbiters Monty Python, the joke has far surpassed John’s original claim. It is no longer just the funniest joke ever, it has become a monument to laughter, and thus, in a way, irrefutable. Though one might add, somewhat dulled by a nostalgic patina that — rather than a belly laugh — leaves me wistfully grinning. The most wistful joke ever, what a concept!
The joke? I’m sure you’ve heard it, and that you’ve made your own determinations as to its comedic value. It’s the one about the dog with no nose. Like the punch line, my wife says it’s awful. What do you think?
ps – Please recite the following in a John Cleese as news anchor voice: I just read this essay out loud to my wife, who would like you to know that she does in fact have a sense of humor, that the joke is sort of funny, but she just took exception to my claiming that it is in any way special.