Trust the Gene Genie

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

The Joker

Here's a question for you. What did teenagers in the early '60s want? Now this is the early '60s, so this was before the counter-culture movement -- you know, hippies, psychedelia, free-basing, Woodstock. The Beatles were still singing about wanting to hold your hand and, as far as I can tell, Frank Sinatra was considered the coolest living thing on the planet.

Or so I'm told. I wasn't there.

Anyway, the answer may surprise you. William Dow Boutwell tells the story:

One noon hour not long ago a secretary put her head in my door and said, "There's a boy at the reception desk. He wants to talk to an editor."

The boy came in and untied a sheaf of folded brown wrapping paper. "This," he said, "is what teenagers want."

Any guesses as to what was in the brown paper wrapping? Some crazy new sounds from a young upstart named Jimmy Hendrix? No. The follow-up to Jack Kerouac's "On The Road"? No. Hash-hish? No.

It was a manuscript the boy had written entitled "101 Elephant Jokes." The teenagers of the era, apparently, were clamoring for elephant jokes. Let me continue the story:

"Elephant jokes have had their day," [Boutwell continued]. "Everybody knows them or will soon. Are these new elephant jokes?"

"You don't understand," said the boy. "Newness isn't important. The important thing to a teenager is this: if somebody says, 'Why does an elephant do' -- well, anything -- you've got to know the answer. That's why I've collected all the best elephant jokes. There are also some new ones my friends and I made up."

So apparently, in the early '60s, teenagers were under enormous social pressure to memorize and recite -- on command -- elephant jokes or be ostracised from their peers. Those were some dark times, my friends.

Boutwell at this time was editorial vice president of Scholastic Books and the kid, Bob Blake, was a member of the Teenage Book Club (and a 14-year-old comedy prodigy). He got his way and strong-armed the editor into publishing his manuscript. What resulted was 1964's groundbreaking "101 Elephant Jokes." Claire managed to get a copy last weekend at a garage sale. You can imagine the hilarity that has ensued since.

The jokes are what you'd imagine. Absolutely unfunny. All of them end with exclamation points.

First you have the obvious:
Q. What weighs two pounds, is gray and flies?
A. A two-pound flying elephant!

Then the absurd:
Q. Why is it dangerous to go into the jungle between 2 and 4 in the afternoon?
A. Because that's when elephants are jumping out of trees!

And then the vaguely racist:
Q. Why are pygmies so small?
A. They went into the jungle between 2 and 4 in the afternoon!

You get the idea. But as Becky and I spent almost all of Saturday with Claire three steps behind us asking us each joke in the book, we discovered there were a couple really funny jokes inside.

First, the set up:
Q. What's the difference between a plum and an elephant?
A. Their color!

Then the book continues and three jokes later on the next page:
Q. What did Tarzan say when he saw the elephants coming?
A. "Here come the elephants!"
Q. What did Jane say?
A. "Here come the plums!" (She was colorblind!!)

It may have been joke fatigue, but when Claire read those, both Becky and I died. We laughed really hard. Anyway, I was genuinely amazed to learn the book was aimed at teenagers. Something inside me wants to believe this was a marketing ploy to get elementary school kids to buy the book believing teenagers thought it was cool.

Regardless, we're hanging onto our copy of "101 Elephant Jokes." I don't want to take the chance of possibly being ostracised the next time someone springs something on me like "Why do elephants like peanuts?"


Urpy said...

Oh man, I am wiping tears from my eyes. We need to Goggle Bob Blake and see where he is today.

Scott's Blog said...

Knock Knock.
Who's There?
Elephant Who.
That's the joke. Elephant.

As told by Rainier Wolfcastle.

Was that in the book. Sounds like it should have been.

D said...

Ok, the pygmies one was too funny.
I too have an elephant joke on hand for such an occasion as this...
Why is an elephant big, gray, and rough?
Because if he were small, white, and smooth he'd be an asprin! (of course!)
As told by Melanie Maughn after reading her Laughy Taffy wrapper.

urpy said...

Looks like two people I know are going to be getting "101 Elephant Jokes" in their stockings this year...

ThomG said...

As you can imagine from the depths of The Tension, I'm partial to Helen Keller jokes: "What's Helen Keller's dog's name? AWUWAUANUEA," as well ones like: "What do you call a guy with no arms and no legs in a hole? Phil." But then, that's just me.

Prasun said...

Came across this post as I was trying to figure out the publisher of the book. Amazing that you singled out my absolute favourite (elephant/plum) from when I was 9 years old...and it remains my all time favourite joke...but the set-up was different in the published version I had (now with my 9 year old nephew - so I will verify) - and *that* is the part I find brilliant.
Set up:
Q: What is similar about an elephant and a plum?
A: They're both purple...except for the elephant.

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