Monday, June 9, 2008

Stop me if you've heard this one

An acquaintance told me a joke Friday night; it was about a fellow who asks to collect some butter from the buttercups growing wild along a farmer’s fence; the punch line is risqué, so I won’t repeat it here.

I laughed, of course, because to do otherwise would be impolite. It wasn’t that I didn’t think the joke was funny; I thought it was hilarious—the first time I heard it. That’s not a big deal, either. “Stop me if you’ve heard this one—“ is a part of our culture.

But the first time I heard the buttercup joke was fifteen years ago, and four thousand miles from Seattle, and I haven’t told it to anyone since I got here last October. So, how did that joke make it across all those years and miles? I’m not talking about a joke that is like one I heard; this was the exact joke, word for word.

I suppose we could go for the easy answer. Radio and television comics have been bombarding us with humor over the air waves for the better part of a century; the internet has been doing likewise for a generation.

Even so, this particular joke is a little too racy for public broadcast, a little too sophisticated for the internet. And this isn’t the first time I’ve encountered jokes holding together for miles and years, just the longest and furthest example.

This has got to have been going on for a long time; maybe since people started telling knee-slappers to each other. So, I wonder; is there some sort of international organization that nurses jokes along, sending them back and forth to each other, slipping them into conversations all over the world?

An improvisational comedy group in Philadelphia calls itself the Ministry of Secret Jokes. Maybe these folks know something. Maybe they’re a lunatic fringe group, a militant splinter that doesn't care if other people know their purpose.

Maybe not; if there is a clandestine group spreading laughs hither and yon, I don’t think they would advertise their purpose in such a blatant fashion. There might not be any such group.

But if there is, wouldn’t that be funny.