ESSENTIALS

36

A Go-To Joke

Of all the things a man should have at the ready—a handkerchief, a proper writing utensil, a twenty to grease the maître d'—none is more useful than a good old-fashioned one-liner.
Milton Berle photographed by Andy Warhol, 1986

'The Aristocrats!'

Back in the golden age of schmaltz, the one-liner was king. Henny Youngman, the greatest of the Borscht Belt yuk-niks, had a million of them. (We’ll refrain from repeating them here. They don’t translate all that well to print. Or the 21st century.) We’re in another pretty good era for comedy, but now the route to the grin is circuitous and talky, and the path is paved with agita. Want to make ‘em laugh? Tell ‘em a meandering, digressive story about a soul-crushing call to 1-800-PetMeds customer service. Heh!

The problem with this approach (aside from the time commitment) is that it requires a lot of thought. Which is why there’s no replacement for having at least one great, uncomplicated-yet-formally-structured joke in your arsenal. And you need to be able to tell it flawlessly, unprompted, with no hesitation or iPhone Googling. It should take a minute or less. Administered properly, your joke will set men at ease. It will endear you to superiors. It will curry favor with potential paramours, or at least help you identify those worth expending effort on.

A great joke is more than a technique for separating the wheat from the chaff. It can also be—not to get all serious and stuff—a great unifier. We may vote, pray, and talk differently… hell, you may even wear square-toed shoes, but if we’re laughing at the same joke, on a far deeper level we’re getting along.

Not too long ago, I wrote a joke of my own. It’s a dialogue, in a very classic mold; it requires two people to tell. I can’t do it justice in print, but the broad strokes are these: One party knocks on a door. The other inquires who’s there. The first identifies himself as himself. And the second? He smiles broadly. “Come right in,” he says. “I’ve been expecting you.”

I tell it to almost everyone I meet. The response? Tumbleweeds, mostly—I’d say one in ten laughs. But those who do laugh tend to do so really, really hard. To me, those are the ones worth spending time with. Provided, of course, they’ve got good taste in footwear.

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