I have many items on my parenting agenda. I take the mission seriously. But I’m always careful to make those agenda points seem as if they arose from circumstance rather than carefully-planned Powerpoint slides.
One concern is that my son know how to tell a joke. He is three years younger than his hyperverbal sister, and he struggles mightily to keep up. I admire him for persistence and know that will serve him well. But I am gravely concerned that he yet lacks the nuance to both tell and hear a joke.
Last night the three of us were walking down the mountain to our car from L.A.’s Griffith Observatory.
“This is a joke:” my daughter said. “Why did the chicken cross the playground?”
“Because he was tired,” said my son.
A fight broke out.
“Did you really think that was the answer?” my daughter said.
“No,” he said.
“Then why did you say it?” (I would be telling huge lies if I said I didn’t marvel, right then, about how my daughter’s argument with my son mirrored similar ones I’d had with their mother).
I didn’t want anyone pushing anyone down the mountain (although if you know the story of the Griffith J. Griffith, attempted murder would be wholly consistent with the narrative) so I stepped in. I remember very clearly being six years old and stepping on jokes.
“Listen, Man,” I said. “Even if you know the answer to a joke, or think you know the answer to a joke, don’t say it. It’s called being a straight man. It makes the joke better. It makes the joke a good conversation. If you give away the punchline, the conversation stops. If you say, ‘I don’t know, what?’ the conversation continues. Then you get to tell a joke.”
“O.K.,” he said (he is the sweetest boy I’ve ever known).
“So why did the chicken cross the playground?” my daughter said.
“Ich weiss das nicht,” my son said in German (my kids are learning German in school, and they are way more fluent than I am). “Warum?”
“To get to the other slide.”
We all laughed. That was a good one.
“Why did the penguin cross the playground?” my son said.
“I don’t know,” my daughter and I said because we wanted to subtly reinforce not having to require me asking for word-by-word translation services. “Why?”
“Well, he didn’t,” my son said. “He called me to say he was lying. He didn’t really go there. And he was tired.”
Timing is so important to telling a joke effectively. But the medium is important, too. Maybe he’s a written word guy.
“That is the type of joke that is especially funny when you write it down,” I said. “I am going to write it down tomorrow,” I said (and so I have).
Then I thought of a joke but it required some explanation.
“Kinder,” I said, “if I get married again, do you know why I can’t have two wives?”
They thought it was a joke. They didn’t know I kind of regret it. The best humor comes from conflict.
“I don’t know,” they said. “Why?”
“Because having two wives (at a time) is illegal. It’s a crime called Bigamy. I would be a bigamist.”
“Bigamy. Oh,” they said.
“So why did the bigamist cross the road?” I said.
“I don’t know,” they said. “Why?”
“To get to the other bride.”
“Ha ha ha!”
We walked in silence for a while, trying to think of other words that rhymed with slide, but by then we reached the car. There was a ticket on the windshield. Apparently I’d parked next to a fire hydrant. I cursed the City of Los Angeles.
“That does not look like a fire hydrant,” said my daughter of the nub barely sticking out horizontally from the shrubbery by the side of the goddamn mountain. She is already very helpful and has told me she will gladly push me around in a wheelchair when I get old. I tell her she can do that as long as she pushes me into Mount Doom. “68 bucks is a lot of money.”
“Los Angeles collects more than $150 million a year in parking fines,” I observed, “mostly from your poor, blind father.”
“Poor Blind Father,” they said.
“What do they do with all the money?” my son said.
“Pay teachers less than they’re worth and pay meter maids to ticket people for parking halfway down a mountain because there’s not enough space in the parking lot of a City-owned observatory,” I said, “but also a lot of great stuff. I’m mad at myself for missing a ticketing opportunity.”
We drove home along Los Feliz Boulevard, the traffic flowing in our direction, the Observatory a beautiful beacon in the hills a thousand feet up. My son was working on his own jokes from the back seat. He was directing them at “Max,” a compendium of jerky children from recess.
“You look like a trash can,” he said. My daughter and I sighed; he was going to need work. “…with extra trash.”
I swear I am going to use that joke until my kids push me into a volcano.