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What I Really Know About Telling Jokes: Making Mom and Grandma Blush

The AARP Bulletin's "What I Really Know" column comes from our readers. Each month we solicit short personal essays on a selected topic and post some of our favorites in print and online. Below, reader Barbara Burris of Burlington, Wis., shares what she really knows about telling jokes.

My father was a great teller of jokes, and he came home with a new one nearly every night. At age 5, I had a remarkable memory. I memorized nearly every joke he told. Quietly, I’d stand nearby, taking in everything he said and noting how the other adults reacted. I had no concept of the meaning of the words, but I knew that if Mom or Grandma blushed (or if Mom seemed angry that he told the joke in front of me), it had to be especially good.

Eventually, I’d select an audience for my material and try it out. I had a knack for matching the most off-color jokes with the audiences I felt would register the most shock. I was at my best during dinners with my disapproving paternal grandparents or my elderly great-aunts. I also figured out early on that anyone from church was a sure-fire win. I delighted in their stares or gasps.

Needless to say, my mother was not pleased with this particular expression of my talent, and by age 6 I knew the taste of Lava soap as well as I knew the flavor of a ham sandwich (to this day I credit that soap grit for keeping my teeth plaque-free and healthy).

Fortunately for my parents, I grew out of my desire to be the center of attention. I never lost my love of humor, though. There is truly something cathartic about laughing so hard that tears stream from your eyes, your sides ache and you end up gasping for breath. At my age now, the only negative is that the stress on my bladder sometimes threatens to embarrass me—but it’s worth the risk.


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