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What I Really Know About Telling Jokes: Exit Smiling

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 Joseph Piper of Seven Lakes, N.C., shares what he really knows about telling jokes.

I’ve generally found that the people who have to tell you the latest joke making the rounds are not very funny people. This goes doubly for people who regularly e-mail reams of jokes to their friends. Indeed, I’ve received e-mailed jokes from people who have never once made an original humorous comment in my presence. It’s not that such people necessarily lack a sense of humor; they can appreciate a well-turned joke. But these people merely spectate in the House of Humor; they don’t perform there.

I’m usually considered to be a funny guy. (I suspect that’s why I’m often the target of these mass joke mailings.)

I was once in a bar where an acquaintance was telling the patrons about his uncle, a lumberjack, who had many tedious run-ins with his employer. After a lengthy discourse, my acquaintance reported indignantly that his uncle had been fired. Pausing ever so briefly, I said, “So they gave him the ax?”

It brought the house down.

More recently, I was golfing with a friend who made his worst tee shot of the day. “What am I doing wrong?” he cried plaintively.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe you hit the ground behind the ball.”

“No!” he said most emphatically. “I definitely didn’t hit the ground behind the ball!”

Again the studied pause. “Well then, try hitting the ground behind the ball.”

Now these two examples may not seem rollickingly funny to you. But they were instantaneous responses to the situation, and that to me is the funniest kind of humor. There are certainly occasions for well-rehearsed comic routines—Bob Hope made a fortune mining them. But if you ask me, nothing beats the spontaneous quip.

For instance, the most frequent visitors to our bird feeder are dark-eyed juncos. But my wife persists in calling them black-eyed juncos.

“Your problem,” I told her, “is you can’t distinguish between birds and peas.”

Exit smiling.

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