What's funny? What isn't? And why do I never get a laugh when I tell that joke about the moose?

Friday, June 11, 2010

At Long Last....the Moose Joke!

So what exactly IS the moose joke? And why doesn't it get a laugh?

In answer to literally several requests (mostly from Jon M.) I'll explore this burning issue, which illuminates several points about humor.

Once upon a time, back when Radio Was King, there was a wonderful comic by the name of Jack Benny. If you don't know Jack Benny, please stop reading, do an Internet search and listen to three or four of his radio programs. It's okay. We'll wait.

Jack Benny was a master comedian, even though he very rarely told jokes. In fact, his dialogue usually consisted of "Hmmm...." "But...." "You don't say?" and (when he got really excited) "Yipe!"

In fact, Jack was -- on the surface at least -- more a traditional straight man than a comic. EXCEPT that he had the greatest timing on the planet. As one of his contemporaries said, "Jack didn't say funny things. Jack said things funny."

In any case, Jack was also a very friendly fellow, and among his legion of friends were many comics and comic writers. One of them was a playwright and scriptwriter by the name of Norman Krasna. (Krasna is probably best known today as the scriptwriter for the movie White Christmas.)

"Hey, Kras," Benny said to him one day, "I thought of a great joke for my radio show: I need you like a moose needs a hat rack." And he waited.

"Well," Krasna said after a moment's thought. "It's funny. But it won't get a laugh on the radio."

"Why not?" Benny demanded.

Krasna explained that it was a "visual joke". The audience would have to think about the joke and draw a picture in its head before the joke would register.

It would take too long, he said, and the radio show would grind to a halt.

Benny disagreed. "The joke is funny," he said, "and I'm going to use it."

It should be noted that in addition to impeccable timing, Benny was known for his comic sense. Usually, if Benny thought a joke was funny, it was funny.

Not this time. The following Sunday during his regular radio broadcast, Benny turned to one of his co-stars and snapped, "I need you like a moose needs a hat rack!"

For one of the few times in his career, Jack Benny encountered The Awkward Silence. After a few moments (which must have seemed like an eternity) the show rumbled on.

A few days later, Krasna ran into Benny. "I told you so," he said.

No, Benny insisted, Krasna was still wrong. Benny had been standing too far away from the microphone. Or the he'd told the joke too slowly. Or SOMETHING. Benny would tell the joke the following week and get a huge laugh.

Uh-uh. The next show, Benny told the joke again, using every bit of his considerable comic talent. Nada. Nothing. Zippo. Crickets.

Krasna and Benny met again. Again, Krasna waited for capitulation. Again, Benny was stubborn. He was going to give the joke another chance. What Krasna didn't realize was that Benny had something else in mind, too.

That Sunday, for the third week in a row (which qualifies it as a running gag), Benny told the hat rack joke to dead silence.

Then he stepped out of character, turned to the audience and said OVER THE AIR: "I can't understand why that doesn't get a laugh. Three weeks I've been doing it and it's never gotten a laugh. Norman Krasna LOVED it!"

As a practical joke, it was virtually perfect. To Krasna, he was acknowledging his defeat on national radio. But as far as everyone else was concerned, it was Norman Krasna who had championed this painfully unfunny joke...and Krasna had no way to respond.

It didn't help that the national press took up the Jack Benny version, writing that Jack had kept telling the joke as a favor to his buddy Krasna. And when Benny cast Mel Blanc as "Norman Krasna" on a subsequent broadcast and had "Krasna" respond to the hat rack joke with a raucous peal of Woody Woodpecker's laughter.

Or that the hat rack joke was now got laughs every time Benny used it on the air (which he did for the rest of that season).

Lessons learned?

Visual jokes don't work in a live medium.


Don't mess with Jack Benny


Don't forget, Spider's Game continues on from the previous post.


  1. Jerry -

    You were right. That wasn't funny.

    (Well, what did you expect me to say?)

  2. And by state law you must only tell a moose joke on Tuesdays, Thursdays, or Saturdays.

  3. "I need him like the axe needs the turkey."