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

Monday, July 12, 2010

Ethnic Jokes

Q: What is an Ethnic seven course meal?
A: A serving of Ethnic food and a six-pack.

You've got to be very careful about ethnic jokes. They re-inforce stereotypes and foster misunderstanding among people.

The trouble is--dammit, sometimes they're funny!

Often the jokes not meant to be hurtful--the people who tell them are often simply thoughtless. And, of course, if you're a member of the ethnic group, you're "allowed" to tell that type of joke. That's why black comedians can use the "N" word, why Jewish comedians
can tell jokes about how cheap and cowardly they are, why Irish comedians can tell jokes about their drunken families, etc. etc. ad nausium.

People ethnic sterotypes as a kind of shorthand. When you say "A Pole walks into a bar" it's a signal that it's going to be a joke about a stupid person. If the guy walking into the bar is Italian, it's going to be a joke about gangsters, and so on.

Because I really don't want to offend anybody, I try to tell ethnic jokes about "Ethnics" or sometimes "Aliens". (Also because I don't want to get beaten up...see my earlier entry about "Your Dentist") .

The first ethnic joke I think I heard was about Poles. "Pollack jokes" had great currancy in the 1950s and 1960s. Poles, according to the jokes, were stupid and liked to drink. Also, Polish women were particularly hairy.

Q: How many Pollacks does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Four. One to hold the light bulb, and three to turn the ladder around.

How do you like that? A Polish joke AND a light bulb joke, both at the same time?

Like light bulb jokes--or elephant jokes for that matter--the ethnic joke also benefits from a cumulative effect--if one is funny, two is funnier and so on. There must be a point of diminishing returns on such thing, but I suspect it's a matter of individual taste.

I think that "cheap" ethnic jokes probably predate Polish jokes. In a lot of the world, these are Jewish jokes, but in my neighborhood, they (and in most of New York, I think) they were "Scotch" jokes. (No, they weren't about whiskey.)

Here's one that HAS to take place in Scotland. It's a little off color, but bear with me:

A Scotsman, in full Highland outfit (including kilt) comes marching proudly down the hill and walks stiffly into a drug store.

He marches up to the druggist behind the counter, reaches into a pocket and pulls out a prophylactic. "I'm afraid this has developed a leak," he says. "Can ye patch it?"

The druggist looks at it, and says: "I suppose it can be patched, but why not just buy a new one?"

The Scotsman considers this. "I'll have to get back to you on that." He turns on his heel and leaves the store.

The next day, the Scotsman once again comes marching proudly down the hill and into the drug store. He marches up to the druggist behind the counter and says, "I've consulted with the Regiment, and we've voted to have it replaced!"

Although Ethnic jokes can often involve cheapness, cowardice or drunkenness, I suppose most Ethnic jokes are about how stupid a given ethnic group is. (Interestingly, stupid ethnic jokes are rarely told about Asians or Jews) In the US, stupid jokes actually are applied to individual states: Garrison Keillor likes to tell Iowa jokes, and of course everybody picks on New Jersey.

Q: How does a New Jersey native recite the alphabet?
A: Frickin' A! Frickin' B! Frickin' C!

(Had to clean that one up a bit....)

Of course, such jokes are tidied up for kids, which explains the emergence of "moron" or "idiot" jokes.

Q: Why did the moron throw the clock out the window?
A: He wanted to see time fly.

Since both "moron" and "idiot" are clinical terms, so it's possible that I'm being politically incorrect merely mentioning them.


For grown-ups, moron jokes have morphed into "blonde" jokes. We're allowed to make fun of blondes because we know that they're actually at an advantage in the real world....it's all jealousy, really.

A brunette, a redhead and a blonde are on the run from the police, and hide on a farm. With cops hot on their tail, they each climb into a burlap sack.

The cop pokes the first sack, where the brunette is hiding. "Meow! Meow" says the brunette. The cop figures it's a cat, and puts the bag down.

He goes to the second sack, where the redhead is hiding. "Oink! Oink!" says the redhead. "The cop figures it's a pig, and puts the bag down.

The cope pokes the third sack, where the blonde is hiding. "Potato! Potato!" says the blonde.

Finally, sometimes professions have specialized "moron" jokes. In the world of singing, blonde jokes are told about sopranos.

In the instrumental world, they're told about banjo players, or more often, about violists.

The conductor returns from lunch to find the principal violist in a furious fist-fight with one of the violinists.

"Break it up!" bellows the conductor. The cello section finally manages to separate the two.

"What's going on?" demands the conductor.

"This sonofabitch loosened one of my pegs, and now my viola is out of tune!" snarls the violist.

"It was just a joke," mutters the violinist.

"Well, it wasn't very nice," begins the conductor.

"You don't understand," howls the violist, "He WON'T TELL ME WHICH ONE IT IS!!!"

Anybody else know of any "stupid" professions?


  1. There are always mathematician/physicist/engineer jokes (or at least one of the above). But before I start, we should let your son contribute any "new" ones he may have heard.

    Then there was a physics professor I had once, who after a long derivation came up with an expression that had a factor of (1 / 192 pi) out front. He marveled (or invited us to) at the appearance of such a large integer coming out of purely theoretical calculation (the various "factors of 2," and one factor of 3, having somehow just conspired to all combine in the denominator rather than mostly canceling out), and said "This is the sort of thing that can give scientists a wholly undeserved sense of superiority over those in the humanities, and a wholly deserved sense of superiority over those in the social sciences." I think he was also the one who in some public lecture made some remark about "the sciences and the humanities," and added "I omit mention of the social sciences, because they do not exist." (On the more geeky side, he once said, and I think I have it in print, "This is a non-local function, but that's neither here nor there.")

    (Word verification: "flasq" -- if you think it's spelled that way, put it away, you've had enough.)

  2. And then there are George Steinbrenner jokes ...

  3. Nah, Newfies are too d*mn big. Stick to Labs.

  4. There are many genres of musician jokes. Folk musicians tell jokes about themselves (What is the rarest phrase in the English language? "The folk musician's Porsche"), musicians generally tell nasty jokes about drummers (What do you call a drummer who breaks up with his girlfriend? Homeless). Irish musicians tell jokes about bodhranists: http://www.ceolas.org/instruments/bodhran/jokes.shtml

    But let us not overlook lawyer jokes, which have been triving at least since classical Rome. We don't even need to tell them: the punchlines suffice. "A good start" "Professional courtesy!"

  5. BTW, the "Polish / lightbulb" joke may in fact be the "original" lightbulb joke. (It's certainly the first I ever heard, probably years before any others.) For all I know, it may also be the original Polish joke. Though I'm sure it was not the original "ethnic joke," which must be older than lightbulbs by centuries if not millennia.

    Also BTW, some years (OK, decades) back, I had some coworkers from Poland and some others from Russia, both when they were still Communist. The Poles told me that the kind of jokes Americans tell as Polish jokes, they used to tell as Russian jokes. And the Russians said they told them as policeman jokes.