As a little kid, quite a lot of my time was spent listening to and telling what we called “dirty jokes.”
Some of these were straightforward and followed a familiar logical pattern, and were thus easily construed, even by me. For example, the endless variants of the “mommy mommy” joke, in which parental euphemisms for sex organs result in a punchline when used by an ingenuous child upon observing, say, mommy’s monkey eating daddy’s banana.
Most, however, were, and remain, bafflingly obscure, the result of my own naivety in such matters compounded by a previous string of countless retellings by other naifs. They took the form of jokes, and we all laughed vigorously at the punchlines (which we could identify because they came at the end, and were related with an imitation of a “knowing” punchline-like emphasis.) But as I understood, remembered, and retold them, they made very little sense. Reverse engineering them to try to arrive at the original “text” is sometimes possible. Every now and again, I’ll accidentally happen on the original joke written up somewhere, slap my forehead, and exclaim something like “oh, so that’s why she was in the closet with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches!” (Something I’d been wondering about for thirty years or so — and don’t ask: it’s gross, and also not that funny.)
But a great many such puzzles remain unsolved. I’m pretty sure, in most cases, it’s better that way.
The popularity of “mommy mommy” jokes, and their broad relevance to a kid even in the midst of imperfect understanding, isn’t hard to explain. It is an exaggerated, satirical recapitulation of a very common, relatable situation, in which parents and the society they represent attempt to obscure the truth with euphemisms. As jokes, per se, they aren’t that funny. But they’re fun to tell and hear because it’s enjoyable to observe that whole dishonest system of euphemism and evasion come crashing down. The moral is, why don’t you just tell us the truth about this stuff for once? Look what happens when you don’t.
Also, of course, it’s an excuse to refer to sex, which is very compelling inasmuch as it is something you’re not supposed to do for some reason; and, as importantly, it’s an occasion to say “swear words,” which is always fun, regardless of whether you grasp the full extent of their meaning and whether or not the story in which they occur makes any sense.
Most of these jokes are too gross and nasty to cite here even in mangled form. However here’s a very tame example, which I, as a five-year-old, placed in my mental “dirty jokes” file because it involved underwear.
The original joke was one of those “good news/bad news” jokes. As I learned much later, this is quite an old joke attested in many versions over the years, and this is basically how it goes:
Staff sergeant: okay men, listen up. I’ve got some good news, and I’ve got some bad news.
First the good news: after three months in this godforsaken trench, I’m pleased to report that we finally have a change of underwear.
Now, the bad news: Murphy, you change with Maseroni. Jones, you change with Parkinson…
Here’s the joke as I remember it being told to me, and as I told it many, many times throughout my childhood:
Army guy in a war: I have some good news and some bad news.
First, the good news: we were changing our underwear.
Now, the bad news: Michelangelo.
It always got a laugh, I swear. Must have been the underwear.