My wife loves to laugh as much as anyone I’ve ever met. From the first minutes I met her I loved the way our voices joined in sensual and even openly erotic laughter. But learning what jokes you can share another person is a delicate business. I’ve bungled a lot of relationships, but I’ve never failed as egregiously as the guy who showed up for a blind date with a friend of mine while wearing a T-shirt that read “I love long walks on the beach… after anal.” I assume he did it just so he could tell his buddies that he’d done it. There’s a rule here: never treat other people as punch lines.
From my own blunders, I’ve come up with my own rules about joking.
1. Just because you meet a woman with an Irish name—my wife is Erin McGraw—don’t assume she’ll laugh at Irish jokes. Erin does. Though I’d just met her, she laughed happily at the joke about the man who drowned in the vat at the brewery. When his buddies inform the widow, she says, “I hope he at least died a quick death.”
“I’m afraid not,” Seamus tells here. “Before he drowned, he twice crawled out to pee.”
Yes, Erin laughed, but a few minutes later she mentioned pointedly that her father, brother, nephew, and niece were in AA. I groveled.
2. Don’t ask your new girlfriend of one week to listen to a comedy CD with you unless you know what’s on it. Erin and I had just settled down with to listen to my new CD, when Sam Kinison, the original shock comic, launched into a loooong description of how tired his tongue gets during cunnilingus. I squirmed for three miserable minutes I decided it wouldn’t be condescending to punch the off button and say, “That’s enough of that.”
3. If you delight your girlfriend with jokes that were the favorites of your last girlfriend, be judicious about revealing the joke’s provenance. Erin loves the joke about the two guys walking down the street when they see a bulldog sitting on the ground, his leg hiked up while he enthusiastically licks his balls.
“That looks great. I wish I could do that,” says the one boy.
“That dog’ll bite you!” said the other.
I felt so much like an adulterer, delighting one lover with the pleasures learned from another, that I waited a long time before I told her it was my previous girlfriend’s favorite joke.
4. Don’t make jokes about violence against women. But if you must, be sure you’ve made it clear you are mocking the batterers, not admiring them. Erin hates this joke: Q: Why are so many woman beaten by men? A: They just won’t fucking listen. To me, the transformation of the rational, even sympathetic guy asking the question to the deranged angry guy answering it represents the mind of the abuser. Erin sees it as too close to reality to be funny.
5. Fat jokes. Just don’t. Erin tells me that she was chubby in college, but because she’s been thin as a straw for as long as I’ve known her, I was startled when I began a fat joke and she bit my head off. I am now meticulous about this rule. So I was even more startled when we were watching TV one night and a comedian told a Yo Mama joke: “Yo mama so fat smaller fat women orbit around her.” Erin laughed till she cried and repeated the punch line for days. Sometimes a good joke trumps the rules. But I don’t violate the rule anyway, just to be safe
Jokes are fraught with potential missteps, but for the right people, the rewards are worth the gaffes. In the first weeks that I knew her, I told Erin the joke that remains her favorite, and it’s no surprise that it’s about sex and levels of sexual avidity.
A castaway finds Gwyneth Paltrow washed up on the beach. He takes her home and slowly, tenderly nurses her back to health. After three months, he says, “Gwyneth, I’m nervous about bringing this up, but I’ve been here alone for twenty years and I’ve never seen a ship. I hope you won’t think I’m being forward if I suggest we think about maybe having sex.”
Gwyneth isn’t so wild about having sex with a scroungy beachcomber, but with a little reluctance, she agrees. For the next two months they have almost non-stop, frantic, insane, passionate sex.
After three months, though, Gwyneth notices that her lover’s ardor has begun to decrease.
“You’re right,” he says. “I guess I haven’t been as besotted with you as I was in the beginning.”
“Is there anything I can do, anything at all, that will make our love complete for you?” she asks.
“Well, yes, there is. Do you mind if I call you Bob?”
Gwyneth is taken aback. But she shrugs, and says, “Yeah, sure, you can call me Bob.”
“And could you tuck your hair up under your hat and draw a little moustache on with some ashes from the fire?”
“Hey, that’s great. Now come here sit down beside me, Bob” he says, and pats the log he’s sitting on.
With a sigh Gwyneth sits down.
The castaway looks at her, smiles, and says, “Hey, Bob! Guess who I’ve been fucking?”
How lovely to tell this joke to a woman with whom you are in the wild, first stages of a love affair! We were both besotted with each other and yet we wondered whether the passion would endure or, as it were, peter out. This joke let us acknowledge that fear and laugh about it while reveling in the moment. We’ve loved this joke and each other so long that the shipwrecked woman was first Sharon Stone, then Julia Roberts and Halle Berry before becoming Gwyneth Paltrow—and it’s still a darn good joke.
Andrew Hudgins is a Pulitzer nominee and Poets’ Prize winner. Read the rest in his memoir, The Joker.