15 May 2010


I haven’t put up a post in a good long while—I’ve been reading too many jokes. None of them in the news, though the news is full of them.

But Gary loves this one:

A Jew, we’ll call him Boris, comes into the Communist Party office and asks for membership. The official looks at him and says, “Do you know who is Karl Marx?”
Boris says, “No.”
Well,” says the official, “do you know Vladimir Lenin.”
”Never heard of him,” Boris replies.
Losing patience, the official asks, “And who is Comrade Molotov?”
And Boris says, “I don’t know.”
The official says, “Are you playing games with me?”

Then Boris says to the official, “Do you know Hershkovitz?”
The official says “No.”
“And what about Heschel Abramovitz?”
“Never heard of him.”
Finally Boris says, “And do you know Yankel Horowitz or Nahum Davidovich?”

“Well,” says, Boris, "that’s the way it goes. You’ve got your friends and I’ve got mine.”

Why do I need to explain this joke? In my writing I’m trying to integrate the jokes into a larger narrative, and in order to do so, I think I have to understand the context⎯the subject⎯of the joke. Not what the joke is about, but about what is the joke.

And so I’ve been trying to understand what is funny about that joke. The basis of most good jokes, I always thought, was irony. Not sarcasm so much as irony, the former being mean and too often cruel and crude. And so I guess what is ironic about that joke rests in the discrepancy between the innocence of Boris and the absolute essentialness of that knowledge he is supposed to possess. Boris means to join the Party and he is being asked (though he remains completely unaware of this) to what extent he knows not only the names but the ideas with which these names have become associated. Boris hasn’t a clue about the world, and yet as an innocent he wants to join it, oblivious perhaps of the world he wants to join. In the joke, the party represents the world. It would be similar to a man applying for membership in a radical feminist group because he thinks that such a community is where he might find women to bed. And not only is Boris not familiar with these men, he isn’t even aware that they possess any more importance than his friends. Since for Boris we all move in different circles, why should he be expected to know the official’s friends any more than the official should be expected to know Boris’s friends. That’s the way it goes!

The irony exists in the space between what Boris knows and what the listener of the joke knows—a whole world, in fact, and one thing I love about this jokes (and others like it) is that its telling hurts no one!! It is a good irony and a good joke.


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