By Jack Handley
My mother had a sense of humor but she mostly didn’t get the point of jokes. She liked wordplay but rarely saw the humor in the punch line of jokes which puzzled me.
Some people don’t see humor because they take things literally and find exaggeration irritating, not amusing. In contrast to such people, my mother could see the humor in situations and appreciated Spoonerisms, such as the deacon saying, “Mardon me padam, but you are occupewing my pie.”
But, in general, my mother and jokes don’t mix.
On one holiday visit I carelessly mentioned the type of joke termed the Shaggy Dog Story, which piqued her interest. So, by way of example, I related the tale of the Tragedy of the Tribal Chief, which goes like this:
In the first years of the last century, in deepest Africa, an English missionary had penetrated far into the interior of the continent, past any railroads, or roads, or even trails, and found a larger than usual village of dozens of thatched huts surrounding a central larger, and taller hut, whose doorway was being guarded by two warriors.
The missionary determined that his mission was to start here; that he would enlighten this village with the ideas of Civilization and the blessings of Religion.
The chief agreed to allow the missionary to build a church and to preach to the villagers if he first provided the chief with a pair of thrones equal in magnificence to the great, gilded, thrones of the king and queen of England, a picture of which he had seen in one of the missionary’s magazines.
Here, in the tradition the Shaggy Dog Story, would begin a long and excruciatingly detailed description of the travel saga of the messenger carrying the order for the thrones back to England, and the journey of the cumbrous articles across the oceans and deserts and jungles to the village via steamship, coastwise packet ship, camel train, dugout, and so on-- which we will skip over to pick up the story upon the tumultuous arrival of the great thrones.
As the jubilation died down, problems arose. The first was just getting a Royal British Throne through the grass and bamboo doorway. If you have ever tried to squeeze a La-Z-Boy through a 34-inch doorway, you can see the problem.
The second, was where to put the two of them. The Royal Bedstead occupied most of the hut’s central dais, which in turn, occupied most of the floor space. (I really am trying to cut out the Shaggy stuff.)
The counselors and viziers and shamans finally contrived a scheme to rig a suspension harness to the overhead cross beams and to hoist the thrones up at night, and to lower them upon the bed during the day.
You immediately guess the outcome: one night the rope breaks, the thrones drop down and squash the royal couple and Civilization comes to an end in the village.
Of course, the moral is: People who live in grass houses shouldn’t stow thrones.
My mother emitted her hesitant laugh and said she enjoyed the shaggy dog part, which I skipped for you, perhaps as much she did the joke itself.
A few days later the whole family gathered for a holiday dinner. After the long and happy meal, my very merry mother announced she had a joke to tell. The room went quiet, most faces went blank, my aunts looked stricken. I writhed with sympathetic dread but tried to keep a welcoming, expectant look on my own face.
She then launched into the Tragedy of the Tribal Chief.
Of course, she embroidered the shaggy parts. People fidgeted, but she cast her sweet matriarchal gaze on them and disciplined into auditors who otherwise would have been a mob of noisy relatives. She went on and on, shining with the glow of performance. I admired her gall and fearlessness. And then came the end, the moral, which she announced as such:
“And the moral is: People who live in grass huts shouldn’t store thrones.”
Crushing silence. An embarrassed titter. People’s faces flicker, searching for an expression.
A church cough.
My mother’s face droops, her lips tremble. I am ready to sob. Then, another titter. An uncle lets loose a flatulent guffaw.
The youngest aunt begins to laugh. Tears stream from her eyes. Faces begin to light-up in recognition. Others laugh. Everyone laughs. Real, helpless, har-har laughs.
My mother beams. Everyone beams back. She shifts and turns to me.
“See, son. I can too tell jokes.”