Old jokes and fresh audiences

Tony Collins
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One of the unforeseen benefits of getting up in years is that all your old jokes become new again. Not to yourself, exactly — although that too, alas, can sometimes happen — and certainly not to your long-suffering spouse who’s heard them all a thousand times before, but to most everyone else younger than you are.

Those of us over the age of 60 who don’t mingle much outside a small circle of friends and acquaintances, may not be fully aware of our potential celebrity status.

We’re more accustomed to our peers getting that glazed look in their eyes whenever we start recounting one more interminable story we forgot we already told them twice just the day before.

We overlook the fact that when we get together with our cronies we’re basically playing to the same audience week in and week out.

Oh yes, they’ll laugh at our jokes, slap their knees and guffaw at all the right moments, but only because they’re being polite. And they may be anticipating a certain degree of reciprocity on your part.

In other words, I’ll wait for your punch line and respond appropriately when you do finally, at some point, at long last, thank God! get around to delivering it but I’ll expect you to return the favour when it’s my turn to hog the podium.

Occasionally, however, even the most crusty, choleric and curmudgeonly of babyboomers may be thrust into situations — I’m thinking specifically of weddings and funerals — where he can’t help but interact with people considerably younger than himself.

And suddenly, as if by magic, all those stale old jokes he’s been telling to all the same old people for so many years are attracting a new and appreciative audience of 30-something financial advisers, stock brokers and IT geeks who can’t seem to get enough of this grey-haired old guy with the endless supply of one-liners, wisecracks, quips, gags and off-colour stories, not one of which he hasn’t been retelling again and again for decades.

But they don’t know that. It’s all new to them. It’s virgin territory. They think they’re listening to the next Bob Hope or Johnny Carson, or at least they would if they knew who either one of them were.

And you — as if you ever doubted it — begin to realize the full extent of your true brilliance as a raconteur and all-round party animal.

The thing to remember is that there’s no such thing as a new joke. That old classic, for example, about the over-sexed parrot and the lengths to which its desperate owner is prepared to go to satisfy the  bird’s insatiable appetites is part of a major sub-genre of unsatisfied parrot jokes which has been in circulation since the Southern Hemisphere first separated from its northern counterpart (or was it the other way around?).

Even many supposedly current anecdotes illustrating the foibles and failings of familiar political figures often have their origins in the far distant past.

Take, for example, the oft-told story about Joey Smallwood and one of his more colourful back benchers, Rossy Barbour, the Liberal MHA for Bonavista South for many years.

The two of them were driving in from Roaches Line in Smallwood’s limo one morning when the great man turned to his mewling minion and inquired of him:

“Rossy, did you just fart?”

“No sir, but I will if you want me to.”

An old joke, yes, but it still gets a big laugh with the younger crowd, which just goes to show that any of you aspiring Henny Youngmans (surely everyone remembers him) out there don’t need to keep coming up with new material. You just need to find a new audience.

Interestingly enough, by the way, an early version of this hoary though, perhaps, apocryphal chestnut can be traced back to the time of the Romans.

The Emperor Tiberius, who wasn’t the sort to fool around with idle chitchat is said to have posed much the same question to one of his courtiers, just before having him thrown off a cliff on the island of Capri.

 “Flavius grave est, qui etiam transiens male ad deos ire?” (Flavius, was that you who passed an ill-wind which is offensive even onto the gods?)

I mention this for another reason as well, since  not only does it prove that there’s absolutely nothing new under the sun, it demonstrates yet again just how fleeting fame — and notoriety — can be, even for the famous, and the infamous.

Today’s Generations X, Y and Z might be able to tell you who Smallwood and maybe even his fellow despot, Tiberius, were, but poor old Rossy Barbour, once the source of much mirth and merriment right across the province, will draw a blank stare.

Rossy who?

Don’t assume that your post babyboom listeners will know who you’re talking about. Adolph Hitler might ring a bell, but for most “millenials,” as those born between 1980 and the year 2000 are generally referred to,

Goering and Himmler could just as well be names for different parts of a computer, as in “the goering in your hard drive could do with another himmler, along with more borman, a speer and an updated eichmann.”

This is not to say, mind you, that you shouldn’t include any references to historical characters in your repertoire, but do so sparingly, lest you risk losing your audience completely.

Remember that the young, in spite of their vim and vigour, ultra-white teeth and flawless complexions, have led very sheltered lives up to this point.

Then you come along and shatter whatever illusions they may have had about senior citizens and growing old gracefully.

Amazingly, they’re hanging on to your every word, like wide-eyed acolytes watching the master at work.

Have you heard the one about the travelling salesman and the three-legged pig? What about the engineer, the architect and the civil servant who were boasting about how smart their dogs were? Or little Johnny who kept swearing in class? Or the milk maid who fell asleep in the barn just before the cows were brought in for the night? Or the Jewish rabbi, the Anglican minister and the Roman Catholic priest who were down on George Street one time and …

Chances are that if they’re under 50 they haven’t heard any of  these longtime favourites of yours, so you shouldn’t have any problems keeping them rolling in the aisles.

At least until they, too, begin to realize that while they may not have heard any of your old jokes before, they could well be hearing them again before too long.

Tony Collins lives and writes in Gander.

He can be reached by email

at tcollins75@gmail.com

His column returns Aug. 31.

Organizations: Liberal MHA for Bonavista South

Geographic location: Island of Capri, George Street

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