I've been reading the books in the Flowers in the Attic series lately (three down, two to go), thanks to my viewing and enjoyment of the Lifetime original film based on the first book. The jury is still out as to whether or not this was a bad decision, though I will say that summarizing the plots of the second and third book out loud to my mother made me sound like an absolute raving lunatic. Unquestionably, though, the books' subject matter, while largely absurd, is unrelenting in its grim, sordid nature. As such, I'm going for a shift in tone today to talk about the pinnacle of levity: a joke book. Certainly something as mirthful as a textual compilation of time-honored humor must be worlds away from the debilitating trauma of V.C. Andrews's seminal works, right? Well hold the phone there, Ma Bell, because the gears of this joke machine are oiled by tears.
Let's start with the author. Does his name look familiar? If you read this blog regularly it should, since he is the author of the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series, with which I am somewhat familiar. You see, Mr. Schwartz was no one trick pony; neigh, indeed he was a man who was deeply passionate about folklore in all its forms, and his books are many and varied in subject matter. Cross Your Fingers, Spit in Your Hat, for example, details various superstitious beliefs and practices, while Fat Man in a Fur Coat is a collection of folklore about bears. You'd bear-ly even know that one was written by a man infamous for inspiring nightmares in several generations running. It stands to reason, then, that an author who collects stories and beliefs passed down through the years by oral tradition would make a joke collection as well, since jokes are basically just really short folklore-jokelore, I guess-and are similarly spread orally (no word on whether he ever intended to write the definitive children's book about herpes simplex).
As you've likely figured out by now (let it never be said that I don't give my readers credit), Witcracks represents Mr. Schwartz throwing his hat into the joke book ring. Or, to put another way:
A joke book.
A joke book who?
Now, in the words of Greg Louganis, let's dive right in! Witcracks starts off with something akin to archaic yo' momma jokes. Witness:
Can we get some ancient Chinese balm for that burn? Head through the hat...classic! And that's basically the first chapter: clever hyperbole to prove a point. Good natured japes concerning people with extreme character traits.
The second chapter consists of your archetypal joke: a question followed by a smart-ass answer. For example, you may ask, "What is a bulldozer?" only to get the response, "Why, that's a sleeping bull." It's doesn't get much more old school than that, by which I mean these jokes were already old back when I told them in elementary school. There's a good variety here, many of which would never work these days with the changes in dialect (Ex. "What did one toe say to the other?" "Don't look know, but there's a heel following us." This is pretty awkward unless you happen to be talking about pro wrestling). A few are startlingly profound, such as when the definition of ignorance is phrased as "when you don't know something and somebody finds out." Finally, we have the sinister Al-Quaida Crow:
Further digging into the Old Chestnut barrel, this chapter also contains knock knock jokes along the lines of the one I presented earlier, albeit less profane, and that other eternal comedy staple: elephant jokes. According to the notes in the back of the book, elephant jokes were, ahem, HUGE in the 1960s. And why not, with gems like these?
Well, the 60s were a different time. Then we get to Chapter 3, entitled "I Bought a Wooden Whistle, But It Wooden Whistle." Fittingly, this brief little number deals with goofy wordplay and puns. I won't pun-ish you too much by subjecting you to these, since I know a good percentage of people loathe puns with the fiery intensity usually reserved for hating Smashmouth's "All Star." Still, I'd be remiss to move on without providing a few examples, so here you go:
Un. "'I have a pressing engagement,' said the man as he took his pants to the cleaners."
Deux. "'I don't have a penny left,' said Tom in-no-cent-ly."
Trois. "Have you heard about Will Knott? He's so lazy he signs his name 'Won't.'"
If your sides haven't been gregariously split open yet, we'll move on to Chapter 4, you humorless monster. The section sheds a light upon "noodle tales," which incidentally have nothing to do with genitalia. No, these types of jokes are statements or short stories that revolve around what can charitably be called surreal idiotic behavior. They usually read like transcripts from a particularly entertaining mental hospital, such as:
Click image to see the whole thing
I must note that, even as a child, I thought that first joke was bullshit. Who on Earth, upon hearing about your low birth weight, would ask you if you lived? YOU'RE TALKING TO THE GUY, OF COURSE HE LIVED. I've got some serious beef with this joke. Which is a phrase that, if it were said by someone in this chapter, would be uttered as he dragged around half a cow. That joke on the right, though? That is pure gold. Another pretty decent one:
Three boys were sharing the same bed. But it was so crowded one got out and tried to sleep on the floor. After a while one of his friends told him he might as well come back.
"There's lots more room now," he said.
So we're still having fun here, right? Right? Oh, you're suddenly chilly? That's because we've reached Chapter 5. Chapter 5 is where things take an unexpected turn down a very dark path. It's like you've been eating a plate of powdered donuts and suddenly bite into one coated in arsenic. You see, in the chapter intro, the author makes it very clear that the subject of this particular chapter is "hate jokes." As if children needed to be taught how to be more hateful. I have to say, though, this is a pretty gutsy move; Schwartz could have easily played it safe and made another few chapter of innocent goofs and capers, but instead, in the interests of folkloric accuracy, he didn't just tread into dangerous waters; he submersed himself beneath them. Here's our introduction to this jolly subject, a metaphorical sampler platter of hateful humor:
Click image to see the whole thing
Those blank spaces are so handy! Got a problem with the Chinese? Plug 'em in there! Can't stand people from Arkansas? Well call them a marshmallow on a stick, 'cause they're about to get ROASTED. Now, Mr. Schwartz's intent was not to give children ammunition to air out their racist grievances in colorful ways, but if you think that didn't end up happening then, well, your mother must be pretty strong. #SWISH
Of course, it doesn't end there. Here's a witty exchange that, as Schwartz explains, was an in-joke among African-Americans regarding integration:
Ahs your new neighbor!
A little advice: I wouldn't bust that one out at your next company function. Here's another in-joke:
So we've got racist jokes covered, no prob. Must be smooth sailing from here on, right? Not quite. You see, Chapter 5 may have been unsettling, but where was the gore, man? Chapter 6, entitled "'Johnny, Stop Twisting Your Sister's Head,'" remedies that oversight. I should note that there is a distinct lack of illustrations in this chapter. I can't imagine why, what with wholesome family entertainment like:
Little Willie with a dreadful shout
Gouged the baby's eyeballs out.
And jumped on them and made them pop,
And Daddy said, "Willie, stop!"
You know what? Forget what I said earlier. Flowers in the Attic is The Berenstain Bears compared to this shit. Speaking of which, here are some of the featured jokes about murdering children:
Mommy, mommy, are you sure that's the way to bake cookies?
Shut up and get back in the oven.
Why are we out in our boat tonight, Daddy?
Just tie that cement block around your leg, OK?
Filicide jokes, eh? Pretty gnarly. Well, you haven't seen anything yet. No, seriously. This book contains one of the simplest, yet darkest jokes I have ever heard in my life. Y'all ready for this? Here's the joke itself:
Well that's not so bad, right? Now here's the full page, with the context of the joke explained:
Holy. Shit. "Hey kid, wanna hear a joke? Oh, you'll love this one! It's about opening your door only to find that all your friends and family have been annihilated in a nuclear holocaust. Soon, you'll envy the dead as you slowly succumb to radiation poisoning. Wakka wakka wakka!" Good lord. To tie this in with the rest of the book, here's an elephant joke for you: it takes elephant-sized balls to turn a children's joke book into Grave of the Fireflies.
Things get a bit less grim in the final chapter (how could they not?), which mainly consists of shaggy dog stories, a.k.a. bizarre anecdotes with unexpected endings. Here's a good representative:
Click image to see the whole thing
I once told this joke to someone while I was drunk and they were trying to fall asleep. I enjoyed it a great deal more than they did, as I recall. As you can see, the absurdity helps lighten the tone after the horrors of the previous two chapters, but the reader remains a bit shaken by the carnage they have just waded through. As the book comes to a close, it induces the feeling that you have gained some valuable comedic insight while simultaneously scarring your soul. And really, isn't that bizarre dichotomy the true essence of comedy itself? Laughter through the pain, my friends.
And that's Witcracks. Alvin Schwartz definitely accomplished his goal of compiling the jokes and jests of American folklore, warts and dead babies and all. The book is definitely enhanced by Glen Rounds's strange, sketchy illustrations. Hell, even the notes in the back regarding the origins of some of these jokes is pretty fascinating. So the next time someone mentions a kid's joke book, don't dismiss it as mere child's play. And try to contain your PTSD. I leave you with one final shaggy dog story. Play me out, boys!
It's no joke: Joey Marsilio wrote a great book named Henry Garrison: St. Dante's Savior. It's got humor, pathos, the works! When he's not writing, Joey indulges in several hobbies, such as listening to Canadian hip-hop.