In Loving Memory of the Joke

I recently posted a question on a social media platform that went like this: What do you miss the most from the pre-Internet days? The answers ranged from obscure pieces of technology, such as corded telephones and tube televisions, to less favored physical activities, such as biking and walking. I read all the comments in that thread searching for a response that reflected my own sentiments but nowhere did I find the joke. You see, what I miss the most from the pre-Internet times are the jokes.

Some say that the joke has been dying a slow death since the 50s, but I remember hearing and repeating narrative jokes in the early 2000s. In the same vein as myths and legends, these jokes were passed through oral tradition from friend to friend, generation to generation. These jokes required commitment to the memorization of actual stories ending with punchlines and demanded full performances with tones and facial expressions when shared.

The earliest joke I remember hearing and repeating myself is this question-and-answer that only appeals to six-year-olds as I was at the time: One maeko plus one maeko? Never mind that the word “maeko” does not exist in both the English and the Filipino lexicon. Approaching this logically, treating the maeko as a variable in an algebraic expression, which is something that good reason should warn you not to do especially when dealing with toddlers, should lead you to “two maeko.” Of course, to anyone who understands Filipino, “two maeko sounds like “tumae ‘ko (I pooped).” And for six-year-olds, nothing could be funnier than poop.

After the age of six, I remember encountering jokes in book compilations and in magazines. I’d go over them all, searching for jokes I could reserve for a better time. Almost everyone then had a favorite joke and this had been mine for a long time:

Three men were stranded in an island after their ship capsized. Unfortunately, the island was populated by cannibals who managed to catch all of them for supper. Terrified at the prospect of death, the men began to cry.

When the chief of the cannibals saw this, he took pity and said, “We won’t eat you if you pass our requirements. First, head to the forest and come back with the first fruit you’d see.” The men leapt and ran into the forest.

After three minutes, one of the men came back with a single blueberry. The chief then said, “Insert this fruit into your asshole. If you laugh, we will kill you.” When the man did this, he laughed and was immediately put to death.

A few minutes later, the second man returned with a cherry. The chief said, “Insert this fruit into your asshole. If you laugh, we will kill you.” The man did so and kept his composure for a considerable amount of time until he, too, was put to death.

In heaven, the first man met with the second man and said, “What happened? I saw you and you looked like you were never going to laugh.”

The man replied, “Everything was going well until the third guy came carrying a jackfruit.”

We are the jokes of our generation

A joke can only be a joke if it is made by someone and shared with someone else who would consequently declare it hilarious. That which was made and shared with the intention of being laughed at but garnered no applause is therefore not a joke but a sad statement until someone else validates it. In this regard, jokes can only be shared within a group of people sharing certain beliefs and perspectives. Every culture and subculture has a unique joke pattern or theme.

In the Philippines, for example, a popular joke features the character of Inday, the stereotypical maid from the Visayas islands characterized by her stupidity and inability to mimic the Tagalog pronunciation. One of her many domestic adventures saw her crying after the doctor told her that he would have to remove her butlig (rash), mistakenly thinking that the doctor said “both leg(s).”

It is important to note that Inday as a hilarious character found popularity only in Metro Manila and some parts of Luzon at a time when Tagalogs would look down at the Bisaya (people from the Visayas islands). Considering that Tagalogs dominated the capital, the government, and the commercial realm, Tagalog became the prevalent culture dictating what is correct and even what is Filipino. Many Bisaya at the time found employment as maids in the richer Tagalog households; their interchanging vowels when speaking the language of their employers was deemed incorrect and hilarious.

When the general attitude towards Bisaya changed, the jokes featured a different Inday, one who spoke perfect English and was too smart for the average Filipino to follow. Every time she opened her mouth, she caused “nasal hemorrhage” for the people within her immediate vicinity. No one understood her but she did not care for the lowly scum.

Comparable to the many jokes made and being made at the expense of the cultural minority, the hilarity of which remain subjective, the Inday joke is a product of its setting. Nowadays, most young Filipinos do not subscribe to these types of humor out of political correctness and cultural sensitivity. This fear of offending or being considered offensive may have partly resulted to the demise of the joke, the punchlines of which almost always poke fun at specific human attributes that are frowned upon by the dominant culture.

In 2013, popular Filipino comedian Vice Ganda made a joke about Filipino journalist Jessica Soho being raped. The joke was really about Soho being fat but it drew flak because it involved an award-wining and respected journalist in the same sentence as the word rape. Vice Ganda had to issue a public apology when the issue began making headlines. 

I do not write this to make claims about what jokes are acceptable or not as I do believe that jokes are a matter of taste. Instead, I would like to throw my hat in and say that a favorite joke of mine is the ngongo joke, made at the expense of persons born with cleft palettes and consequently, speech impediment. I know I am not perfect and you, too, are not perfect, but tell me what jokes you laugh at and I may be able to tell you if we can ever be friends.

Wherein we became the memes we love

The joke in itself may not be completely dead and maybe how we share it is actually what changed. As more of our friends relocate to virtual reality and as we spend more of our lives on social media, narrative jokes turned into memes. Short one-liners became images with text and anti-jokes became shitposts. Like the old narrative joke, memes are also unique per culture or subculture and are only funny for people in the know. Unlike the narratives though, these memes do not require an introduction and are as quick as they appear and leave on our social feeds.

This is not to say that the loss of narrative jokes in terms of popularity is a result of a cultural decline. I also do not have any desire of proclaiming one type of humor superior over another. What I lament is how I no longer meet anyone with a ready joke and a rehearsed performance. The oral tradition of joke-sharing has boiled down to one simple line of “Have you seen this meme?” For the joker, the performance is gone, and for the listener, the anticipation of a laugh is lost.

In a 2005 article for The New York Times, Warren St. John mentions that jokes were abandoned because the younger generation was insecure. Compared to the quick observational humor, the failure of which can go by unnoticed, jokes can turn a situation awkward if they do not lead to the desired effect. And while the same can be said for online jokes with zero likes and shares, it can be argued that an unnoticed original meme is much preferable to an oral joke no one laughed at. The former can even be deleted, unlike the memory of embarrassment from a failed joke.

What this phenomenon tells me is how much we’ve changed and not changed over the years. The reputed oldest joke dating back to 1900 BCE is all about women and farts. Thousands of years later, many people are still embarrassed or laughed at for poop, meaning that we still find the same shit funny. But we have changed a lot in terms of how we deliver humor, learning to protect ourselves from embarrassment and the loathing of others.

In case I haven’t bored you yet with how seriously the joke is taken in this little essay, I will share another favorite joke as a reward for making it to the end. This particular joke was shared to me by a classmate when I was around 15. It goes: What’s red and goes up and down? The answer, he told me, was a tomato in an elevator.

Now, I’ve never met another person who laughed when I shared this but I always thought the absurdity of a lone tomato finding itself in an elevator enough to merit a chuckle. For my friend and I, however, the real punchline came years later when, as a young professional, I carried a tomato in my handbag going up the elevator at work. Before leaving the red thing to go on its journey down, I took the photo below and sent it to him via Facebook.

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I didn’t hear him over the Internet but I know a laugh was shared that day.

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Love Letter to Greece

He said she was like Greece
At the time when the Euro debt blew up
A balloon that wouldn’t fly away
But sank deeper and deeper
Despite austerity, protests, and prayers

He said she was the Euro debt
A black hole sucking in Western Europe
Her long history of fiscal responsibility
Turned to Germany’s terrible investment
Saving her was trying to piece together egg shells
Because every sad person demands to be sad

But she had slits longer than her arms
Irrigation for the flowers of black and blue
Home-grown on paper-thin skin
All those years of training hands to withdraw from hot pots
And learning how to cross streets
But no one ever taught her that box cutters
Are only for cardboard boxes

No one else recognized on her face
The aftertaste of last night’s alcohol binge
No one saw the absence of Facebook posts
Something about the people awake at 3AM
Only I saw how she stretched her soul to fit her skin
Struggling for some semblance of comfort
Only I heard how she wished she were a puddle
A stone, a bed, dead, anything but feeling

He said she was like Greece, the Euro debt
I thought she was my mother
That one time she wore a necklace of ropes
I thought she was my brother
That night he carved his arms with a broken ruler
I thought she was someone I loved
I thought I saw her face before
I thought her eyes were mine a lifetime ago

He said the EU would be better off without Greece
So I wrote a letter of dissent
Followed up with one after the other
Tried to form my words into the shape of a blanket
Tried to form my words into the shape of her salvation
Tried to play god and hero
But only because I thought I knew
How it felt to be situated at the bottom of a sinkhole

He said she was a waste of time
At a time when she was asking me to wait
And I thought that if it weren’t in me to find my own place
The least I could be is someone’s safe space
So I wait

__

I was asked to participate in this spoken word activity in support of mental health awareness in the office. I remembered a friend who likened another friend to Greece.

Pity (the girls)

Pity the girls who haven’t felt like
Shedding magical virgin tears
Who haven’t felt like daughters fucked by their fathers
Whose secret caverns remain far from the waters
Parched and barren

Pity the girls devoid
Of climax as Japanese waves swallowing Fuji,
Going over the moon, pushing stars
To surrender their bodies to the sea

Pity the girls who never felt like
The earth bearing herself in her own belly
Unfeeling planets at the edge of solar systems

Ah, but pity, too, the girls
Whose eyes sparkle at the prospect of apocalypse
Their breasts shining like headlights in darkened streets
Lips drooling with lust
Pity the girls
Whose skin your mother told you to never touch

Oh, these are not places for girls
Only spaces for pity

__

I was asked to participate in this spoken word activity in the office in commemoration of International Women’s Month. On the day of the event, I was drowning in deadlines so what I did was pull up a long-sitting draft in an almost forgotten folder and crafted an ending.  

our space

there have never been parents more proud of their child than us as lovers
looking at the cheap plastic dresser we pounded to entirety with our hands,
squatting over stained tiles, space for miles. we were building hopes
on weak dividers and mattresses an inch and a half thick each; making plans
of making arts with stomachs fed with tuna and Lucky Me

when nights grew quiet and car lights dimmed to turn open roads, as if reminding
Quezon Ave. that it, too, must rest, on nights as quiet as ours, we reached hands
over bodies, like sprouts seeking sunshine in each other’s breasts. i remember
as nostalgic dreamers do, warmth in the darkness of our dusty patched up room

our plates, we lifted from the floor with a bed tray we called chabudai.
my mother, she pitied with a mini-fridge, a mattress, and a washing machine.
the wide room, which grows even bigger with your occasional leaving, is now shrinking
in square feet. can you count, my love, as I do, the foundation of our romance
in the things we told ourselves we needed: one dining table, two creaking chairs,
one couch that is now, as I write, cursing our combined weight, four pillows, two bed
sheets, four towels, five shared shorts

one cat. except no one ever really told us that cats multiply in heat and that our family
of three will grow into six, then five, then eight, then seven and i would just watch
as our intertwined lives take shape at midnights over ashes and conversation

and i thought at second year, i’ll have realized that i’ll never be happy with a lover
and that i will always be ready with the certificate to prove that i am the cats’ mother;
and that warmth will always give way to the cold when we’re sleeping
and that some people are better left writing poems over things that once were,
counting furniture at a quarter past eleven. but looking over my shoulder only
to have cheeks meeting your lips, talking about whatever, i will
throw away all the money to fill all of this space until we lose the way to the door       

Searching for Winged

The elders kept chewing their words
Someone cut the children’s tongues

Memory played: pebbles rubbing rough
The soles of the feet, a body of water, and blood
The blade in her macopa hands slipping
To slice the silence with a clang

I feel wings but neither see nor hear them

All was written as legend
Yet as forgotten, almost unsaid