I was born in the 90s in a third world country. My first cellphone was a Motorola T191 unit received when I was eleven and my first experience of the world wide Web (via Internet Explorer, mind you) was when I was thirteen. As such, I clearly remember a time without 24/7 connectivity, social media notifications, and memes.
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 only found popularity 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 and 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 jokes 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. Years later, when I finally found myself adulting in an office with a working elevator, the opportunity presented itself. I reached out to my old friend on Facebook to share the following photo.
I didn’t hear him over the Internet but I know a laugh was shared that day.