An elderly man comes into a bar and notices a lovely lady about his age having a drink by herself. He pulls up a stool, leans over and asks, “So … do I come here often?”
Sure, laugh. Or cry. Fact is, we’ll all be the lady or the man some day — god willing. In the meantime, we can tremble, or simply grab a copy of “Die Laughing: Killer jokes for newly old folks,” the new book by William Novak.
The cover shows a cane slipping on a banana peel. But the real joke is on the rest of us who didn’t think of this great idea first. Novak, 68, is the author of 25 other books, and, by the way, father of B.J. Novak, writer, actor and executive producer of “The Office,” on which he played Ryan Howard.
Papa Novak is best known as co-author of “The Big Book of Jewish Humor.” But he says he was between books when he hurt his shoulder and had to go to physical therapy.
So he is stretching, aching, and dealing with doctors when he realizes: This is not a unique experience. What the world needs is a joke book about the changes that eventually come to your body, your routine, your love life (!) and, especially, your short term memory:
Doctor: Mr. Jackson, your test results have come back, and I’m afraid I have a double-dose of bad news.
Mr. Jackson: Just tell me. I can handle it.
Doctor: Okay. You have cancer, and you also have Alzheimer’s.
Mr. Jackson: That’s terrible. But at least I don’t have cancer!
So Novak started collecting jokes. As he did, he realized two things: First: No joke is ever told for the first time. Proof?
Two older men, acquaintances but not really friends, are sitting on a park bench. One turns to the other and says, “Remind me, was it you or your brother who died last winter?”
Novak says that when his friend told him that joke, he loved it and immediately decided to include it. Then, a few weeks later he was in Vermont and found “The World’s Oldest Joke Book.” It was literally a book of kneeslappers from fourth century Greece — and it included the “you or your brother...?” joke.
But if there are no new jokes, what is eternally new is the strange sensation of having been a young person but now gradually experiencing all the things you associate with old people.
To make some sense of this, Novak arranged the jokes into chapters on things like “Long marriages,” “New partners,” “Sex,” along with “Death” and its funnier counterpart, “The afterlife.”
Man in confessional: “Father, I’m 82 years old. I have children and grandchildren, but last night I made love to a girl who’s 24. And not just once but twice!”
Priest: “Tell me, when was the last time you came to confession?”
Man in confessional: “This is my first time. I’m Jewish.”
Priest: “So why are you telling me?”
Man in confessional: “Telling you? I’m telling everybody!”
When I was reading these jokes, a strange thing happened to me: I heard them in my father’s voice.
That’s not just because my dad loved to tell jokes — toward the end of his life “Got any new ones?” was what he asked me for most.
It’s because jokes themselves are almost an artifact of dying era.
“Funny people these days, they do routines and many are terrific. But they’re not “Two guys walk into a bar,” according to Novak.
“One of my goals is to preserve the art of the joke, which I fear is leaving us,” he said.
The guys who’d grab a mic and rat-a-tat-tat, “My wife drove her car into the livingroom”-type of gags aren’t here anymore. Where’d they go? Here’s a clue:
Two old friends made a pact that whoever dies first would come back and tell the other what it’s like. So one day Pete gets a call from Richard, who died of a heart attack. Pete says, “What’s it like?” Richard tells him:
“I start off with a big breakfast. Then I have sex, and after that I lie in the sun. Then it’s time for lunch, followed by a nap and more sex until it’s time for dinner...”
Pete is thrilled. “I had no idea Heaven would be like that!”
“Who said anything about Heaven? I’m a bull in Wisconsin.”
Lenore Skenazy is a keynote speaker, author of the book and blog Free-Range Kids.