Saturday, December 1, 2007

Three Jokes

Rene Descartes went out for a walk on a fine Parisian spring day. The air was sweet and warm, perfumed with flowering plants and the smells of baking along the boulevards. His stroll went on for some time, and he realized that he was beginning to feel the first pangs of hunger.

But Paris in spring is bountiful, and Descartes stopped into a sidewalk café. Again, the perfection of the day asserted itself. The bread was fresh and tasty, the wine was full-bodied without impertinence, and the pate seemed to melt into his hunger with barely any need for the rigors of digestion.

His appetite nearly sated, Descartes watched the crowd passing on the boulevard, his thoughts turning to philosophy and the graphical mathematics. So lost in thought was he that he almost did not notice the waiter’s return, and he had to ask the man to repeat the question. The waiter again asked if he wished to have dessert, there was a custard of which the chef was particularly proud.

“Yes, yes,” said Descartes. “That sounds excellent.”

“And will monsieur be having coffee with that?” inquired the waiter.

“I think not,” said Rene Descartes, who then disappeared.


This is a fairly mild example of an elitist joke, an in-joke that can be told to strangers. If you don’t know that Rene Descartes famously wrote “Cogito Ergo Sum,” “I think, therefore I am,” the joke goes right over your head.

I once told this joke at a gathering of nurses at my in-laws' house; about a third of them laughed, and when I realized the exclusionary nature of the joke, I figured that I’d been ever-so-slightly rude. But I did notice that the laughter tended to be in two parts, the first part when the person laughed, and the second part being when they realized that not everyone had laughed, and what that meant.

An airplane leaving from Poland wound up in a storm over the North Atlantic. Everyone was terrified, as the plane was pitching and yawing, and the crew feared that it would break up at any moment. But one young student stood up and called to the passengers, on the right aisle to move across the aisle. The passengers were dubious but the student insisted. “Hurry,” he said. “Our lives depend upon it.”

The passengers complied and the shaking stopped. The plane righted itself, and made its way safely to its destination. Why do you think the student’s plan worked?

Because you need all the Poles on the left side of the plane for stability.


That’s an engineering joke. If you’ve never worked with Laplace Transforms, it is almost completely unintelligible. If you’ve sweated through control theory, it can be hilarious. Really.

I was once at a small gathering of fans at the house of a well-known fanzine Editor, and he told that joke. There were no other engineers there, and he didn’t know I was an engineer until I stepped on the punch line. I more or less blurted it out; I hadn’t meant to ruin the joke, and, for that matter I didn’t, not exactly. Because no one else laughed, and no one else was going to laugh, no matter how well the joke was told, because no one else had the background, just me and him. He’d told the joke with every expectation that it would meet with blank stares.

He and I never got along. I have no idea if that incident had anything to do with it.

Paul Zuber was a professor of urban studies at RPI, and a little googling finds that he now has an RPI scholarship named after him (he died in 1986). I had a course from him; I think it was Urban Engineering.

One class he reminisced a little about what it was like in the early days of desegregation at the college level and he told a story about it that wasn’t a joke, because he stepped on the punch line.

Two of the first southern collegiate athletics departments that were desegregated had a long standing football rivalry. One of them had a single black running back, while the other had two defensive tackles. During the big, annual matchup game, one play had the running back going straight down the middle, where he was cut down by the two tackles.

A loud voice went up from the stands, yelling…


Paul then threw the joke away, saying that the voice yelled something to the effect of “get your blacks off of our black.”

I muttered, not quite under my breath, “That isn’t the way I heard it.”

The actual punch line is “Get those n-----s off our colored boy!”

Paul glanced over at me with a little smile and winked.

This joke isn’t a racist joke, of course; it’s a joke about racists. Wanda Sykes has a routine where she notes that the more championships Tiger Woods wins, the less black he is. My father-in-law tells a similar joke about a black college football star, who wins so much that by the end of the season it’s “Go, Dutch, go!”

One of the things I got to think about during my Urban Engineering course was the ways in which jokes can be a means of hidden communication, and how place of origin and shared witness can sometimes trump race in making, as opposed to breaking, connections.


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