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?”
Talk about old jokes… This one may well date back more than 1,700 years, according to William Novak, who included it in his new book of humor geared toward the Boomer generation, titled “Die Laughing: Killer Jokes for Newly Old Folks” (Touchstone Press).
A self-described “fanatic collector of jokes,” Novak was at a used books sale in Vermont with his wife, Linda, a few years ago when they came across a volume that claimed to have the world’s oldest collection of jokes. He bought it for $2. “Some weren’t bad,” including a variation of the one mentioned above, Novak said in a recent phone interview.
“It might have originated in ancient Greece, but hey, it was new to me — and funny.”
A former editor of Moment magazine, Novak grew up on Nathan Ausubel’s classic, “A Treasury of Jewish Folklore,” and began writing down jokes as a kid, keeping them in a file.
Some of that material came in handy when he and his friend Moshe Waldoks worked on “The Big Book of Jewish Humor,” a perennial favorite since it was first published 35 years ago — full disclosure: I was a contributor — and later, “The Big Book of New American Humor.”
Novak is also a successful ghostwriter who has co-authored the memoirs of Lee Iacocca, Nancy Reagan, Magic Johnson, the Mayflower Madam and Tim Russert.
The inspiration for “Die Laughing” came to him while he was home doing exercises for a sore shoulder. “I thought, how about a book of jokes for older people?” Maybe the fact that he’s 68 — “not exactly old, but headed in that direction,” he says — was a factor. And he notes that 10,000 Americans turn 70 every day. In any event, he ended up reading thousands of jokes in compiling the 200-300 that make up his newest effort.
“Most jokes are bad,” Novak said. “And not all good ones are funny the second time around.” He wanted to produce a high-quality book with no four-letter words. “But if it was a great joke, or the word was essential to the joke, I left it in. I like dirty jokes that don’t have dirty words.”
There are plenty of those in the ones he chose on topics including sex, long marriages, new partners, doctors, and death. Many of the entries are memorable, taking grim subjects and squeezing humor out of life’s absurdities. As Mel Brooks’ 2,000-year-old-man famously noted, “We mock the things we are to be.”
Novak started with the topic of memory loss because “it’s a fundamental issue of aging,” he said. A classic entry involves the older couple having dinner with friends. When the women go into the kitchen, the two husbands are at the dining room table, and one mentions a great new restaurant he and his wife just discovered.
“What’s the name of it?” his friend asks.
“Damn, I’m blanking here, help me out,” the husband says. “What’s the name of that red flower?”
“No, the other one.”
“No, you know — the one with thorns.”
“Thanks,” the husband says. He turns to the kitchen and yells, “Rose, what’s the name of that restaurant?”
Most of the book’s jokes sounded like Jewish jokes to me. Only about half are, Novak said, though he admitted that he took a few jokes and “de-Judaized them.”
“What we think of as Jewish jokes turn up in all kinds of forms” and ethnic settings, he said, adding that “if it makes Jews laugh more than other people laugh, it’s a Jewish joke.”
Like the one in the book about the skinny old man who shows up at a lumberjack camp and tells the 6-foot-6 boss he’s looking for a job. For sport, the boss asks him to cut down the biggest tree around. When the old man chops it down with one swing, the boss is amazed.
“Where’d you learn your trade?” he asks.
“I used to work in the Sahara Forest,” the old man says.
“Wait — don’t you mean the Sahara Desert?”
“Sure,” the old man says, “now it’s a desert.”
While “Die Laughing” is getting positive responses and reviews, most publishers are not keen on joke books these days. Eleven of the 12 publishers that Novak approached weren’t interested.
“We live in a culture of wisecracks and one-liners these days,” he said. “Everyone does routines.” He recalled growing up in the 1950s and ’60s, when television featured scores of variety shows with comedians telling jokes. “Today there are hundreds of channels, it’s a more fragmented culture. People don’t tell jokes.”
Still, Novak is hoping his book will help revive the lost art.
His oldest son, B.J. Novak, an actor, writer, and executive producer best known for his work on the comedy series “The Office,” is cited prominently on the book’s cover: “Buy this book. Fund my dad’s retirement so I don’t have to.”
“Actually,” Novak confided, “my wife Linda wrote the blurb.”