Posted by: Brad Nixon | February 21, 2011

OK, Mom, We Get it Now

Those of you who are parents know that a parent’s task is a thankless one. Those of you who are children of parents (I believe that includes everyone here) can recall something from your own past in which you were less than a joy to your parental units; perhaps not enough to make them ask, “Why did I ever have children?” but perhaps enough for the question to be, “Why did I have to get THIS one?”

One of my mother’s burdens was her attempt, year after year, to get us to appreciate her favorite joke. I believe that she may have started telling me (the oldest of us 5 kids) this joke when I was five months old or so, but I only remember it from maybe age four or five.

It was a knock-knock joke. On the chance that a digital record of this blog has survived into a distant future when all remembrance of popular 20th Century human culture has passed away, I’ll explain that a knock-knock joke was based on a formula that adhered to the following pattern:

Teller: Knock-knock!

Victim: Who’s there?

Teller: Orange.

Victim: Orange who?

Teller: Orange you glad you met me?

That’s not the greatest knock-knock joke, but it has all the salient elements, including a play on words, which was a trait of the best knock-knock jokes. When I grew up, this joke-telling formula was so well-established that a person in any setting, in any town in America, in any circumstances, could blurt out “Knock-knock!” and someone would respond, “Who’s there?” (here I’ll ask my English-speaking readers in other countries, is this joke form common there, too?)

Well, my mother knew what she considered the ultimate knock-knock joke. I am reminded of it, because I’ve written twice in the past two weeks about our national anthem, and the subject of Mom’s joke was related to subjects about the national flag of the U.S. Also, because this is President’s Day in the U.S., there’s a slightly patriotic undertone to today’s article.

Mom told this joke to us kids year after year, waiting for us to accumulate whatever critical mass of popular culture background was required to “get” it. It took years. As I said, if I could peel back the layers of memory to my very earliest days, I suspect that there I’d be, dandling on her knee, listening to her tell me this joke.

To understand the joke and get the punch line, though, you do have to know a couple of things. In the world of Mom’s childhood, before there was Batman or Flash or The Green Hornet or even Superman, there was Tarzan. Tar-Zan, of course, was the hero of a series of books by Edgar Rice  Burroughs, and an olympic swimming star, Johnny Weissmuller, starred in a very popular series of films based on the books (Burroughs hated the monosyllabic Tarzan of those movies, by the way). By the time Mom was a little girl, the Tarzan movies were a well-established part of film culture. Tarzan was big.

The other thing you need to know, especially you readers from outside the U.S., is that one of our familiar names for the flag of the United States is “The Stars and Stripes,” and that a man named John Philip Sousa, commonly referred to as “The March King” composed arguably his greatest and most stirring march when he wrote “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” That’s important to remember.

This is a heck of a lot of explanation for a five-line joke, but it just shows the difficulties Mom faced trying to tell a joke involving a pun based on decades-old tropes to little children. Just as a joke you might tell me referring to Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber will certainly fall flat because I know nothing about them but their names, the joke Mom was trying to sell us failed repeatedly because it drew on a number of cultural references that we couldn’t put together yet. For Mom, growing up in the Thirties, Tarzan and The Stars and Stripes were common, everyday references. We kids knew who Tarzan was, and we probably understood vaguely that the stars and stripes were the American flag, but we just didn’t get it.

Well, Mom tried this old chestnut out on us for years and years. We’d all be sitting together, on one of those long twilight evenings in our little house on the prairie, listening to the coyotes, or just settling in for a long winter’s night, and out it would come. Here’s the joke:

Knock-knock!

Who’s there?

Tarzan!

Tarzan who?

Tarzan’ ‘tripes forever!

Poor Mom. Year after year, it fell on deaf ears. Her BEST material!

Being kids, we couldn’t help but disappoint our parent. There did come a day, after many, many years of recitations, that we understood the joke she was telling. Of course, the whole point of a joke — if it’s to work — is that the punch line has to hit you with some surprise, and you laugh. Well, we had been exposed to this punch line since the day we first took breath on this planet, so our response was something like, “Oh, Mom! We GET it.” Not hilarious laughter. Not uproarious response. “PLEASE, we GET it!”

The burdens of parenthood.

While we’re on the subject, if you haven’t heard “The Stars and Stripes Forever” lately, you can hear the United States Marine Corps Band performing it (Sousa led the Marine Band from 1880-1892) on Wikipedia:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Stars_and_Stripes_Forever

This piece is, for upper woodwinds, pretty much as good as it gets. There is a central section that features piccolo playing as it is rarely heard. It’s there in the Marine Band version, but unless you’re listening for it, you’ll miss it. Here, though, is a link to a performance of the piece by the U.S. Army Band in which the piccolos literally step out:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3FYS8f9xGF0

2014 update:

Here is another more highly produced version of the same outstanding U.S. Army Field Band and Chorus arrangment:

In that these performances, you’ll notice that the Army Chorus sings. There are words to the song. Now, for any American of a certain age, the first words that come to mind for this song are those that were sung at the end of every weekly program of “Sing Along With Mitch:”

Be kind to your web-footed friends/For a duck may be somebody’s mo-ther/Be kind to your  friends in the swamp/When the weather is very, very hot.

But, you know, I looked at the lyrics on Wikipedia, never having actually read them before, and they’re quite stirring. HERE, brothers and sisters, might be an alternative to our national anthem (assuming that Congress will never approve “Blue Suede Shoes”). And, in fact, when one contemplates the awesome events unfolding elsewhere in the world, one just knows that songs are part of their movement, too, and that they would do worse than to sing:

Hurrah for the flag of the free.
May it wave as our standard forever
The gem of the land and the sea,
The banner of the right.
Let despots remember the day
When our fathers with mighty endeavor
Proclaimed as they marched to the fray
That by their might and by their right
It waves forever.

Let despots remember the day, indeed. Now, of course, we have both fathers and mothers fighting, both at the front and at home, and in crowds of freedom-seeking humans everywhere.

Let’s send this one out to all who are yearning to be free. Courtesy of Mom, who was one of Freedom’s staunchest allies.

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Responses

  1. Excellent! Especially the use of “dandling”, “tropes”, and “piccolo” in the same article.

    I’d never heard this knock knock, but did you include an extra “an” in the punch line?

    As for the lyrics, I can’t wait for the review of the rarely heard final three verses of the national anthem.

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    • As I always say, I have smart readers. I’ve corrected the error that John mentions. Thanks, John.

      Like

  2. No disrespect to your mom, but even understanding all the background (I remember listening to Souza regularly as a kid, and read quite a few of the Tar-Zan books), it’s not really that funny.

    But since you asked, yes – we were well schooled in the dubious art of the knock-knock joke. Overexposure probably resulted in my current lack of enjoyment thereof.

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  3. Meant to add to my previous long comment that my gran’s favourite joke was also memorable for the lack of humour it inspired in us kids… it involved someone giving a certain guest a choice of dessert – “Do you want some Rhubarb, or some Apple, Bob?”

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  4. Hi Brad! Very interesting post, as usual! About your question on knock-knock jokes in other countries, I say that in Brazil it’s not common although we do have heard some of them in North American cartoons that were dubbed in Portuguese. Unfortunately, the translation sometimes doesn’t fit very well, and it also doesn’t have all this cultural background.

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