I know a ton of jokes. Of those jokes, one of them is clean. I usually refer to it as “the clean joke,” although when I feel like being more specific, I call it “the parrot joke.” I first heard the parrot joke on the Brother Wease Morning Circus circa 1992. Without further ado, here it is in all its glory:
One day an old woman goes to a pet store. The pet store guy says, “What are you looking for?” and the lady says, “I’d like to buy a parrot.” The guy goes, “Oooh. That’s a problem. We only have one parrot and its previous owner was a sailor. It curses all day and all night. You don’t want it. It’s terrible.” The lady thinks about it and then says, “I really had my heart set on a parrot. It’s okay. I’ll take him.”
She brings the parrot home and the whole time the parrot is cursing up a storm. F this, F that. When they get to her place, she’s had about enough. She says to the parrot, “Listen, one more curse word, and I’m putting you in the freezer for ten minutes.” This doesn’t stop the parrot. He blurts another swear word out immediately. “Fine,” she says, and she sticks the parrot in the freezer.
Ten minutes later she takes the parrot out. He’s got icicles on his beak and he’s shaking. The lady says, “There, did you learn your lesson?” The parrot nods. She says, “Are you going to do it again?” “No way,” the parrot says, “but can you just answer one question for me?” “Sure,” the lady says. The parrot looks at her and says, “What the heck did the poor chicken do?”
About four years ago, working in the public school system, a class of about thirty students asked me, their teacher, to tell them a joke. Obviously, since it’s the only clean joke I know, I went with the parrot joke. “What the heck did the poor chicken do?” I said, excited to get to the punch line. The class stared at me.
“That was whack,” one student said loudly, with a hint of anger in his voice.
The truth be told, the parrot joke IS whack. It’s one of those jokes that’s way more fun to tell than it is to hear. This can be a difficult concept to convey to people. Jokes, by nature, are meant to be an experience all about sharing – the joke teller is pleased that the listener laughs and the listener is pleased to have heard a funny joke. The parrot joke works on a whole different level; I’ve always loved telling the joke because it amuses me that people won’t find it funny.
But lately, almost twenty years from when I first started telling the parrot joke, it just hasn’t been as fun anymore. Yesterday my class of middle-school Korean kids wanted a joke, and, watching their befuddled faces, I realized in the middle of the parrot joke that I wanted to stop telling it. That has never happened. Partly this was my fault, as I should’ve expected non-English speakers to have some, um, difficulty with it (they were so lost in the narrative, it was like they were trying to read James Joyce or something). A feeling hit me in the middle of the joke that I’m not used to – I knew they wouldn’t laugh, they knew they weren’t going to laugh, and the whole thing seemed pointless.
The kids at the public school four years ago, the students yesterday…the splendor of the parrot joke is lost on them. In a way, the right reaction to the joke is to acknowledge its badness in an appreciative kind of way. It’s sort of like how when someone farts, you have to point out the fact that it’s stank. Sitting in the fart smell and not saying anything sucks. You farted, it stinks, I hate you for putting me through this, but when the air clears, I will love you again. Because I know you enjoyed farting. And you are happy now.
I’m sad to think that a person could hear the parrot joke, shrug his or her shoulders, and be done with it. I’ve thought about the joke a lot. Its depth. There is a chicken dead and frozen in a freezer. Why? What did it do to deserve that fate? The parrot joke tells us that life is not fair and that it’s ridiculous to question that. If that isn’t a funny thought, I don’t know what is.