Though I’d rather have been one of the boys who could smack a baseball solidly with a bat, my talent was telling jokes. I was fascinated in them as mechanisms—machines made of words, to use William Carlos Williams’s definition of poetry. I tinkered with them as obsessively as other boys enjoyed taking apart radios, jack-in-the-boxes, and frogs to see what was inside. In bed at night, walking home from school, sitting in church, I sharpened the details of jokes, changing the settings, naming the characters after kids in my classes, and altering elements that had flopped the last time. I didn’t even have to try to memorize jokes. After I heard a joke, I, like an elephant, never forgot.
Other kids knew a few elephant jokes, but I knew them all. I even convinced my mother to buy me a book of elephant jokes. I had to cash in my birthday wish to do it, and still it took some lobbying, arguing, and whining because Mom did not—emphatically did not—see the point in spending good money on books. That’s what the library is for.
“But, Mom, it isn’t in the library yet. I checked.”
“They’ll get it sooner or later.” She always said that. “Now, hush. You’ve got a birthday coming up and maybe we’ll see about it then.”
I still remember the cheesy black-and-white drawings of elephants with machine guns and elephants hiding in the cherry trees. I was embarrassed by the drawings. They took the jokes I was enthralled with and treated them as if they were just something dumb for kids, even though I was a kid and I loved the jokes and I knew they were stupid. But that was the point, wasn’t it? I remember asking other kids, “How do you kill a blue elephant?” They hesitated, and before they could even say, “I don’t know,” I said, “Shoot it with a blue elephant gun.” Then, quickly, “How do you kill a red elephant?” When they said, “Shoot it with a red elephant gun?” With real glee and false scorn, I screamed, “No! You squeeze its trunk till it turns blue and then shoot it with a blue elephant gun”—and we all cackled together.
Elephant jokes mock logic, deliberately deranging the senses of sense. They are an adolescent intellectual’s version of spinning around till you fall down. The jokes partake of surrealism, which was famously defined by the Comte de Lautréamont as “the chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella.” What’s gray, stands in a river when it rains, and doesn’t get wet? An elephant with an umbrella. Determinedly capricious, elephant jokes are an inside game—much funnier if only one person doesn’t know the joke and everyone else yells the answer in his face. If you ask someone why elephants can’t be policemen, the punch line is not really funny, but it’s funny to inflict your private knowledge on a listener: because they can’t hide behind billboards! I was interested to see who’d go along with the absurdity of the initiation into false knowledge and who twisted his lips, sneered, “That’s just stupid,” and stalked off. The rejection stings briefly, sure; but the sneerers were declaring themselves serious people, nonlaughers. It’s useful to know who those people are.