The above joke appears in "The Aristocrats", a documentary about 'The Dirtiest Joke Ever Told'. In it, a long line of top-name American comedians tell the same joke over and over in a 101 different shades of tastelessness. In fact, Robin Williams is the only one allowed to tell another joke (the above) than the dirtiest joke ever told. I'm not going to get into the joke itself here, so you'll just have to see the film. Suffice it to say that what comes out in the film's 89 run-time minutes are some VERY dirty and disgusting variations of one single joke. What shines through, however, is the pure joy of a very short form of storytelling: the telling of a joke.
A joke can take the form of a humorous anecdote. I recently heard an Australian friend retell the story of how down by his beach some municipal funny-man had replaced the R in "Rocks slippery when wet" with a C. A joke can be something you've recently read, re-told with a wry grin "Buy your mother a bottle of wine for Mother's Day; after all, you're the reason she drinks" - or take simply the form of a single line that has entered the mainstream vernacular: "Don't mention the war".
All these are in essence stories, or fragments of larger tales that exist within the now global community of media awareness. Just as a Man U. fan can travel to Beijing and find friends in an instant via the language of football - someone visiting, say, Spain just has to say "Welease Wodger!" and have insta-friends anywhere people with a telly and a sense of humour abide. (Although "I do apologize: he's from Barcelona" might not work so well in Barcelona...)
Other stories hinge upon suspense and surprise. The ghost-stories of youth often contain a bit of both, and are - as are jokes - handed down through the generations, and once the punchline (the surprise) has been told, they lose their value. The enduring one in my memory was told by our Scottish nanny Kirsten, with great aplomb. It went something like this:
"A young destitute man dreamt of inheriting from his very rich auntie. When she dies, he's dismayed to hear that she hasn't left him a penny. After all the cleaning, dusting, tea-drinking and brown-nosing he's done through the years, he's truly enraged at the dead old biddy. After the funeral, he learns that she insisted on being buried with her priceless diamond and sapphire ring on her finger. After a great deal of Scotch and brooding, one - of course - dark and stormy night, he decides to take what he believes is his. He drives out to the cemetery, digs up the coffin and unsuccessfully tries to pry the ring off. In a panic, he gets out some gardening scissors, cuts the ringfinger off and drives away with his prize. . On his way home, in the middle of a dark forest in the raging thunder-storm, his car breaks down. The man can't get his car started, and he's getting ever-more nervous, the bloody finger burning through his pocket. He starts walking. After awhile, through the trees, a far way away, he makes out a faint light. The man starts making his way through the forest. It's slow going, but in the end he is relieved to find a cosy little cottage with the light streaming out through the windows.
The man knocks on the door, and a kindly old woman let's him in from the storm. The woman is vaguely familiar, but the man doesn't think much of it, as the living-room is both warm and dry. The woman offers him some tea, which he accepts. She walks into the kitchen. The man starts looking around the room, and on the table finds a jig-saw puzzle laid out, near completion. To his utter amazement, he realizes the jig-saw is an image of the very same living-room that he is in, with him standing over the jig-saw puzzle contemplating it. In the same instant the woman comes back with the kettle and cups. Things start falling into place, and he notices that the woman's ringfinger is amputated. He starts asking her "What happened to your - " when she says [here Kirsten put on a banshee SHRIEK] "IT WAS YOU!!!!"
At which point we literally wet our pants. (Needless to say, we after that wanted her to tell the story to all our friends, to see how incontinent or not they were.)
The adult version of these kind of ghost-stories are the everyday stories of tragedy and death. In form, they are the antithesis of the joke, and often sit and dangle on the fine line of urban myth. A classic is the story of the parents on Long Island who watched with horror as the Twin Towers imploded, knowing that their son worked as a banker in the South Tower. In anguish, they called and called his cell-phone, but only got the voice-mail. Their relief was enormous when they learned from a colleague of his that their son was on a business-trip that day and not working in the towers. However, this relief quickly turned into even deeper shock when they learnt he was on the flight that hit the North Tower...
In this way, the joke's punch line becomes the surprise twist in the tragedy.
In a sense, both the joke and the tragedy serve the same purpose: it's good to be alive. The joke says: life is impossible, you gotta laugh; fuckit. The tragic tale says: life is death, but we're alive to tell of others' misery, yahey!
The joke is often set firmly in the present, but can have allusions to past and future (Doggy-style joke: "Three women discuss their pregnancies. The redhead says she thinks she's going to have boys, because she was on top when it happened. The brunette says she thinks she'll have a girl, as she was beneath when it happened. The blonde bursts out crying. Her concerned friends asks her what's wrong? She sobs out that she suspects she's going to have puppies.") The real-life tragic horror story often has something akin to a linear three act structure "She was in an abusive relationship for years, then finally had the courage and power to break away from her violent husband and found her true love. However two years after, she developed brain cancer and was dead within three months."
The future of storytelling, you ask me? All in all, I'd say we're in pretty good shape. People have forever been, and forever will be, telling whoppers in different shades and shapes.
The comedy and the tragedy, in their full format versions share these same pros and cons. Dumb and Dumber, The Hangover, Tropical Thunder basically all rely on a one line joke. A banana peel lies in the road. A man approaches. He falls upon it, then stands up - not understanding what the hell just happened - and falls on it again. Repeat. We love this repetition, because it is so stupid: thus reflecting human nature. We recognize, mirror, ourselves.
Tragedy, by essence, does the same: it makes us realize the very core of human beingness. That we share laughs - and we share pain. For short; it is what makes us human. Story-telling is - when it is done well - a sharing of the human experience. The recognition of not being alone. The feeling of togetherness.
Be it a novel, a film, a poem; when you chuckle in the night - together with someone, or most often alone - you know you belong to a tribe of fine human beings. Because all the hateful people have gone, and all the smart, eloquent, sweet ones, have left a long lasting legacy. Because all this history, this bravery, this strength: it's in your hand - right now. This is the past, present and future of story-telling.