“If one laughs at a joke really heartily,” Freud remarks rather earnestly in his work on that subject, “one is not in precisely the best mood for investigating its technique.” Freud is perfectly right, of course, but his tone should not mislead us. He has obviously been laughing heartily himself at his own most recent example, and I picture him as flinging his pen down, wiping his eyes, and all but falling off his chair. The specimen which seems to have started this thinly disguised unscholarly mirth concerns two East European Jews who meet near the bathhouse. The first one says, “Have you taken a bath?” and the other one replies, “What, is there one missing?”
One might conclude from this that Freud’s taste in jokes was not sophisticated. But I prefer to conclude that Freud knew a terrible joke when he saw one and laughed heartily all the same. Good jokes defy analysis, even Freud’s; and bad jokes don’t need analysis, Freud’s or anyone else’s. But truly terrible jokes have a certain eloquent transparency. They want desperately to be jokes, they signify a will to make humor sprout on the most barren ground, and we laugh—if we laugh, some people just wince—at the exposed desire and the hideous ingenuity so unapologetically displayed.
There are plenty of examples in the films of Mel Brooks, and there are hundreds in Finnegans Wake: the origin of spices, an intrepidation of our dreams, our notional gullery, the crime minister, parsonal violence, something to right hume about, and so on. But such jokes for Joyce are a small part of a very large project, and the modern master of the terrible joke pursued for its own lamentable sake is S.J. Perelman, who has been torturing the English language since the 1930s, at times on behalf of the Marx Brothers, but mostly on his own account, in The New Yorker and elsewhere.
The titles or subtitles of almost any handful of Perelman pieces are enough to illustrate his preeminence in the field: “Nothing but the Tooth,” “To Sleep, Perchance to Steam,” “Rancors Aweigh,” “Muddler on the Roof,” “Under the Spreading Atrophy,” “It’s Not the Heat It’s the Cupidity,” “Nobody Knows the Rubble I’ve Seen, / Nobody Knows but Croesus.” But the following instances show just how far the man will go in ransacking his mother tongue for double-entendre, to say nothing of double meanings. A man is reading The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft and has mislaid his copy. He wanders into the nursery and asks his small son, “Have you noticed any Gissing around here?” “No, sir,” his son says, “but I saw you pinching Nannie in the linen closet.” Worse still, another man is said to be washing ghosts in his bathroom, where there is also a strong smell of not very expensive perfume. His wife asks him what he is doing, and he says, “Why, nothing, dear. I’m just separating the …