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What Makes That a Joke?

“Daddy, Jeffrey told me a joke at school today. Want to hear it?” Charlotte poked at her alphabet pasta with her fork, trying to spear a “C.”

“Sure,” said Lewis.

“What did the lion say to the lion trainer?”

“I don’t know, sweetie. What?”

“I’m not a lion, I’m a tiger.”

“Charlotte, what makes that a joke?”

“It’s a joke, daddy. Jeffrey said it was a joke.”

“Just saying something’s a joke doesn’t make it a joke. It has to be funny.”

Charlotte’s eyes narrowed. “It is funny.”

“Why is it funny?”

“Because the lion is really a lion, not a tiger.”

“That makes the lion’s statement false but it doesn’t make it funny.”

“Plus he’s a lion. He can’t talk.”

“Well, that’s true, but it’s not funny all by itself. You’d have to say something more to make it funny.”

“Like what?” Charlotte said, her nostrils flaring.

“I don’t know, sweetie. Maybe you could first say something that makes the listener think, well, of course this lion can’t talk, lions don’t talk, but then suddenly you’d have him talk anyway.”

“Why is that funny?”

“It’s kind of hard to explain, sweetie. A lot of humor is based on surprise. You’re going along, minding your own business, and then all of a sudden someone pulls the rug out from under you and you land splat on your butt.”

“I don’t see why that’s funny.”

“I don’t know why it is,” he said, defeated. “It just is.”

Charlotte burst into tears. What was his problem? She was six years old, for god’s sake. She didn’t care what made a joke funny. She just wanted to be loved. If Sarah had somehow managed to paint herself into this corner, she would have just waltzed right on out, saying something like, “You know, Charlotte, you are so right, it is funny all by itself. Who ever heard of a lion talking?” But not him. No, he had to deliver a lecture on the anatomy of humor. A hopeless pedant, Sarah used to call him, when she still meant it affectionately.

Staring at the fruit bowl in the center of the table gave him an idea. He grabbed a banana, peeled it, and offered it to Charlotte. She shook her head no. “Maybe you’ll want it later,” he said, putting the banana on her plate and tossing the banana peel half way across the kitchen floor. That got Charlotte’s attention. Then he jumped up and trotted to the refrigerator at the other end of the kitchen as if he were running a 100-yard dash in slow motion, knees high and arms pumping, rounded the imaginary bend and then headed back toward the table. When he reached the banana peel, he stepped on it with his right foot, kicked the foot out from under him and fell backwards, landing on his coccyx. Charlotte, who had been watching him like he was a madman, burst out laughing.

He squeezed his eyes shut against the pain. “What, your poor old father slips and falls on his butt, and all you can do is laugh?” he said with mock indignation. “What’s so funny about that?”

“I don’t know, Daddy, it just is,” said Charlotte, laughing harder.

He lay there, breathing hard, in too much pain to get up.

“Are you OK?” Charlotte asked.

“Never been better,” he said. “Why do you ask?”

“Because you’re still lying on the floor,” said Charlotte. The incongruous picture of her father splayed out on the linoleum sent her into another fit of laughter.

“Well, my goodness, so I am,” Lewis said. He rolled on his side, pushed himself up on his knees, then his feet, and walked slowly to the kitchen table. Gingerly, he eased himself into the chair.

His face must have registered the shot of pain when his full weight came down on his butt, because Charlotte said, “Are you sure you’re OK?” He nodded. Looking at her worried face, Lewis thought, I would cut out my heart and offer it up to the gods if only they would spare you from the heartache that awaits you.

“I think I told the joke wrong, Daddy,” Charlotte said.

“Great! Tell it again,” said Lewis, flooded with gratitude for being given a second chance.

“What did the lion say to the lion trainer?”

“I don’t know, sweetie. What did he say?”

“He said, ‘I was lion when I said I was a tiger.’”

“Ah. Now that’s a joke.”

“Then how come you’re not laughing?” asked Charlotte, eyeing him warily.

“Because it’s not all that funny.” He winced as the words came out, but it was too late.

“Then what makes it a joke?”

“Well, it’s trying to be funny.”

“But I was trying to be funny the first time too.”

“I know, sweetie, but there was no chance you were going to succeed.”

She kicked his chair leg, a swift hard kick that jostled the chair, sending another spasm of pain up through his spine.

Jesus Christ, he thought. He was beyond redemption. What now? In for a penny, in for a pound.

“Sweetie, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that the way it came out. What I meant was that the second way you told it had the structure of a joke. It’s a particular kind of a joke, called a pun. A pun is when you use one word to mean two completely different things. So here, ‘lion’ means ‘lion’ like the animal, but it also means ‘lying’ like not telling the truth.”

“Why is that funny?”

“I don’t know, sweetie. It just is. Anyway, people think it is.”

“Well, I don’t,” she said.

“Me neither,” he said, folding at last, now that he had nothing left to lose.

Charlotte kicked his chair leg again, but this time her aim was slightly off, and her foot glanced off the chair leg and slammed into his shin. Great, he thought. He’d already ruined the evening and they hadn’t even gotten to the tragic part yet.

Charlotte sat there sullen, pushing her pasta around the bowl in search of an “H.” After a few minutes, she put down her fork, and with the haughty politeness of a princess imprisoned in the Land of Ogres, said, “I’m done eating. May I go to my room?”

“Sure,” said Lewis, gently. “But sweetie, before you go, aren’t you going to ask me where mommy is?”


He hadn’t counted on that response.

“Mommy’s sleeping at Uncle David’s tonight,” he said.

“Oh,” Charlotte said.

“Mommy’s going to pick you up tomorrow morning to take you to school, and she’ll probably take you back home, but she’ll be sleeping at Uncle David’s for awhile.”

Charlotte put her hands over her ears. Lewis took a deep breath, and began the speech that he and Sarah had rehearsed.

“Sweetie, you know mommy and I love you very much. And we’d never, ever let anything bad happen to you.” Right, he thought bitterly. Like, for example, the thing that is happening to you right now. “So whatever happens, you know we’re both here for you always.”

Charlotte stared at him.

“You know how you and Jeffrey got in a fight about who would stand at the front of the line at school, and you were so mad at him that you didn’t invite him to your birthday party? Well, Mommy and I are kind of mad at each other right now.”

“Jeffrey and I made up,” said Charlotte. “He invited me to his birthday party. When are you and mommy going to make up?”

Excellent question, he thought. He had asked Sarah the same question. Never, was her answer. “I don’t love you anymore,” she explained, helpfully. “But I still love you,” he wanted to say. Instead, he pled with her for Charlotte’s sake. Then Sarah recited all the statistics on how kids of divorced parents do just fine as long as the parents act like reasonable people.

“I don’t know,” he said to Charlotte. “Sometimes grown ups have a really hard time making up. Maybe you and Jeffrey can give us lessons.”

Charlotte’s face brightened up a bit. “Is this a joke, Daddy?”

“The part about you and Jeffrey giving us lessons?”

“No. The part about you and mommy fighting and mommy staying at Uncle David’s.”

“No, I’m afraid not, sweetie. It wouldn’t be a very funny joke, would it?” he said, looking at her terrified face, wondering if Sarah’s resolve could withstand it.

“You and mommy are stupid,” said Charlotte, spitting out the last word like it was a projectile missile aimed straight for his heart. She got up, shoved her chair into the table, and ran out of the kitchen and down the hall to her bedroom. He heard the door slam shut.

His shin and butt were throbbing. Which was nothing compared to the other pain the air was thick with. He closed his eyes and tried to think. Sarah and he hadn’t gotten past the opening gambit; he’d have to improvise. He probably should give Charlotte some time to digest this. Maybe wait a few minutes and then knock on her door and ask if he could come in. What if she said no? Better not to ask. He should just go in and sit down on the bed, and tell her he’s there if she wants to talk. She won’t, he was pretty sure of that, but at least he’d be there with her, instead of out here, in purgatory. He pictured himself sitting on her bed, and Charlotte on the other side of the room playing with her dollhouse and pretending, with every ounce of her iron princess resolve, that he wasn’t there.

What would Sarah do? She’d walk into the bedroom, scoop Charlotte up in her arms and tell her how much she loved her, and then hold her tight while Charlotte cried her eyes out. That’s what he would do, then. He couldn’t save Charlotte from this. But at least, when she thought back on the night she was betrayed by the two people in the world who were supposed to protect her, she would remember that he was there with her, his arms wrapped around her as she sobbed, her tight little fists pounding his chest, his wet face buried in her hair.

Barbara Fried's fiction has appeared in Bellevue Literary Review, Subtropics, Guernica and Word Riot.  In her day job, she is a professor of law at Stanford University.