As a decorated poet who has been a finalist for both a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize, Andrew Hudgins seems eminently qualified to write that as a boy he was "terrified by the porcelain delicacy of words." That's not surprising. More so is his particular devotion to the word constructs that result in jokes. And not just the mild bon mots that begin a sermon or an after-dinner speech, as Hudgins tells us in his unusual memoir, "The Joker."
No, this academic freely admits he has always been partial to "sick," vulgar, off-color, and patently offensive jokes, the ones that pack enough audacious wallop to elicit "raucous gut laughter — the kind that earns angry stares from the tables near you in a restaurant."
On one level "The Joker" is a typical coming-of-age memoir, detailing the author's military brat, Southern Baptist, romantically clueless upbringing by "sour" parents who never got over the premature death of Hudgins's sister. But the book's through-line — the writer's uncanny recall for the adolescent jokes that explored "religious bigotry, racism, sexual discomfort, and death," helping the young wordsmith determine just how he felt about each of those taboo topics — makes it stand apart, like the cocktail party raconteur who crosses a line and can't find his way back.
He's fascinated by the human mind and its capacity for testing limits. "The sick jokes — dead baby, Helen Keller, and mutilated-boy jokes — mock human frailty," Hudgins notes with no shortage of acuity, despite the low-brow subject matter. Elsewhere, he mounts a nuanced, somewhat tortured defense of jokes that many people would find to be racist, illustrating how often the butt of the joke is not the race being stereotyped but the absurdity of the racism. Still, he acknowledges the increasing "death throes" of the genre: "Nietzsche says that a joke is 'an epitaph on an emotion.' For racist jokes . . . we are hearing the epitaph being written."
The "mental gymnastics" any good joke requires — the puzzling-out of the deceptive turns and the teller's intentions — help explain the author's deep love of humor. "Why did I laugh?" he asks himself continually. "Because the punch line surprised me."
As a simple example, he offers the old "junior-high" joke:
Q. What word starts with f, ends with k, and has a u and a c in the middle?
A. Firetruck, of course.
A good joke-teller, he suggests, can demonstrate a command of language and an ability to command a room. While attending grad school in the early '80s at Stanford, Hudgins once found himself in the company of a young Condoleezza Rice, then already a rising star. As he remembers it, the future secretary of state went toe-to-toe with his crowd of cheap wine drinkers at a house party, telling a few gentle jokes that put her listeners back on their heels.
"I was seeing the future diplomat at work," Hudgins writes. "She entered the room, deftly sized up the group of men she found herself in, and redirected the joking toward a place where she was completely in charge."
As a boy, Hudgins discovered books by the comedians of his parents' generation — Steve Allen, Bob Hope, Jack Benny. Given his father's stern outlook, he was "astounded that men my father's age could tell jokes one after the other, mock themselves, and treat their dignity as something to cast away and then pull back like a yo-yo. They turned their sense of self into a toy and played with it." He was deeply impressed, and has lived by their code ever since.
"These comedians didn't see their self-respect as a bulwark against the world," he continues. "They used humor to clear some ground in the world for them to stand on, a trick I wanted to learn." As evidenced by this thoughtful and, yes, amusing memoir, it's a kind of trickery he has learned well.
James Sullivan, the author of four books, including "Seven Dirty Words: The Life and Crimes of George Carlin," can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.