On Dad Jokes

Corny, yes. But necessary.

My dad died sixteen years ago and I’m mostly over it. There is no need to express condolences. These things happen. I miss him. This is life.

I miss his jokes. Until the day he died my dad marveled at all the odd circumstances and runs of luck that saw the son of a Baptist preacher grow up to work on Capitol Hill. He’d chuckle and nod his head in disbelief at his good fortune. Even during his chemo treatments. This was probably his favorite joke. The one about the poor kid who made good.

I know that “dad jokes” is a current phrase that means “corny jokes.” That is fine. Fashion is cruel. My dad loved a corny joke. He loved a dirty joke, too. However, the “dad jokes” I grew up with were just my dad’s jokes. He told jokes that made him laugh and if they made someone else laugh, then, all the better. His laugh was a cross between Santa Claus and Viking: loud, jolly, victorious.

There are three jokes of his that I remember. They are jokes I love. I don’t know if they’re funny. But I like to remember my old man telling them to me, which he did, often. These jokes are some of his favorites.

The first joke goes like this: To celebrate Caesar’s return from a mighty victory, the road to Rome was lined with Christians hanging from crucifixes. Thousands of Romans came out to cheer the conquering heroes. It was quite a spectacle. Caesar was stoic as his chariot slowly made its way down this road. Then he looked up and saw that one of the wretches dying on the cross was slowly moving his lips as if to speak. The other Christians were either dead or dying. What was this man saying? Caesar stopped the grand procession and ordered a ladder to be brought to him. He climbed the ladder and leaned close to hear what was being said. The man mumbled:

🎵”I lo-o-ove a parade. When I hear a band I just want to stand and cheer as they come….”🎵

My dad would hold his palms up as if they were nailed to a cross and sing that last bit weakly, pause, and laugh. I laughed too. I didn’t know why I laughed. But I did. He was the type of guy who’d wipe away tears while howling.

This other joke was another beloved knee-slapper of his. It’s an example of my dad “working blue.”

So there was a Baptist revival in a small town. Everyone was there. After a rousing hymn, the preacher stood up and invited his flock to share their sins. “We are all sinners,” the preacher said. “So stand up and tell it all, brothers and sisters.” Then a man from the back of the tent stepped forward, a man who everyone knew was a cheat and a drunk. But he was moved by the spirit of the lord and said, “Preacher! I have sinned!”

“Praise be! Tell it all, brother, tell it all!” was the preacher’s response.

“Preacher, I have lied to those I love!”

“Tell it all, brother, tell it all!”

“Preacher, I have stolen from friends!”

“Tell it all, brother, tell it all!”

“And preacher! This one time I fucked a goat…”

“Stop telling, brother!”

Laughter would erupt from my dad after that punchline. And I would laugh along with him because, you know, as a kid, I thought fucking a goat was hilarious.

My dad was a cut-up. Politics is a serious business — too serious — but he took every opportunity to tell a zinger. He wasn’t a clown, which I think is a perfectly acceptable thing to be. He just loved to make other people laugh. He was the type of man who would stop important people in the marble hallways of Washington DC to tell them the one about the guy with a wood eye or the one about the one-legged woman.

He use to ask people he was meeting for the first time whether or not they’d like “my card” and then he would hand them a business card with the words “My Card” printed on them. He made these, special. Because he was a goof and I loved him for it.

His boss was a Texas politician who once threatened to fire him if he inserted anymore terrible jokes of his into his speeches. That was an example of the senator’s sense of humor. They got along, a poor good ol’ boy and a wealthy oil prince. These days we blame people who work in government for all of our problems. It’s not unreasonable to blame the powerful for some problems. My dad use to tell me that politicians make decisions every day that can ruin a person’s life. He liked to simplify things for me because I wasn’t always the brightest kid. He wanted me to understand that power can destroy. He wanted me to respect power which isn’t the same thing as wanting to be powerful. One can serve Caesar, and God. But the people who work in government are still people. We are all sinners.

The third joke of his I remember because I heard it told after he had died. One of my old man’s friends briefly eulogized him on his cable news show a few days after the funeral. This man is a Texan and Texans are a deeply sentimental people. It was a segment at the end that probably wasn’t more than sixty or ninety seconds tops. The host told one of his terrible jokes on the air. My old man’s largest audience. It is not a politically correct joke. Here it is: Roses are red, violets are blue. I’m schizophrenic and so am I.

I once asked him the secret to success. Success he did not enjoy. How did all those cabinet secretaries, and senators, and ambassadors get to where they were? Did he know how they did it? He had met the President before. How did these people become so great?

He told me: equal parts crippling insecurity and backstabbing ambition feeding off each other.

Now that I think about it, that’s a pretty good joke, too.

Editor, Humungus. I won two James Beard Awards once for an essay about Taco Bell. Let’s be friends.

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