The dangers of the joke

Years ago one of my daughters gave her father a trick spoon, a spoon that sits in a puddle of what looks like spilt milk and cereal, but which is in fact plastic.


The trick spoon works well. Whenever an unsuspecting person sees it on a bench or desk top, they go to wipe it away.

‘Grab a dishcloth. ‘You’ve had a spill. ’ The person who put it out laughs at the joke. And with any luck, the person fooled laughs too and picks up the spoon and twirls it round for authenticity

I showed it to my now five year old grandson the other day and it took him a moment to figure it out.

I didn’t trick him with it but showed it to him and explained.

He was most impressed and like many five years olds wanted me to repeat the joke for the rest of the day.

We left it on the bench top and from time to time he’d say to me as we walked past, ‘Look, someone’s made a mess.’ And I’d give an exaggerated yelp and race for the dish cloth then try my best to wipe it up.

My husband is a man of tricks. It’s nothing to find the hem of my dressing gown tied to the bedstead in the morning when I get up. I go to put it on and it won’t yield.

It’s nothing to find a tissue shoved deep inside my shoe, or some unusual object, a wine bottle cork or a jam lid in my handbag. Whenever I find such objects I sigh and remove them, knowing my husband has been up to his tricks again.

My husband’s tricks are benign. The stuff of boyhood, I reckon. They seem to work better on his colleagues than they do on me.

In my husband’s office some folks take off their shoes, not out of custom but out of habit and for comfort. He tells me how he hides the shoes of certain colleagues in their filing cabinets or locker when they go off to the tea room barefooted.

My husband has been known to tie laces together, though not while the shoes are actually on someone’s feet. That would be dangerous.

I have a suspicion my husband is prone to tricks like this, not only for the amusement they offer, but also because they give him an odd sense of power.

Perhaps it feels uplifting to be able to render someone else temporarily helpless and then restore order once the joke is out.

Over the years, my husband’s jokes have worn thin, at least their effect on me has worn thin.

My grandson, on the other hand, is as delighted as a new day. His eyes light up at the thought of turning innocent people into worried souls, desperate to wipe up the mess only to discover the trick and laugh at themselves for their misperception.

But there’s a line between one person’s joke and another person’s horror. We hear about it often today, the young man who grabbed at the writer, Mary Karr’s crotch, as she unsuspecting walked down the street opposite him, might have considered it a joke.

Mary Karr did not. She describes the horror she felt at the time of this violation and the process whereby she found the courage, despite being temporarily winded, to report it to the police, who took it seriously and found the culprit.

Karr needed the help of a homeless person who sat nearby, stretched out on a sheet of cardboard, a man who recognised her distress and told her to do something about it.

His urging empowered her and turned the joke around.

Some jokes are benign and others cruel, but all jokes are tricky. They can wreak havoc on someone’s equanimity as much as they can make another person’s day.

The moral of the tale: All you jokesters out there, tread warily.

14 thoughts on “The dangers of the joke”

  1. I have just come from listening to Anne Summers speaking at the writer’s festival in Bendigo. She was commenting upon the feminist renewal, a response, she reckons to the deplorable treatment of women – such as the Australian journalist, Van Badham, Julia Gillard and Hillary Clinton – in the public domain. It may be we are seeing a more aggressive male entitlement, or more probably, greater ownership by women of their bodies and selves.

    1. I sense there’s a feminist renewal, too, Christine, if only in myself. Hopefully it’s true across the board, more women are recognising the appalling treatment meted out to women simply because they’re not men, and it can be subtle however appalling. We take it so much for granted. Sometimes we don’t even notice it’s happening. Thanks, Christine.

  2. I know what you’re saying—I think people do pranks for fun and in good humour, but they don’t always think of the consequences. I remember the radio station that called the hospital where the Duchess of Cambridge was an inpatient and pretended to be the Queen—that had tragic and disastrous consequences.
    Sexual assault is another matter entirely. I don’t know how many times I’ve had my bra undone (that quick flick through my shirt) or someone blow on my neck from behind or grope my chest as they passed, or a stranger ask if I’d like nine inches, or someone tell me I need a good f–k, or had a male patient masturbate while I was examining them, or ask me out. And that’s not mentioning the cat calls as I’ve walked past a group of men, or the derogatory comments and jokes about women I grew up hearing, or the images of naked women that the plumbers put up on the walls of my father’s workshop that I grew up seeing. I’ve found nothing flattering or funny about any of that at all, but if I said I didn’t like it, I was labelled uptight and told I couldn’t take a joke. In the end, I shut up.
    The other day, my 15yo son came home from school and told me they’d had a guest speaker who told them that 1/3 of women had been sexually assaulted in their lives. He didn’t believe it and thought it was an over-representation. I said it would be an under-representation, and that most of the women I knew had experienced sexual assault of some kind. He was shocked, and quite visibly shaken, and didn’t want to believe me. I didn’t go into details with him—that can wait until he’s processed it—but I will follow it up and let him know how awful it is for women to experience these things.
    I’m glad that these days it’s considered unacceptable and that women have a voice and feel they have the right to be respected. It’s certainly not always been that way.

    1. You’ve certainly had a hard time of it, Louise, and I reckon your experience is not all that unusual. As your fifteen year old son is discovering, the ratio of those women who’ve experienced abuse and those not, probably comes closer to fifty fifty. I worry for how we can best educate our young men in this regard. Last night my husband went to call me a girl over something or other. It was couched in a gentle and loving comment but he found himself checking his words. He did not mean to patronise, he said later. It’s good that he can begin to hear himself. So many of these struggles relate to the need to consider the consequences of our words and actions. Thanks, Louise.

    1. I agree, Kirk. It’s a pretty horrendous gesture and one he ought not get away with. And in some senses he didn’t, though I gather he wasn’t convicted.

      It takes time for people to realise the gravity of such atrocities. Some folks think it’s funny, but try being on the receiving end. Thanks, Kirk.

  3. As a kid I played practical jokes (often inspired by the strips in the Beano or the Dandy) but the older I got the more verbal my humour became. When I was young I loved the physical comedy of the likes of Laurel and Hardy although the violence of the Three Stooges put me off them and I was never a fan but I couldn’t tell you the last time I personally tried to trick anyone. I asked Carrie whose memory I can rely on more than my own and she can’t think of any time I’ve played a prank on her. Verbal parrying is a constant, however, and much appreciated; she’ll provide the setup and be disappointed when I fail to pick up. Not that that happens often.

    All jokes can and do go wrong. There’s nothing worse than having to explain a gag to someone. I remember they had a competition on Radio 1 many years ago looking for the most intellectual joke out there and the winner was:

    Q: How many surrealists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
    A: Fish.

    I knew the joke already but it never ceases to amuse me. If a prank goes sour it’s another thing entirely and even harder to explain just how hilarious it would’ve been if things had played out as planned. I think that’s why I got tired of shows like ‘Game for a Laugh’ where a member of the public walked out of his house to see his car flattened by a tank or something like that. That doesn’t mean it can’t work as evidenced by this video:

    1. I found that prank you linked here funny, Jim, but it requires people who aren’t too prudish. Besides the guard keeps his underpants on. I’m all for verbal parries, too but word games can be tedious. The ones heard in our household tend to be puns and plays on meaning, which keep you guessing and I suppose my husband is the one who enjoys them most while the rest of us mock laugh. Though sometime he lands a gem and it’s precious. If only it happened more often. Sounds like you and Carrie share the humour and that has to be a good thing. Thanks, Jim.

  4. I consider myself to have a huge sense of humor and find the trait one of the most attractive in the human species, but I’m not so into the practical jokester stuff. I enjoyed this post so much, Elisabeth.

  5. Hmmm, I don’t think I would enjoy working or living with your husband, Elisabeth. I have little tolerance for practical jokers, although from previous posts he sounds like an interesting, likeable person.
    Having said that, my own sweet man had a very frustrating side to an otherwise sharp sense of humour. Without warning, he would make the most outrageous comment to someone that would leave them reeling in shock and wondering what had they done to offend him? He seemed to build the joke inside his head on a piece of innocent information but the poor person only ever heard the punchline – which they did not see as funny. Many times I had to placate the recipient and try to explain that he did not intend to insult them, which would inevitably lead to an upset between him and me. Friends who knew him well grew to accept and expect it, with great tolerance I always thought.
    My own humour gets me into enough trouble as it always comes to the fore in times of extreme stress or frustration and can be quite black.
    But why on earth would sexually assaulting someone be thought funny?

  6. I agree, Karen. It’s hard to understand why sexually abusing someone could be seen as a joke and yet it’s one of the rationalisations I’ve heard down the track. As for my husband’s sense off humour, it can be brilliant and people see hm as a witty person. which he is, but there are times when his jokes fall flat, and maybe there are times when, as with your husband, we need to pick up some pieces. My husband needs to pick up pieces for me sometimes, too, though perhaps a little less often. Thanks, Karen.

  7. I like taking off my shoes when I work at a desk. I had coworker who started to hide my shoes. It pissed me off.

    The “practical joke” is often so close to hostile that I don’t get it.

    1. I agree, Glenn, practical jokes contain an element of hostility more often than not, but humour is meant to be an antidote to all that’s dark and grim. I suppose it depends on who’s on the receiving end. Thanks, Glenn.

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