Author Interviews
7:00 am
Sat June 8, 2013

'Joker' Asks: Have You Heard The One About The Joke-Telling Poet?

Originally published on Sun June 9, 2013 5:39 am

Heard any really good jokes lately? Andrew Hudgins is one of America's most noted poets, but he says he has a hard time recalling any actual lines of poetry. He can, however, recite knock-knock jokes he heard in the third grade. Ever since then, he has favored the kind of humor that can make people squirm or even make them angry. Jokes about religion, race, sex, weight, the O.J. Simpson case, Natalie Wood's death, and punch lines from Adolf Hitler's generals — everything is fair game. Hudgins tells NPR's Scott Simon a funeral-related joke that ran through his mind at his father's funeral, though he quickly adds, "I didn't mention [it] to my wife 'til we got back."

Hudgins is one of America's most noted poets — his first book was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, while another was a finalist for the National Book Award. In his new memoir, The Joker, Hudgins writes about how humor was important to him growing up in an unhappy home. "My parents were mourning the death of my sister," he says. "She was killed in a car accident before I was born, and I didn't know she existed until I was 13 or 14 years old. I knew I was growing up in a house where people were angry and sad. ... I realized fairly early there's a kind of disparity between what we're told and what we're witnessing, and jokes often love those kinds of contradictions."


Interview Highlights

On his family telling racist jokes during the civil rights movement

"My mother told [racist jokes], and the source for her was her brother. And he told them as racist jokes; I mean, he appreciated the power they represented of the white class ... of the whites over the blacks. And when my mother told them I interpreted them a different way. I understood them as saying, 'This is the way the racists think.' "

On other people's sensitivity to jokes

"There's clearly humor that goes too far and humor that is violative, and we are engaged in our humor in a complex call-and-response with one another. I'm telling you a joke to see if you think that it's funny ... but if one of us violates some principle or touches on a particularly tender spot of the other, normally we adjust to that and move on. But sometimes we feel that that violation is so strong that we have to register a complaint about it. ... I have called people for telling racist or homophobic jokes, and people have called me on that too when I thought that I was saying this is a joke that demonstrates a certain kind of misogyny or racism and they did not understand that I wasn't endorsing those ways of thinking. Any kind of human communication is quite complicated."

On what jokes that make people uncomfortable can accomplish

"One of the things I talk about in the book is what I learned from the taboo subjects my parents never told me about: sex. So I learned about it from jokes and had to figure it out backwards. ... It's very much a hazard. And because you get a ton of misinformation, you get a ton of misogyny built into your brain at a very early age when your brain is still forming and it can cause long-term complications."

On whether he's heard any good jokes lately

"Many, but the one I've been thinking about is the one about the preacher who is late for the funeral out in the country. He knows it's a poor man and he wants to really do the job right, and so he's driving down the dirt road looking frantically for the cemetery [and] sees these two diggers out around a hole. He rushes up, he stands over the hole, he starts just preaching up a storm, determined to give this poor man as good a funeral as any rich man in the world. He delivers this impassioned speech, runs back to his car, and one of the diggers says 'That is the nicest thing I have ever seen, and I have been digging septic systems for 30 years.' "

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Heard any really good jokes lately?

ANDREW HUDGINS: The one I've been thinking about is the one about the preacher who is late for the funeral, out in the country. He knows it's a poor man and he wants to really do the job right and so he's driving down a dirt road, looking frantically for the cemetery, sees these two diggers out around a hole. He rushes up, he stands over the hole, he starts just preaching up a storm, determined to give this poor man as good a funeral as any rich man in the world.

He delivers this impassioned speech, runs back to his car and one of the diggers says that is the nicest thing I have ever seen, and I've been digging septic systems for 30 years.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Let's introduce Andrew Hudgins, who joins us from Nashville. Of course, he's one of America's most noted poets. His first book, "Saints and Strangers," was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize; another, "The Never-ending," was a finalist for the National Book Award. But for much of his life, or in addition to that, Andrew Hudgins has been a cut-up, a great American poet who says he recalls almost no lines of poetry, but he can recite knock-knock jokes that he heard in the third grade.

He's also especially fond of the kind of jokes that can make people squirm or even angry, jokes about religion, race, sex, weight; jokes about the O.J. Simpson case, Natalie Wood's death and punchlines from Adolph Hitler's generals. Andrew Hudgins also teaches at Ohio State University. His new book is called, "The Joker," and it's a memoir. Thanks so much for being with us.

HUDGINS: My great pleasure.

SIMON: The joke that you were kind enough to just tell us now, does that ever run through your mind at real funerals?

HUDGINS: It ran through my mind at my father's funeral a little over a year ago. And I didn't mention that joke to my wife until we got back in the car and she said I'm glad you didn't tell that.

SIMON: When did you first begin to grasp that you could make other kids laugh?

HUDGINS: I suppose it was around sixth or seventh grade. I fell in love with elephant jokes because they were so anti-logical and yet, they kind of masqueraded as logic and I fell in love with that.

SIMON: An elephant joke like...

HUDGINS: Oh, why do elephants paint their toenails red? So they can hide in cherry trees.

SIMON: Did you use humor to kind of buck yourself up during low times, because I must say that reading the book it seems like you had some pretty unhappy times as a kid?

HUDGINS: I did. My parents were mourning the death of my sister. She was killed in a car accident before I was born and I didn't know she existed until I was 13 or 14 years old. I knew I was growing up in a house where people were angry and sad. And I would stand at my mother's locked bedroom door sometime in the afternoons and hear sobbing.

And when she would come out, I would ask her if she was all right and she would say why. I said you were crying, and she said no I wasn't, you were hearing the radio or you were hearing the neighbors. And so, I realized, you know, fairly early there was a kind of disparity between what we're told and what we're witnessing. And jokes often love those kinds of contradictions.

SIMON: I want to get you tell the joke about the pastor who sees a young boy looking at the plaque in the foyer of his church.

HUDGINS: In that one, the young boy is sitting there looking at the placard and there are flags next to the names and the preacher comes up and he puts his hands on the boy's shoulder and he says, son, those are members of this congregation that died in the service. And the boy says to the preacher, would that be the 9:00 o'clock or the 10:45 service?

SIMON: You will explain, grew up as an air force brat beginning in Fort Hood, Texas. You ranged around the U.S. and U.K., Paris for a year. Then from Paris to Montgomery, Alabama, just about as the modern civil rights movement began. What was it like against that backdrop, in particular, to hear racial jokes in your own family?

HUDGINS: It was a very strange experience. My mother told them. And the source for her was her brother. And he told them as racist jokes. And when my mother told them, I interpreted them a different way. I understood them as saying this is the way the racist think.

SIMON: We also should really hear that we...

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: ...I love this book and we can't tell most of the jokes in here, and it's not because we're especially squeamish but on a, you know, Saturday morning families can be listening. What do you believe that the very jokes that sometimes make people uncomfortable can reveal or accomplish?

HUDGINS: I think - well, you know, one of the things I talk about in the book is what I learned from the taboo subjects my parents never told me about. Sex. So, I learned about it from jokes and had to figure it out backwards.

SIMON: That can be a hazard.

HUDGINS: It's very much a hazard. And because you get a ton of misinformation, you get a ton of misogyny built into your brain at a very early age when your brain is still forming and it can cause long-term complications.

SIMON: It's unavoidable that the president of the university where you teach has announced his retirement after making a series of gaffes - let me put it this way, Andrew - that could have been your jokes.

HUDGINS: Oh yeah, oh yeah.

SIMON: They're called gaffes - and I don't want to - can I draw you in to try, I don't know if you know President Gee. He's certainly been a distinguished educator. We have interviewed him about any number of topics on this show, when he was at Ohio State, when he was at Vanderbilt. Do you have any reflection on that?

HUDGINS: I do. My heart goes out to him. He was obviously in a situation of people, some athletic group, and they would be on his side, they would have been friendly people. And he would make some comment and they would laugh and it sounded like it was leading him to go a little further, to be a little more transgressive to get that next laugh. And then suddenly you find yourself over the line. It's the kind of thing that I do, you know, five, six times a day.

SIMON: Well, that raises the general question: one man's joke is another man's HR problem.

HUDGINS: Exactly.

SIMON: And what do we do about that in this day and age?

HUDGINS: I don't really know, because there's clearly humor that goes too far and humor that is violative. And we are engaged in our humor in a complex call and response with one another. And so, I'm telling you a joke to see if you think that it's funny. And if you do, then we're simpatico. But if one of us violates some principle or touches on a particularly tender spot of the other, we are - normally we adjust to that and move on. But sometimes we feel that that violation is so strong that we have to register a complaint about it. And, you know, certainly I have called people for telling racist or homophobic jokes. And people have called me on that too. When I thought that I was saying this is a joke that demonstrates a certain kind of misogyny or racism and they did not understand that I wasn't endorsing those ways of thinking, it's where any kind of human communication is quite complicated.

SIMON: Is there a joke you can tell us at the end?

HUDGINS: I can. A guy goes into the bank, looks at the teller and says, give me all you all your money, this is a screw-up. The teller's taken aback. She looks at him and says don't you mean this is a stick-up? He says no, it's a screw-up. I forgot my gun.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Andrew Hudgins, the great American poet and author of a new memoir, "The Joker," speaking with us from Nashville. Thanks so much for being with us.

HUDGINS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.