Funny ha: island native pens ‘clean’ joke book

Folklorist Birke Duncan collected jokes for “Laugh without Guilt.” - Brad Camp/Staff Photo
Folklorist Birke Duncan collected jokes for “Laugh without Guilt.”
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

Jokes compiled with help from island students.

Here’s a joke:

Sven’s son, Sven Junior, comes running home one day and says, “Papa, I have the biggest feet in the third grade. Is it because I’m Norwegian?”

“No” his father says. “It’s because you’re 19.”

That’s author and folklorist Birke Duncan’s favorite among all the yukkers in his recently published “Laugh Without Guilt: A Clean Joke Book.”

Lest readers take offense, Duncan, who comes from Scandinavian stock, places the joke in a chapter titled, “Groups Who Laugh at Themselves.” And his eye takes on a concerted twinkle as he describes his latest endeavor.

When Duncan decided to write a joke book – ostensibly as a light-hearted remedy to his master’s thesis in Scandinavian folklore and mythology – he tried to do it from his own school-age memories but quickly realized he couldn’t possibly come up with enough material.

So in true scholarly fashion, he devised a plan to gain entry into area classrooms, one of which was Bob McAllister’s drama section at Bainbridge High School.

To establish credibility, Duncan first prepared a lecture on folklore to be delivered during one class period. Then he asked students to return the next day with a joke to share, with some simple criteria.

“It had to be clean. I didn’t want bathroom jokes or anything too severe,” he said. “There were a few that broke the rules.”

Culling all the submissions, which he did with the help of earlier collaborator Jason Marc Harris, was surprisingly difficult considering the levity of the final product. He couldn’t compile the genre-spanning collection – from light bulb riddles to blonde jokes to wordplay – without doing some analysis first.

He encouraged true stories – also known as “joculates” in the world of humor analysis – but found that when he went back into his “grad student time warp” to research the stories’ histories, he couldn’t verify their validity one way or another. Except for the Winston Churchill jokes.

Duncan’s work as a folklorist focuses closely on oral tradition; he and Harris co-wrote “The Troll Tale and Other Scary Stories,” a 2001 collection of terrifying tales originally told out loud. And he recalls being asked by his wood shop teacher one year to stand up and tell a joke every single day before class began.

At the time, Duncan loved the attention, though the exercise was as mysterious as the antics of another teacher, Mr. Cope, who regularly made jokes a part of his curriculum.

“Why would Mr. Cope want to tell jokes? He’s an educator,” Duncan wondered. “And I realized that jokes do have a function. They teach people how to speak in front of other people, and how to tell anecdotes.”

That’s what made island raconteur McAllister such an apt co-conspiritor in Duncan’s endeavor. Not only did Duncan and McAllister see students blossom on stage as they told their jokes; they witnessed an outpouring of support from the other students in the audience.

“What impressed me about the students was how supportive of each other they were,” Duncan said. “Even if they didn’t laugh, they would cheer.”

Even for an academic like Duncan, who appreciates the cultural context and educational merit of jokes and could analyze them at length, studying them is secondary.

Fundamentally, there’s a driving force behind his love of jokes.

“Because people want to laugh,” he said.


Yuks aplenty

Find Birke Duncan and Jason Marc Harris’s “Laugh Without Guilt: A Clean Joke Book” at Eagle Harbor Book Co.

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