Sunday, November 17, 2019

Flashback 2003: A dirty joke to honor today's greatest humorist

Allen & Ginter cigarette card,1891 (Metropolitan Museum)
     A surprising number of readers said they enjoyed yesterday's joke. That's why I used to run them at the end of the column,  for a number of years—the brainchild of Michael Cooke, by the way—as a bit of music hall fun. I was walking a cigar up Shermer Saturday afternoon with a pal, who remarked upon the naughtier version of that joke, and I said how I once ran a somewhat risque joke in the paper. I was emboldened to print it because Garrison Keillor was coming to town with a show of dirty jokes. In 2017, he was fired from Minnesota Public Radio for alleged harassment of female coworkers. He denied the misbehavior, and I can't judge whether he is the aggressor or the victim. But I do know he was an original America comic voice, and I would hate to see his work fall from popularity because of his personal lapses. 

     I know only one dirty joke, but it's a good one. The chicken joke, I call it. Normally, I'm not the dirty-joke-telling type—too inhibited and awkward. But my chicken joke is special, beloved really, though, now that I think of it, not exactly family-newspaper material. Maybe later . . .
     Left on my own, I would never be bold enough to tell a dirty joke in my column, except that Garrison Keillor, of NPR fame, is hosting an evening of "bawdy humor" Monday at the Steppenwolf. Maybe that surprises you—it's like Norman Rockwell painting a scene of civic turmoil.
     Which, of course, Rockwell did. In the same way people try to marginalize Rockwell by forgetting, for instance, his painting of black girls hurrying past a mob during the civil rights era, so those dismissing Keillor as a folksy yarnsmith, his Lake Wobegon a bit of kitsch Americana alongside Reader's Digest and Currier & Ives, ignore his sharp and edgy material, usually because they've never heard or read him.
     I've done both, and I think he's a genius. Don't be fooled by the bumbling Lutheran pastors and clueless senior citizens of his radio stories. Keillor is slyly subversive. Like his outraged teenager nailing 95 complaints about small town life on the church door (and, really, how many Martin Luther puns does one get in life?), Keillor has issues with the town he so obviously cherishes. During the Gulf War, he offered a stark parable of dissent about the one boy in high school who refused to wear a yellow ribbon supporting our troops.
     He also wrote the funniest baseball story since Ring Lardner, a joyous, unhinged, taunting victory strut celebrating the Twins' championship. "My team won the World Series," he began. "You thought we couldn't but we knew we would and we did, and what did your team do? Not much. . . . You thought we were quiet and modest in the Midwest but that's because you're dumb, as dumb as a stump, dumber than dirt."
     Keillor will last—if I had to pick three humorists since the Civil War who will still be read 100 years from now, I'd say Mark Twain, James Thurber and Garrison Keillor. Who am I missing? H. L. Mencken? Maybe. But his references are so obscure now that half his pieces already read like Chaucer. Robert Benchley? Still funny, yes, but who reads him? To survive, you have to create a world, and Keillor's main setting—the mythical American small town trembling on the brink of extinction, its residents caught in the final moments before the modern behemoth steamrolls them away--will remain. Just as we yearn toward Huck and Tom, free on their raft, so our nation will--as we wander, rootless and placeless--grope back toward Lake Wobegon.
     Dirty joke alert: Skip this part!
     OK, on to the joke: A timid man goes to a brothel. He tells the madam that his wife is out of town and that for this, the lone transgression in his life, he wants the wildest thing she has to offer.
     The madam thinks, puffs her cigarette and casts an appraising eye up and down the timid man.
     "I have a chicken . . ." she says at last, "who will give you a back rub" (for our purposes, though "back rub" is not the act in my non-family newspaper version).
     The timid man agrees, and is ushered into an elegant room—circular bed, a big mirror on one wall. A small hatch opens and the chicken is shoved in (this is why I love this joke; the poor, bewildered chicken, skidding into the room, feathers flying). The man tries to … umm … interact with the chicken. But it's just a chicken. Nothing much happens. Still, the next day, he thinks, "That was fun." He returns to the brothel and sidles up to the madam.
     "Um, excuse me," he stammers, "is the, ah, chicken available?"
     "No, I'm sorry," coos the madam. "The chicken is with a customer. But, if you like to watch, there's a woman in the next room wrestling with a dog." Again, in the version I tell, it is a more specific form of wresting-like activity.
     The man is ushered into a dim room with a one-way mirror. Another patron is seated before the mirror, gazing raptly through it. The timid man joins him, and together they watch a woman rolling around with the dog. "This is incredible!" exudes the timid man.
     "You think this is something," says the first man. "You should have been here yesterday. There was a guy trying to get a back rub from a chicken."
     Dirty joke over: safe to read now.
     Another great thing about Keillor is how he rescues so much that falls by the wayside in our culture. Old pop songs and spoken stories, singalongs and, yes, raunchy jokes. It is safe to say that I would have spent my career, such as it is, and never been bold enough to tell my chicken joke, were I not given strength by Keillor's example.
     Not that Keillor is perfect. He loathes journalists, for instance. He has his reasons, I suppose, but it still stings, personally, and seems ungracious. Were I a comic genius, at the top of my craft, producing deathless humor entertaining the world, I think I'd extend a little pity toward the middling mediocrities brushing against the hem of my robe as I stride by.
     But that is quibbling—no wonder he hates us. I'll be in the audience Monday. Tickets are sold out, sadly, but he'll be back, and then there are all those books and tapes and radio programs. You shouldn't miss him just because you think you know who he is.

          —Originally published in the Sun-Times, June 3, 2003


  1. Your admiration of Garrison Keillor is definitely shared. What book in particular would you recommend as an intro to those, like myself, who know him mainly and mostly from his NPR program?

    1. His second collection, "We Are Still Married" is a favorite.

  2. None of us are perfect. Being judged by the worst thing we ever did while not completely fair when it's abuse of women or children , I will not disregard the allegations of the victim. Especially when there are multiple allegations denial , lack of contrition and insinuation that the perpetrator is being victimized.

    Although a longtime fan of his work I'm done with him. Talented entertainer beyond flawed.

    1. Well said, FME, particularly about the allegations.

  3. The few times I glanced in Keillor's direction, he never seemed particularly funny. But it wasn't enough to form a reasoned judgment, and if Neil thinks so highly of him, maybe I'll give him a second chance.

    As for Keillor's disdain for the media, it may have been helped along by a mean prank played on him by the now-defunct Spy magazine, which specialized in that sort of thing. Spy sent pictures of a 16-year-old model, together with mash notes, to a random bunch of celebrities. The only ones who responded were Wilt Chamberlain and Keillor. Spy really went after Chamberlain, hiring an actress to play the young girl and get Chamberlain to talk dirty to her on the phone. But they mentioned Keillor's response in passing, which couldn't have been pleasant for him.

    Mean or not, his falling for that prank didn't leave me inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt when he was fired from NPR.

  4. I liked listening to him on the radio. Not a comic, a joke teller, but a humorist, which is relatively rare. for endurance, don't know if I would put him up there with Twain and Thurber.


  5. My love-hate relationship with Keillor has lasted almost forty years. I religiously listened to his shows in the Eighties and Nineties. Sat in front of the radio, the same way my parents once did. Stayed in the car until his Lake Wobegon monologues ended. My first wife was of Norwegian descent, so I greatly enjoyed his regional and ethnic humor.

    But I listened to him far less in his show's later years. I never missed his monologues, of course, but I would tune out the rest of the show. His humor became stale and repetitive and less amusing. His singing, never all that good to begin with, grew worse.

    It wasn’t only his singing, though, it was his delivery. He had a very noticeable stutter for a LONG time after his stroke in 2009. His doctors told Keillor he was extremely lucky not to be incapacitated...or dead. As a result, his show took on a preachy and religious tone, one that I strongly disliked.

    Keillor began to feature gospel singers more frequently. He would quote Scripture and sermonize about religious subjects, and his characters did the same. Worst of all, he created a very annoying minister known as Pastor Liz, who became the focal point of his monologues.

    The Prairie Home Companion brand had already passed its sell-by date and had begun to stink. The same-old-same-old skits, year after year, that were snoozers and went on far too long. Lame attempts at snarky political humor. Ridicule of minorities, ethnics, and the disabled. Too many fart jokes in the Lake Woebegon monologues, which became shorter and shorter over time. After nearly three decades, I did touch that dial--and pulled the plug.

    Keillor is still, far and away, one of the best and most humorous wordsmiths of our time. I love his books and I love his syndicated column. He is the Mark Twain or the Will Rogers of his era...and of ours. But nobody had the power--or the guts--to tell the boss it was time to put down the microphone. Like so many other vocal performers (Sinatra comes readily to mind), Garrison Keillor was mesmerized by the sound of his own voice, and addicted to the adulation it brought him. He became a parody of himself, who kept on talking long after he should have stopped. He had become an anachronism, and those at a higher level were apparently seeking an excuse to boot him. So one was found...or invented.


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