Paul Tough – on the best joke ever.

Mendocino, California
September 28, 2000

Dear Stephen,

Over the past nine months, gradually, incrementally, I’ve been putting all of my possessions into storage. I began, in December, with a three-story house in Toronto filled with ceramic soap dishes, ancestral wedding photos, Robert Stone novels, bank statements, and sweaters; after several trips in moving trucks to storage lockers and attics, my possessions are now: a large knapsack and a laptop bag, plus whatever I can fit inside.

There’s a physical heft to putting things into storage – there’s plenty of lifting and grunting; lots of packing tape, styrofoam peanuts, and garbage bags to fill up and throw around – but the process really comes down to an exercise in sorting: what to keep, what to store, and what to throw away. It’s a deeply existential chore, even, I’d imagine, for someone less existential than I am: Are there any books I just can’t live without? Am I the kind of guy who might need a tie now and then? How important are sunglasses, really?

But now I’ve noticed something weird: I’ve started sorting jokes.

The first time I realized that I was joke-sorting was in March, a month that I spent sitting around Toronto in a deep, often narcotized, funk, waiting to finish quitting my job so that I could leave town, and watching a lot of TV. Deirdre and I were trying to resolve, as we always are, our debate over which of Jim Carrey’s movies is the greatest. She, incredibly, says Dumb and Dumber, while I maintain that it’s Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, in a walk. To shore up my position, I made us watch them both again, back to back, in a single night.

The next day, walking along Queen Street, I found myself replaying in my head the moment in AV:PD where Ace comes out of the bathroom at a fancy party, holding his nose and fanning frantically, and shouts, “Do NOT go in there!” Now, if you haven’t seen the movie (or even, perhaps, if you have), this is probably going to sound a little unlikely, but what I found myself thinking that afternoon was: “That might just be the best joke ever.”

And then a few days later, Deirdre and I were having dinner, and we started talking about this moment a couple of years ago, at a big celebration for her sister. There was a thirteen-year-old boy there, someone’s son, and he was quite a skilled piano player. At the end of the evening, he and Deirdre and I were hanging out by an electric piano that the band had brought, and he was playing various easy-listening tunes for us. After finishing a John Tesh medley with a flourish, he turned to me and said, utterly devoid of irony, “Now, Paul, do you follow professional basketball? You do? Well, here’s a tune you might recognize,” and he launched into his own tinkly rendition of the “NBA on NBC” theme, which in fact I did recognize, though I’d never before heard it played as a cocktail-piano tune. And we laughed about it at dinner, Deirdre and I, and then I said, “You know, I think that was the funniest moment ever.”

And so I was officially on a quest for the perfect joke. I knew it didn’t make a lot of sense – humour is, thankfully, subjective; what is funny is constantly shifting, for all of us – but I kept doing it, despite myself. I started to divide the quest into categories: one night not long ago I spent a couple of hours reading through the archives at, looking for the funniest thing ever published there (conclusion: “3 Little Things I Regret Having Said,” by Dan Kennedy [itself, possibly not coincidentally, a list]). I’ve had long, giddy conversations about the funniest scene in a Woody Allen movie (conclusion: the first date in Play it Again, Sam), the funniest top-ten list (the Top Ten Forgotten Norman Rockwell Paintings), and the funniest SCTV sketch (still under debate).

Joke-sorting might sound like fun, but there is, I’m afraid, a certain joylessness to the process. It’s just like packing up a house and putting it in storage: you’re not sorting to find things you cherish – you’re looking for stuff you can live without: You’re not thinking, Do I love it? You’re thinking, Can I stand to throw it away? That’s what I was doing: getting rid of all those pesky Simpsons lines that are always banging around in a person’s head, and boiling them all down to Bart facing off against Lisa in a rock-paper-scissors contest and saying, “Good old rock. Nothing beats rock.” It was like trying to save possessions from a fire: not really a moment to stop and admire the picture frames.

More recently, the joke-nostalgia cycle has sped up, so that I can be sorting a joke even as I’m making it. When we were in L.A., Deirdre and I were staying for a while at the home of her friend Heather, who’s into new-age spirituality and various unorthodox health cures. We spent a lot of time lying in bed with the air conditioning on, staring at the books on her bookshelf, which had titles like “The Salt Diet” and “Unlocking Your Brain.” My favourite was one, I think about ginger, entitled “Common Spice or Wonder Drug?” The joke was to picture Heather reading the whole thing intently, cover to cover, and then getting to the last page, closing it, putting it down on her lap and saying, “Turns out it’s just a common spice.” Not a bad joke, especially if you tell it ten times in a row, as Deirdre and I did – but hardly worthy of the thought I had that night, falling asleep: “Wait, what if that’s the funniest joke ever?”

Did I need that one in the lifeboat, in other words, or could I throw it over the side?

My friends and I spent a good portion of the 1990s telling jokes and retelling jokes and writing jokes and refining jokes and laughing at jokes. Now, apparently, what I’m doing is whittling down. It’s like I’m preparing for a long trip, one on which I can take only a few select items: my one decent shirt, say, the second Harry Potter book, and Jim Carrey, still fanning frantically.

Yours truly,