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Chronicle of the NonPop Revolution

The Essay
Show #555
The Joke
David Gunn

"A dog, a prissy English banker, a Nazi stormtrooper, a midget from Amarillo, a cross-dressing member of Japan’s parliament, and Groucho Marx all go into a bar." So begins the joke that was once rated "World’s Funniest." It was so funny that in 1970 Paramount Pictures decided to make a movie based solely on the joke. A studio location was secured; sets were designed and built; a producer, animal wrangler, cameraman, costume designer, caterer, stuntman, six actors and a funambulist were hired; props were acquired, briefly misplaced, then found again; and a composer was hired, no matter the caterer pointed out that his theme for the open credits had been pilfered from a 1969 Alka Seltzer commercial starring George Raft. On the first day of shooting before an energized cast and crew that numbered nearly forty, the director, who could barely suppress his own excitement, yelled "Action!" Regrettably, "Cut!" followed a minute later because no one could recall the joke’s punch line. Not the scriptwriter, not the art director, not the gaffer, not the actor who played Groucho, not even JokeWorld Las Vegas, purveyor of the "World’s Funniest" designation. And yet everyone somehow remembered it as being a real knee-slapper.

Paramount had no choice but to shut down film production until the punch line was located. The director started to lambaste the scriptwriter for the textual lapse, but the latter adroitly shifted blame to the stormtrooper -- an irascible character actor who even the director had no desire to further provoke. So the producer hired a private detective who had once dated his sister named Lou. (That is, the shamus was named Lou; the sister was named, incongruously, Bro.) Lou interviewed more than one hundred people affiliated with the jest industry. All but four had heard the joke at some time in their lives. And still, no one could remember the ending, though one woman was convinced it had something to do with a statue of an ancient Greek medical procedure called the Colostomy of Rhodes.

In place of punch lines, Lou uncovered numerous conspiracy theories. One was that the joke had been overheard by aliens from the planet Zombocartumia who found it offensive, especially the punch line that made fun of their Supreme Garment Administrator. So they pulled the punch line out of the memories of everyone on Earth using transdimensional hypnoworms. And while there was nary a shred of proof to support this hypothesis, the theorists were quick to point out that neither was there any evidence to repudiate it.

Another conspiracy theory particularly popular with Moldavians involved the clarinet, a handheld weapon that was first used to great effect during the War of the Carpathians. After the war -- which lasted the better part of a day, though "better" is probably a misnomer here -- the bayonet was dropped from the bell of the clarinet and it gradually evolved into a musical apparatus. That is, the clarinet evolved. The bayonet didn’t evolve, unless your idea of evolution is migrating to and being assimilated by a northeastern New Jersey city with a suspiciously similar name.

Lou reminds me that "Bayonnette" brings to mind another joke that he heard while doing his research. However, in the view of JokeWorld Las Vegas, it is to the World’s Funniest joke what a split infinitive is to multiple personality disorder, and is not worth repeating here. Sorry, Lou. However, he also uncovered five fascinating clarinet facts, which are relevant to the story in an abstract sort of way:

1. The clarinet is the national instrument of Bali, where it is used as an agricultural tool to till croplands and disperse seed or fertilizer.
2. It is one of only two instruments that sound better when played underwater.
3. Just as one determines a tree’s age by counting its rings, a clarinet’s age can be ascertained by counting the number of its keypads.
4. An ignominious ancestor of the clarinet was the clarannoyance, a disturbingly shrill instrument employed during the French Revolution to torment political prisoners.
5. Asked to describe the instrument he helped to popularize, Benny Goodman once cryptically said, "The clarinet is bigger than a breadbox but smaller than the bread inside." He never elaborated.

Oh, but we were discussing conspiracy theories. Let’s see -- ah yes, Moldavians and the clarinet. Hmm. I can’t seem to put my finger on that information right now. That’s odd, for it was here just a moment ago. Interestingly, Lou tells me that my response parallels the explanations from nearly all of his interviewees: they knew the joke’s punch line a moment ago, but they couldn’t recall it just then.

In any case, to this day, both joke and movie remain unfinished. So if anyone on the flip side of this radiophonic broadcast does know the punch line, please phone (323) 956-5000 soonest. Reward. Alternatively, you can try to forget about it for the next two hours by keeping your radio, isopod, SmartFax, or interactive telex machine tuned to this frequency, which has its own conspiratorial past. The frequency, which typically originates in the house, is today coming to you from an abbey. And in place of an abbess, it features a clarineticist whose name anagrammatizes into "Old Bed Turn." Conspiracy? You be the judge. We’ll be in the house.