NEAL CONAN, HOST:
From the Marx Brothers to Adam Sandler, from Jerry Lewis to Jerry Seinfeld, Jewish comedians reshaped the rhythms of American humor, changed the way the rest of us look at life, and along the way, they've delivered countless numbers of jokes. What started as a project to collect those jokes has morphed into an off-Broadway review with a direct title: "Old Jews Telling Jokes." Two of its principals join us in a moment. We'd like you to call and tell us the joke that defined something important about your group, whether you're Jewish or Irish, a lawyer or a bartender.
800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Writer and editor Daniel Okrent is co-conceiver and producer of "Old Jews Telling Jokes." Nice to have you back on the program, Daniel.
DANIEL OKRENT: Nice to talk to you, Neal.
CONAN: And Marilyn Sokol is one of the show's stars. She's also with us from our bureau in New York. And thanks very much for coming in.
MARILYN SOKOL: Well, hello, Neal.
CONAN: Hello. I should...
SOKOL: It's so wonderful. I knew Neal as a whippersnapper.
CONAN: When Marilyn was a young Jew telling jokes.
CONAN: Can I begin, Marilyn, by...
CONAN: ...asking you to tell us about Mrs. Shapinsky's(ph) visit to the beach?
SOKOL: Oh, yes. You want to hear the whole thing?
CONAN: Oh, yeah.
SOKOL: All right. Mrs. Shapinsky takes her eight-year-old grandson to the beach. A giant wave comes crashing in and sweeps the little boy out to sea. She looks up at the heavens. God, she says, please. He's my only grandson. I love him more than life itself. Please, bring him back to me. She looks up. Suddenly, the waters part. A ray of light shines from the sky. She sees a golden dolphin heading toward the shore with little Sammy on his back. The dolphin gently places Sammy on the beach, then swims away toward a beautiful rainbow. Mrs. Shapinsky looks at her grandson, around the beach, up to God: He had a hat.
CONAN: Danny Okrent, where did you find that joke?
OKRENT: Well, that's the 43rd time I've heard Marilyn tell it, and I laugh every time she does. You know, actually, Neal, it's a joke that I've known for, I don't know, 25, 30 years. And at first, I didn't want to put it in the show. I said, everybody knows that joke. Well, of course, the joke that you know you think everybody knows, but everybody doesn't know it. And the audiences seem to love that one...
OKRENT: ...and I do, too.
SOKOL: But there's another way to do the punch. You could go: Hey, he had a hat, you know.
SOKOL: That's the thug way of doing it. Yeah.
CONAN: So tell us about this project. How did it get started?
OKRENT: Well, being an old Jew, I - actually, I became an old Jew when I turned 60 four years ago, and I had the opportunity to appear on this website, oldjewstellingjokes.com. I was the youngest old Jew for a while, but I'm afraid I lost that distinction. I told four jokes, and my friend Peter Gethers, who's a very accomplished book publisher and a novelist and a screenwriter, he saw it and he said, you know, we could do something with this. You know, we thought - I thought that meant we could lose money doing something with this.
CONAN: You still could.
OKRENT: We - no, it doesn't look...
OKRENT: ...not as long we have Marilyn Sokol on the show, we can't.
SOKOL: Oh, gosh, Dan.
OKRENT: So we then spent the next three years developing it into an off-Broadway revue, and, you know, the key to it is - this is not standup. This is not "Catskills on Broadway." These are five really accomplished comic actors, and it's the acting that takes jokes that you might think, well, I know that joke. I've heard it already. But you hear it in a new way. It's like hearing your favorite song when these exceptional actors turn it into theatre.
CONAN: And Marilyn, I was in the audience a couple of weeks ago, and it was old Jews listening to jokes.
CONAN: It was people whispering the punch lines to each other.
SOKOL: Yeah. But they like seeing us tumult. We're tumulters. Is that what you call it?
OKRENT: Yeah, tumulter. Yeah.
SOKOL: Yeah. And I got to say something about the actors in the show: Gosh, they're good. They are really, really good. And I'm blessed. I'm really blessed.
CONAN: There are three old Jews in the cast and two younger actors.
CONAN: They are also very, very good.
OKRENT: Yeah, they're wonderful.
SOKOL: They're fabulous.
OKRENT: They're great finds, and I think they're both going to have wonderful careers, Bill Army and Audrey Lynn Weston. And we had the younger actors in it. People said, It's called "Old Jews," why do you have these young people in it? Well, as you know, Neal, having seen it, a lot of the jokes, we've turned into little skits. They're not - it's not just somebody narrating. You actually have two people playing the parts. And for a lot of the parts, you need the mother who doesn't, you know, the daughter who doesn't like the mother or, you need, you know, the young man who's got eyes for the young woman. So they're perfect for it and they - I think they add a level to the show that it otherwise wouldn't have.
SOKOL: And they're very happily married in their private lives. In fact, everyone but me is happily married.
SOKOL: I am not unhappily married. I have been unhappily married, but at the moment, I am happily solo.
CONAN: The - we want to get some callers in on the conversation. We want to hear jokes. Hey, come on. It's a family radio program, people. But we want to hear jokes that define your group, whatever group that may be. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. And let's begin with Tom, Tom with us from Circleville, Ohio.
TOM: Hi. Wonderful program, always enjoy it, listen to it all the time.
CONAN: Thank you.
TOM: I'm American-Irish, and my joke is two Irish just walked out of a bar. No, really, it could happen.
OKRENT: OK. We're stealing that one. Thank you very much.
CONAN: So you're next play, you've got a head start on it.
TOM: OK. Thank you very much. I love your program.
CONAN: Thanks very much, Tom. Appreciate it. Let's see if we can go next to - if I can get the buttons right - Bob, Bob with us from Havertown in Pennsylvania.
BOB: Paul, how do you do? Havertown, P. My name is Bob, and I told your guy I'm half Irish and half Jewish, so I have a cute Jewish joke. Sol(ph) and Minerva(ph) are sitting down to dinner, and Sol starts clenching his throat and turns bright red and he's making hacking noises. And Minerva says, Sol, are you choking? And he says, no, I'm serious.
OKRENT: All right. Neal, I think we have to extend the show by at least half an hour because we're going to get act two out of this.
OKRENT: "Old Jews Telling Jokes" goes national right now.
CONAN: Thanks very much for that...
BOB: Listen, I love your show and I listen to NPR all the time, and I'm a member. And God bless you. Keep telling 'em.
CONAN: Thanks very much, Bob. Here's an email from Duncan: Older Jewish joke also used to discuss the concept of a double bind in therapy. Jewish mother gives her son two ties, a red one and a blue one, and asked, which one do you want? He replied. He choose the blue tie. Mom then asks, don't you like the red?
OKRENT: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
CONAN: That's a standard variant.
OKRENT: Absolutely. That, you know, that's control F3 that comes out of the...
SOKOL: Oh, very good.
OKRENT: ...out of the Jewish joke computer.
SOKOL: That's good.
CONAN: And I wrote down, while I was at the show, Marilyn, the joke that you told that we can actually use on this program.
OKRENT: Oh, my gosh.
CONAN: So Mr. Shapinski(ph) was one. Tell us about Kaplan(ph) on the LIE.
SOKOL: OK. Kaplan is driving down the Long Island Expressway. A cop pulls him over and says, sir, do you realize you're wife fell out of the car a mile back? Thank - oh, wait a second, hold on.
OKRENT: She's not on stage.
SOKOL: Do you realize your wife fell out of the car a mile back? Kaplan says, thank God, I thought I was going deaf.
OKRENT: What - one of the many great things about that joke is that it's not necessarily a Jewish joke, except that the character's name is either Kaplan or Feldman, and then it becomes a Jewish joke.
CONAN: And it becomes a Jewish joke.
CONAN: OK. Let's see we go next to - this is Steve. Steve is with us - boy, I'm messing up here - I keep - we have a brand-new piece of technology.
SOKOL: Oh, dear.
CONAN: I thought I'd mastered it, but evidently not.
SOKOL: Yet. I ran across an elevator like that today. I keep turning around thinking you're there, but you're not.
CONAN: All right. We're going to try to get - we got some more emails here. This one from Anna from Overland, Ohio. I love this topic. My husband is a physicist, and my favorite joke pertaining to his field is, how can you tell an extroverted physicist from an introverted physicist? Answer: an extroverted physicist looks at your shoes when you talk to him.
OKRENT: OK. (Unintelligible) on that one too. You have very, very adept listeners here.
CONAN: We do.
SOKOL: Yes, very
CONAN: There we go. We've got our machine working here. Steve is with us from Pine Grove in California.
STEVE: Yeah. Yeah, this isn't an old Jew joke, but it's - the pope gathers an extraordinary meeting of his cardinals and says, I have good news and bad news. And the cardinals are all excited and he says, I've been informed of the imminent second coming of our Lord Jesus. And they're all very excited, and then one of them asked, well, what could be the bad news with such wonderful news as this, your Holiness? He says, I got the call from Salt Lake City.
OKRENT: You know, that would be tough to put in our show. That one, I don't know how we're going to use.
CONAN: Thanks for the call, Steve.
STEVE: OK. Thank you.
CONAN: Let's go to - this is Shane. Shane, with us from Lynchburg in Virginia.
SHANE: Hey guys.
SHANE: I was telling your screener, I'm a bartender, so about 99 percent of the jokes I could tell would not get aired on NPR.
CONAN: No, they would not.
SHANE: But the one I have this bartender joke, or it's like a bar joke, it took even your screener a while to pick up on it. So it goes like this. A giant termite walks into a bar and he looks around and he asks, is the bartender here?
CONAN: OK. Shane, we do get it. Thanks very much for the phone call.
SHANE: No problem.
OKRENT: You know, same thing, ham sandwich walks into a bar, bartender says, we don't serve food here.
CONAN: There is - there are some serious or semi-serious aspects to this show, Daniel, and there are some thought about the nature of humor and the role it plays in our lives, particularly at moments of stress.
OKRENT: Right. Each of the five actors has a monologue about the role of humor in the character's life. And in fact, most of these, four of the five, are really based on real experiences of either Peter's or mine, or other people involved in the show. There's no better way to deal with pain than with humor. And some people say, well, you know, good taste to make jokes about such and such a tragedy? That's the only way we make it through tragedy. And, you know, the funniest jokes in our show, I think, are about bad sex and death, you know? So there you go. These are two things that we don't particularly want in our life...
OKRENT: ...but the jokes are absolutely hilarious.
SOKOL: We don't talk about things like war or starvation. That's not part of our...
CONAN: We're talking with Marilyn Sokol, who plays Bunny in "Old Jews Telling Jokes," and Daniel Okrent, co-conceiver of the show. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
SOKOL: Oh, Dan - I didn't tell Dan this, but my first - how shall I put it, homerun came - I think it was one - I think it came last Saturday. Anyway, that was lovely. That's all I have to say.
CONAN: This from Gary(ph): I'm a mental health counselor. My favorite job-related joke. Person one: Knock, knock. Person two: Who's there? Person one: Control freak. Now you say, control freak who?
OKRENT: Right, right, right.
OKRENT: Control freak, who? Yeah, yeah.
CONAN: Yeah, control freak. All right.
SOKOL: Oh, I get it.
CONAN: Never mind. Never mind.
SOKOL: I get it.
CONAN: Let's go to Sandy(ph)...
OKRENT: We don't do knock, knock jokes, and we don't do light bulb jokes. We're beyond that.
SOKOL: That's right.
CONAN: Well, yeah, you're distinguished.
SOKOL: We only do them backstage.
CONAN: Sandy's on the line from Jonesborough, Tennessee.
SANDY: Hi. I'm a lawyer. You know how many lawyer jokes there are out there, and I think that it's just truly unfair that my profession would be slandered like that. I always say, you know, it's just - it's 98 percent of the lawyers that give the rest of us a bad name.
CONAN: You can work that in, Dan.
OKRENT: I think we will tonight.
OKRENT: This is one of the great things about it. Who owns these jokes? You know, they just kind of exist in the atmosphere. So we steal from everybody.
CONAN: I did notice that nobody had the nerve to say they wrote this show.
OKRENT: Right. We conceived it.
OKRENT: It's kind of a - and very - I wouldn't call this an immaculate - this was immaculate conception. The - we found jokes from a thousand different sources. And when people heard we were doing the show, they told us their jokes, and, of course, the jokes on the "Old Jews Telling Jokes" website, we use a lot of those too.
CONAN: Here's a tweet from Andrew Becker(ph): A Jew is rescued on a desert isle. He built two temples, explaining, this one is my synagogue. I refuse to go into the other one.
No, that joke is in the show.
OKRENT: That's in the show...
OKRENT: ...but we make it last about four minutes.
SOKOL: That's right.
OKRENT: It's a little bit different. Two of the - yeah, they're the two actors who do that...
OKRENT: ...Todd Susman and Lenny Wolpe. They are fantastic.
OKRENT: And this turns into a - it's a comic routine, not a joke. It's really wonderful.
CONAN: Let's go to Ralph(ph), Ralph with us from Detroit.
RALPH: Yes. This joke goes back to the better days in the auto industry and the negotiations between General Motors and the UAW. It was an editorial cartoon in the Detroit Free Press. On one side was Walter Reuther. On the other side was a GM negotiator, probably Louis Seaton. And in the middle was a giant sandwich about three feet tall. And the comment was from Walter Reuther: But where's the pickle? It's a Detroit variation on the Jewish joke.
CONAN: Thank you, Ralph.
CONAN: One more from you Marilyn: Zipkin and Weinstein.
SOKOL: Oh, yes. It's under the heading of assimilation. Zipkin and Weinstein are walking past a Catholic church with a big sign: Convert to Catholicism, Get $50. Weinstein says, I'm going to do it. He strides into the church. Twenty minutes later, he comes out with his head bowed. Zipkin says, so did you get your 50 bucks? Weinstein looks at him and says, is that all you people think about?
SOKOL: I almost married somebody from Detroit.
CONAN: Once upon a time.
SOKOL: But (unintelligible) we talk about that.
OKRENT: Yes, I know. I did marry someone from Detroit. She was my starter wife.
CONAN: Dan, you are from Detroit.
OKRENT: I am from Detroit, and it's true.
CONAN: All right. Here's one from David(ph) in Point Reyes, California: Being a WASP means there's not much fun we can make of ourselves. One exception: Why don't WASPs go to orgies? Too many thank you notes to write.
OKRENT: We had a series of WASP jokes on the show, and they just fell flat. It was really something. I happen to love them myself, but couldn't make them work.
SOKOL: I do too.
CONAN: The Old Man River - not something you would think would work. That's so great.
OKRENT: It's a piece of genius. Todd Susman does it. He simply recites the lyrics as an old Yiddish-accented man would, and the audience comes apart on it every night.
OKRENT: It's really wonderful.
SOKOL: So beautiful.
CONAN: Here's Scott(ph) in Oklahoma City: How do you know you're being harassed by Unitarian universalists? They leave a burning question mark in your lawn.
CONAN: That's good. Daniel Okrent and Marilyn Sokol, thank you so much for coming in.
SOKOL: Oh, Neal. It's so lovely chatting with you.
CONAN: Nice to see you again a couple of weeks ago.
OKRENT: Thanks a lot, Neal.
CONAN: Daniel Okrent, co-conceiver and producer of "Old Jews Telling Jokes." Marilyn Sokol is one of the show's stars. The show runs at the Westside Theatre in New York. They joined us from our bureau in New York. Tomorrow, TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will be here. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.