From Chicken Soup for the Father & Daughter Soul

Punch Lines

Wit is not leveled so much at the muscles as the heart; and the latter will sometimes smile when there is not a single wrinkle on the cheek.

Lord Lyttleton

My dad is an hour late when he shows up at my house for dinner.

“I can’t believe the traffic,” he says, as he takes off his coat. “There I was, stuck behind a huge mattahue. What a nerve-wracking experience.”

He follows me into the kitchen and accepts a ginger ale.

“I’m sorry the drive over was so hard,” I say. “By the way, what’s a mattahue?”

“I don’t know. What’s a matta you?” he says.

If restaurants were divided into joking or nonjoking sections, I know where my father would sit every time.

As a child, I did not appreciate my father’s persistent sense of humor. He lay in wait for me every morning. Wearing a respectable gray suit, reading the newspaper and drinking coffee, he looked like an ordinary adult. I knew better.

“Want a bagel?” he asked, as I dragged in.

I analyzed the question, wary that a joke lurked in its shadows. “Okay,” I answered. I had learned monosyllabic replies made me less vulnerable to the pitfalls of punnery.

My father calmly sliced, toasted and buttered a bagel for me. I took a bite and relaxed. “Interesting article about the space program,” he said. I nodded and kept chewing. He continued, “Johns Hopkins is doing a study on the nutritional impact of space. Do you know what those fellows eat?”

“Some sort of capsule or algae,” I said.

“According to this article, all they eat is launch meat.” One bite later, the pun sunk in. He’d gotten me again! I clutched my stomach and groaned. Dad smiled and returned to his newspaper.

Every neighborhood gathering, every family social, every Sunday school picnic, my father rolled out his stories and jokes. I envied my friend Susan whose dad quietly flipped hamburgers and freshened drinks. I wished for a father like Camilla’s, who puffed on his pipe and occasionally interjected a philosophical comment. I yearned for a parent like Uncle Frank, who inconspicuously lounged on the sofa, absorbing wrestling matches. My father was at the center of every event, milking the crowd with the expertise of a Wisconsin dairy farmer.

When I reached high-school age, I avoided outings with my father. Why did such a smart man stoop to such fourth-grade humor? And why did the adults all eagerly wait for that lull when my father said, “Oh, by the way, did you hear the one about . . .”?

I dreaded a new boyfriend walking into my father’s web. My father would be sitting there, looking middle-aged and innocuous in his La-Z-Boy. My friendly father would then gently draw out the boy until he found what he was looking for: the excuse for a joke.

“So where are you taking Debbie tonight? Dinner and a movie? You know, I recently ate at a Howard Johnson’s. I ordered soup. The waiter brought my soup, and there was a stick right in the middle. ‘Waiter,’ I said, ‘what is this twig doing in my soup?’

“‘Oh, that’s nothing, sir,’ the waiter said. ‘We have branches all over the country.’”

I’d enter the room just in time to see my potential Romeo roll his eyes and clear his throat. Then he’d crank out the smile. “Good one, sir. Do you think Debbie will be ready soon?”

Recently, my friend Philip dropped by to meet my family. My mother offered him a glass of orange juice, and my father graciously weaved Philip into the conversation. Philip told my father how he loved the desert, and my father listened attentively. After a pause, Dad said, “Speaking of the desert. . . .” Mom and I glanced at each other. The joke unfolded as casually as white bread. At the end, we all laughed and my father settled back, like a chess master contemplating his next move.

“Your father is great,” Philip said afterward. “I never felt so at home meeting a new person.”

“Well, he goes overboard sometimes with the humor,” I said.

“I loved it,” Philip said.

Suddenly, I realized my father does not just work for laughs: With his jokes and stories, he makes people feel welcome, comfortable and part of the group. My father has been quietly accomplishing the things I’ve been reading and studying about for years.

I often attend seminars on how to network. I read books on how to bring people together in groups. I attend conferences on speaking and storytelling. Yet I’d been in the presence of a master all these years without even realizing it.

One night, my daughters and I were gathered around the supper table. I passed the baked potatoes and said, “I got a speeding ticket today.”

“Mom, I can’t believe it. You just had one last month.”

“The policeman who stopped me was nice—and a real body builder. I asked him why he was so strong.” I lowered my head and sliced my tomato into quarters.

“So, what did he say?” Sarah asked, taking a sip of iced tea.

“He said he’s strong because he’s constantly holding up traffic,” I answered.

My daughters stopped eating and gave me “the look.” They raised their eyebrows and shook their heads.

“You’re as bad as Grandpa,” Jessica said.

I smiled and basked in the praise. Then I wondered if they’d heard the one about . . .

Deborah Shouse

More stories from our partners