What's so funny?

Reagan, Quayle, and Clinton, among others

[Editor's Note: Alan Dundes is a professor of anthropology and folklore at the University of California, Berkeley. Among his scholarly pursuits, he studies vulgar jokes and other important developments in American culture. We asked him, for our 20th anniversary, to make a list of the best political jokes of the last 20 years. He agreed, though noted an exception to the concepts of "20," "best," and "jokes." He also alerted us that the jokes he studies are more likely to be from an Irish pub in Roxbury than from Jay Leno's "Tonight Show." They can be crude. After we solemnly swore not to laugh in the wrong places, he surrendered the following treatise.]

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Ex-Gov. Jerry Brown walks into a bar with a frog on his head. He sits down and asks for a drink. The bartender sees the frog on his head and says, "What the hell happened to you?" The frog replies, "It all started with a wart on my ass!"

Among serious students of humor, it's commonly known that the most piquant political jokes are found wherever totalitarian dictatorships flourish. U.S. "jokelore" can't compete with jokes about Hitler, Stalin, or, say, Marcos. Since it is not taboo to tweak politicians in the United States, there is less incentive for the folks here to invent jokes about politicians.

What has been and still is relatively taboo in this country is the topic of sex. Hence, not surprisingly, what few political jokes circulate in our oral tradition often have a sexual theme. One of the best-known Kennedy jokes involves an alleged dialogue between Pat Nixon and Jackie Kennedy. Said Mrs. Nixon to Mrs. Kennedy on the eve of the 1960 election, "I slept with the future president of the United States last night," to which Mrs. Kennedy responded, "That Jack'll do anything for a vote." Incidentally, Abraham Lincoln told that joke more than 100 years ago, referring to a local election in Illinois.

Jimmy Carter, though widely perceived as ineffective, was difficult to ridicule because Americans thought he was honest and idealistic. In one classic political joke, he is the only character to emerge unscathed: Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Gary Hart, and Joe Biden are on a boat. It begins to sink. Carter immediately leaps to his feet and says, "Save the women and children!" Nixon replies, "Fuck the women and children." Hart says, "Have we got time?" and Biden says, "Have we got time?"

This joke, if it does not require a gloss for current readers, will certainly need one decades from now. Joseph Biden, the Democratic senator from Delaware, lost his credibility during the 1988 presidential race when he was caught plagiarizing a speech. (Both Hart and Biden were pasquinaded in other jokes: What's the title of Gary Hart's new book? Six Inches From the Presidency. Did you hear Joe Biden was writing his autobiography? It's called Iacocca.)

Ronald Reagan's mass popularity did not prevent jokes at his expense, including this one: Have you heard about the new Reagan typewriter? It has no memory or colon. (This 1987 joke preceded his diagnosis with Alzheimer's disease.)

George Bush, on the other hand, suffered few jokes at his expense due to his judicious choice of a running mate. More than any other political figure of the past 20 years, Dan Quayle bore the brunt of folk criticism: What's the difference between a jack-o'-lantern and Dan Quayle's head? A light goes on in a jack-o'-lantern once a year. What did Mrs. Quayle say to Dan Quayle on their honeymoon night? Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.

Perhaps the defining Quayle joke has him entering a tattoo parlor. The tattoo artist welcomes the vice president, and asks what he can do for him.

"I want a mark put on the front of my head, sort of like the one Gorbachev has. Can you do it?"

"Uh, why yes," the tattoo artist replies. "But if you don't mind my asking, why do you want it?"

Quayle explains that he recently visited with Gorbachev. "I told him how much I admired him; his political savvy, his ability to bounce back from adversity. So I asked him, straight out, 'How do you do it?' "He told me," Quayle says, pointing to his head, "'You've got to have something up here.'"

Many of the popular jokes about Bill Clinton involve Hillary. One has the Clintons driving along in Arkansas. Needing gas, they pull over. Hillary excuses herself to go to the ladies' room. After filling the tank, Bill goes looking for Hillary and is surprised to see her talking animatedly with the gas station attendant. Stunned, he watches as she gives the attendant a big hug and a kiss on each cheek.

"What was that all about?" Bill asks huffily when she returns to the car. "Oh," explains Hillary, "I went to high school with that guy. In fact, I think I even dated him at one time. We were catching up on old times."

"Well," observes Bill, "I guess if you had married him, you'd be pumping gas today!"

"Oh no, Bill," says Hillary, "if I had married him, he'd be the president of the United States!"

Emerging political icons, such as Newt Gingrich, have yet to be canonized in American jokelore. Until they do, the butts of topical jokes are likely to be the tried-and-true favorites, as in this one: Ronald Reagan calls O.J. Simpson after the not-guilty verdict and says, "Congratulations! You must be glad this whole mess is over. After the hullabaloo dies down, you really must come over and have dinner with me and Nancy."

"Why thank you, Mr. President," Simpson answers. "I'd be honored."

"Certainly," Reagan replies. "And by all means, bring Nicole."