In 1977, I was a nerdy bookworm in my mid-twenties without much of a career plan. I moved to New York City and got a job as an assistant editor at St. Martin’s Press, and it was there that I developed a reputation for knowing a lot of jokes, especially the kind that make you cringe and laugh at the same time. People would tell me jokes at parties, or call me up with a new one, and I’d return the favor to an ever-widening circle of aficionados. I remember the phone call one morning in the fall of 1981: “What kind of wood doesn’t float?”
“Natalie.” (And why didn’t she shower on the boat? She preferred to wash up on shore.) My private collection grew. There were jokes that made you pause for a second. (What’s the difference between Martin Luther King Day and St. Patrick’s Day? On St. Patrick’s Day, everyone wishes they were Irish.) Disgusting jokes. (What did the leper say to the prostitute? “Keep the tip.”) Silly ones. (What did Buddha say to the hot-dog vendor? “Make me one with everything.”)
Tom Dunne, my boss at St. Martin’s, was the one who told me to write them down. Soon I was recording every one I heard. “We’d go to lunch and you’d ask me if I had any jokes,” my friend—and later agent—Don Cleary reminded me recently. “You’d write them down on the cocktail napkin or whatever, and put them in your pocket.” I’d toss the soggy napkins and pink While You Were Out slips in my bottom desk drawer before turning back to writing flap copy and stalling agents.
My annual salary was $8,500— pathetic even then—and one day when I was feeling especially broke I started sorting through all the scraps of paper to see if I had a stack big enough to assemble into something resembling a manuscript. I organized the jokes into timeless categories: Helen Keller (How did Helen Keller burn her fingers? Reading the waffle iron), Dead Baby, Jewish, WASP, Black, Ethnic Variegated, Male & Female Anatomy, Homosexual, Celebrity, Handicapped, Cruelty to Animals, and on down to Too Tasteless to Be Included in This Book. (Why did Helen Keller masturbate with one hand? So she could moan with the other.) After a couple of months, typing away on the red Selectric in my office in the Flatiron Building after hours, I had a modest number of pages and correspondingly modest hopes. In homage to one of my favorite jokes, I titled it “What’s the Difference Between Garbage and a Girl from New Jersey?” (Garbage gets picked up.) Don Cleary’s boss was my boss’s agent, so I asked Cleary if he’d like to be mine. Given the nature of the material, we decided a pseudonym would be wise, and in a flash of inspiration I came up with Blanche Knott. I liked the wordplay, the hint of Southern gentility, and the warning to the fainthearted. Although I never made much effort to keep my second identity secret, I haven’t officially come out as Blanche until now.
The manuscript started making the rounds, and the rejections swiftly followed. Horrified rejections. Penguin came back with the comment: “If we published this, the little bird would have to hide its head under its wing in shame.” A woman at Delta, then a paperback imprint of Dell, told Cleary, “We can’t publish this here. I’m not even sure we can Xerox it.”
Then Marilyn Abraham, an editor at Ballantine, called Cleary to report that the proposal had “derailed the editorial meeting.” She offered a contract and a $5,000 advance. I was thrilled. Abraham credits Susan Petersen, the marketing director and later president of Ballantine, with “the most brilliant piece of advice. When I told her the title—‘What’s the Difference Between Garbage and a Girl from New Jersey?’—she said, ‘I don’t get it. What is it?’ ‘It’s a book of tasteless jokes.’ ‘Well, that’s the title!’ ” Truly Tasteless Jokes was born.
Six months later, Abraham called to offer me another $5,000 to compile a second volume. Something unexpected was happening. The weekly print reports from the wholesalers that came across my desk at work confirmed that Blanche was rapidly moving up their internal charts.
I still had plenty of napkins and Post-its in my drawer, but it occurred to me to put a notice on the back page of Truly Tasteless Jokes Two: “Would you like to see your favorite tasteless joke(s) in print?” Takers were asked to mail them to Blanche c/o Ballantine Books, with the proviso that “no compensation or credit can be given, and only those ‘tasteless’ enough will be included.” I didn’t give credit because I often heard the same ones over and over, and who knew who actually invented these jokes? (Prisoners? Comedy writers? Junk-bond traders?)
The first book cracked the New York Times best-seller list in early 1983, just as my new husband and I embarked on a fourteen-month backpacking trip across Asia. Ballantine asked for a third volume, so midway through the trip, in Singapore, I rented a cruddy hotel room and a manual typewriter and assembled Truly Tasteless Jokes Three from bags of mail couriered across the Pacific. The jokes that had come in were written in pencil and crayon, scrawled on loose leaf and typed on monogrammed stationery, mailed from trailer parks and college campuses. Some were lame, many hilarious, and I was grateful for every one.
Putting the third volume together wasn’t as mindless as it sounds. I eliminated the duds and condensed and rewrote most of the jokes. There’s an art to telling jokes well. Shorter is better. Word choice is crucial. By the time I left Singapore, I knew forevermore that “hard-on” trumps “boner” (too silly) and “erection” (too clinical), unless it’s a joke about what Japanese men do when they have erections. (They vote.) Rhythm is crucial too; it cues the laugh. As does the three-part structure of many jokes: intro, premise, reversal. (Intro: Two Jewish women are talking. Says Sophie, “Oy, have I got a sore throat.” Premise: “When I have a sore throat, I suck on a Life Saver,” counsels Sadie. Reversal: Retorts Sophie, “Easy for you, you live at the beach.”) I’d honed a lot of the longer jokes in the process of telling and retelling them, and I read them aloud to make sure they hurried to the punch line without a hiccup.
I worked hard to weight the categories evenly so it would be clear that Blanche spared no one. “That was your concession to political correctness,” Tom Dunne remembered. I thought of it as leaving no stone unthrown, and it was as close as I got to a moral high ground.
Truly Tasteless Jokes became the biggest-selling mass-market book of the year, and the talk shows were calling. I could have flown home, blown my cover, and enjoyed my fifteen minutes of notoriety. But even from an ocean away I saw the pitfalls. How hard would it have been for David Letterman to make me squirm about being a privileged white kid, as Blanche in fact was? (What’s a WASP’s idea of openmindedness? Dating a Canadian.) And my two snappy comebacks—“The books make fun of everyone” and “You don’t have to buy them”—wouldn’t have taken up a lot of airtime. I stayed in Asia.
Over the years, I became an ex-pert at tracking scandals and catastrophes and the jokes they gave rise to. (Why did Karen Carpenter shoot her dog? It kept trying to bury her. What were Christa McAuliffe’s last words to her husband? “You feed the kids, I’ll feed the fish.” What’s blond, has big boobs, and lives in Sweden? Salman Rushdie. What do Saddam Hussein and Little Miss Muffet have in common? Kurds in the way.) At one point I made publishing history by occupying four spots on the Times’ best-seller list. By then, Pocket Books had released Maude Thickett’s Outrageously Offensive Jokes and Zebra had published Gross Jokes by Julius Alvin, both of which ascended the list on Blanche’s coattails.
A lot of writers and editors were appalled at getting crowded out of the best-seller list by the likes of Blanche, Maude, and Julius. “Eventually I think publishers complained,” Cleary told me, “and that’s the advent of the Advice, How-to and Miscellaneous category on the list.” Historian Barbara Tuchman, who was published by Ballantine’s parent company, Random House, wasn’t happy either. In a front-page story in the Times on July 30, 1983, she complained to a reporter that “[a]ll these terribly tasteless, disgusting books . . . represent a breakdown of decency and of standards of taste.”
“The books seem to have struck a chord . . . and we haven’t gotten any letters of protest,” countered an intrepid Ballantine spokesperson. Marilyn Abraham told me that there was “a sense of duck and cover, but there was no backlash. These were the jokes everyone was telling anyway, and here they were.” The mail I saw was overwhelmingly positive: “The jokes are sick, tastless [sic], religious and racist in some peoples minds, but in my mind they are timeless classics.” “A great book to read at a party, memorize the jokes and carry them with you. People will remember you for the rest of your life.” “The Dead Baby Jokes never grow old.” (How do you make a dead baby oat? One scoop of ice cream and a scoop of dead baby.)
Tuchman didn’t have to share Random House with Blanche for long, though. After publishing two more volumes, a boxed set of the three, and a hardcover compendium called Totally Tasteless, the company quietly cut Blanche loose. I moved to Pinnacle, and then, coming full circle, on to St. Martin’s. Many, many more volumes followed: Truly Tasteless Jokes IV through XV, “specialty” titles (Truly Tasteless Blonde Jokes, Salesman Jokes, Lawyer, Doctor, Military, Disadvantaged White Male, and Kennedy), U.K. and Danish editions, and greatest-hits collections (The Worst of, The Very Worst of, and the Treasury of Tastelessness). There may have been more; these were all I could find on the dusty top shelf of my bookcase. The first three volumes are still in print, blurbed thus by our publisher: “This truly tasteless little book proves that there’s nothing too sacred to be laughed at.”
Some have made the argument that the Blanche books were the product of a particular time and place. “You didn’t make them up. You were a folklorist,” cultural critic Luc Sante told me. “And the cultural moment was perfect. It was the Reagan era, and Truly Tasteless Jokes were a sigh of release, a sign that we weren’t living in the politically correct Sixties and Seventies anymore, and could behave like pigs if we wanted to.”
To be honest, I hadn’t given the cultural moment a second’s thought. I just knew what my friends, and my publishers, and millions and millions of other people knew: funny is funny. Or, as Abraham said when the first book passed the million-copy mark, “What can I say: America speaks!” The high point was when Blanche Knott appeared in a clue on Jeopardy! I couldn’t have been prouder if Ashton Applewhite herself had been up there on the big board.
Back when Blanche was big and beaming acquaintances would introduce me, the invariable response was a dumbfounded “You’re Blanche Knott?” People were surprised that I actually existed, that I was a woman, that I wasn’t a slimeball. Gratifyingly, adolescent boys were awed. Gradually Blanche receded into the past with other Eighties touchstones like shoulder pads and Rubik’s Cubes. Introductions dwindled along with the name recognition, fortunately, because the occasional blank look was way more embarrassing than being identified as Blanche in the first place. (What did the seven dwarfs say when the prince woke Snow White? “Guess it’s back to jerking off.”)
In 1992, after my marriage had ground to a halt and the joke books nearly had too, my new boyfriend took me to meet the program director for a foundation that funded several of his publishing projects. She was warm but extremely proper, so I blanched when Bob introduced me as Blanche. A strange look crossed her face, and I wanted to crawl under the tablecloth as she told us that her son had died of leukemia a few years earlier, at age fifteen. (What do you call someone with incurable lymphoma? A lymphomaniac!) “The only way our family got through those terrible weeks in the hospital,” she said, “was by reading those books aloud to each other.”
The people who love these books share thick skins, strong stomachs, and the conviction that absolutely anything can be comic fodder. “I guess the jokes seem kind of tame now,” said Abraham. Actually, no. They remain way, way over-the-top. (Did you hear about the meanest guy in the world? He raped a deaf-and-dumb girl and cut off her fingers so she couldn’t yell for help.) And although Blanche never got many angry letters, Abraham recalled some unhappy responses to a collection of cartoons about suicide called I Wasn’t Kidding. Did that book make me laugh? Yes, howl. Has anyone close to me committed suicide? Yes. That’s just the kind of girl I am.
In 2005, a writer named Brendan Conway decided to track Blanche down for Doublethink, an online magazine whose “mission is to identify and develop young conservative and libertarian writers.” He dug deep: my old publishing colleagues, my father’s obituary, my “role in the culture wars” as a critic of Bush’s marriage-promotion policies. Conway concluded I’d “clearly undergone some sort of transformation” from being “an early partisan against political correctness” to being someone the Heritage Foundation labeled a “radical feminist.” (How many feminists does it take to change a lightbulb? That’s not funny.) Nope, no transformation—though he wouldn’t have learned that from me. I wouldn’t talk to him because it was like being stalked and his politics gave me the heebie-jeebies.
Conway took issue, if you can believe it, with my having later written a book of inspirational quotes for people with AIDS while making money off jokes like How do you get hearing aids? (From listening to assholes.) It may be hard for Conway to reconcile the two, but Blanche and I inhabit a messy, complex world, and we like it that way.
Blanche was a distant memory by the time I put “writer” on my business card, but, like her, I turned out to be a generalist. (Did you hear about the Polish starlet who moved to Hollywood . . . and fucked the writer?) After my divorce, I wrote a book called Cutting Loose: Why Women Who End Their Marriages Do So Well. It’s about how hard it is to have an egalitarian marriage in a society that values men’s and women’s experiences differently. (How do you stop a Jewish girl from putting out? Marry her.) The book is still in print, and I often get notes from women who thank me for saving their lives. Is that better than having been a Jeopardy! clue? I’m glad I don’t have to choose.
In my post-Blanche life, I have traveled to Laos for IEEE Spectrum to write about a village getting Internet access via a bicycle-powered computer. (Why are Asians such bad drivers? No peripheral vision.) I’m on staff at the American Museum of Natural History, where I write about everything from Antarctica to astrophysics. (Heard about Preparation A? Relieves the pain and suffering of asteroids.) I’m now at work on a book in blog form about growing old in America, called Staying Vertical, in which I make the case that coming to terms with our internalized prejudice is a critical and liberating first step in confronting ageism in society at large. (What did the octogenarian say when his doctor broke the news that he had cancer—and Alzheimer’s? “Hey, at least I don’t have cancer!”)
Truly Tasteless Jokes bought me a lot of time at the beginning of this odd trajectory and I’m very grateful, especially for the luxury of being at home with my kids when they were very young. (“Mommy, Mommy, my foot hurts!” “Shut up, or I’ll nail your other foot to the floor.”) They know I’m Blanche, and they still talk to me. So am I contrite that a career battling sexism, ageism, and creationism was launched by Truly Tasteless Jokes? No way. I’m only sorry I missed out on 9/11.
Reprinted by permission of the author.