Andrew Hudgins is a happily married man—so don’t get any ideas—but say you two were to date. You’re wondering if the relationship has any long-term potential. He can judge by one criterion: "If you have to explain that you are still a good person though you’ve told a terrible joke, this isn’t going to work," Hudgins says. "This isn’t going to have legs." Hudgins is a man who tells terrible jokes. He also tells fabulous side-splitting jokes. Sometimes they’re the same joke.
Hudgins is known as an award-winning poet, but he identifies as a joker. "Though I’ve been a serious poet, a student of poetry, and a teacher of poetry for forty years, I can’t recite from memory ten consecutive lines of William Butler Yeats, Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, or even Robert Frost, about whom I’m writing a book. But I can tell you the knock-knock jokes I heard when I was 10, all of them," Hudgins writes in The Joker: A Memoir.
"What’s black and white and red all over?" was his first, told uncharacteristically by his father, an officer in the U.S. Air Force who moved the family to North Carolina and California before settling in Alabama. Hudgins and his brothers were raised strict Southern Baptist. "My family was a pretty unhumorous place. My parents had a secret dead daughter that they didn’t tell us about, and they were grieving about this," Hudgins acknowledges. "I just knew that they were angry. And so when I found that there were other places where people laughed, and ways that I could laugh myself, I was in love," he says. He quickly moved on to elephant jokes and knock-knocks, through dead babies and Helen Keller, religious, sexual and racist humor. Gross-out jokes (the kind that yield yucks along with yuk-yuks) are among his favorites.
Not all jokes are created equal, surely, and some serve to mark history rather than provoke guffaws. "There are clearly people who are going to be put on edge by some jokes, and there are some of them that I found distasteful myself to write in the book—some of the horrifying sexual things that I heard when I was a kid and also thinking my way through the racist jokes, which I imagine are going to be the ones that are going to bother people the most," says Hudgins. (A chapter entitled "Everybody Out of the Pool," in particular, reconciles his love and affection for his grandmother with the fact of her deep-seated racism.) "I included [racist jokes] deliberately. I don’t think we can pretend that these things didn’t exist and that people didn’t tell them and laugh at them."
On occasion, Hudgins is willing to push the envelope—like that time his raunchy penguin joke bombed with Condoleezza Rice. "Isn’t it fun to do? You feel like an asshole, but the temptation is really strong. You know it’s that real impulse, the thing that you know that you’re not supposed to do, you’re gonna do. The problem, of course, is when you do it when you’re the only person who thinks it’s funny, and then you’re kind of left out there," he says. Put that way, you realize it must take a similar type of chutzpah to give a poetry reading.
Surely poetry and jokes have more in common than meets the ear. They’re both compressed masses of words—though a joke typically hangs on a few key words, and a poem must have precision throughout, says Hudgins. Length can be problematic for both joker and poet; it’s harder to find a reader or listener to follow your shaggy-dog story or epic with enthusiasm. (It’s harder for a poet to write a full-length memoir, too: "If you’re a poet, you can mostly look at the page and you see everything in the poem on that page, so you know what’s there. Over 350 pages…I found it easy to kind of lose track of it," he says.) And the best examples of both illuminate deep incongruities of the human condition.
"Laughter was the one way I could approach the deep, appalled fears that haunted me—a hopeless sense of helplessness, a lifelong dread of death, and—couldn’t she see it?—an apprehensive and growing commitment to love," writes Hudgins about a romantic flame that was thereafter extinguished, incompatible senses of humor serving as an irreconcilable difference. By narrative’s end, we see his humor entwined with that of his wife and fellow writer, Erin McGraw. Among their inside jokes, courtesy of PBS’s The Furniture Guys: "You two just crack each other up, doncha?" They do, and Hudgins invites The Joker’s readers to join in. "I hope it’s funny," he says. It is. Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York.