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Frank & Ernest & Me & The Mystery of the Stolen Joke

Posted on 2009.12.19 at 11:59
Current Mood: amusedamused
Current Music: If I Laugh - Cat Stevens
“If I were afraid of Christmas, would I be considered Claustrophobic…
or just a Noel Coward?”

I coined that joke at some point in the early 1980s. Admittedly, I’m probably not the only person who has coined it, but still, I’d never heard it when I came up with it. I’ve come up with better jokes in my life; Lord knows I’ve come up with worse. But this joke was different. I want to describe for you a string of connections that appears to have led my words to some lofty places.

In the early 80s, I did a few shows with a folk singer/actor/improv teacher in the Detroit area named Jonathon Round, and he and I got to know each other pretty well. One day, I told John the joke at the top of this post. He laughed. I was satisfied. Normally, the story would end right there.

But Jonathon had a lot of contacts in the Detroit media world. One of his buddies was long-time Detroit Free Press columnist Bob Talbert (who incidentally passed away several years ago). Jonathon passed the joke along to Talbert, who ran it in his Sunday column (he credited Jonathon with the joke, not me, but I’m not bitter or anything).

The significant thing about Talbert’s timing, I think, was that he chose to run it in his Sunday column. At that time, Talbert’s Sunday column was syndicated to many newspapers across the country, opening up my humble joke to a much wider audience…

No more than a month or two later, I opened up my daily newspaper to read the comics. There, in that day’s episode of Frank & Ernest, was my Christmas joke, nearly word-for-word! While it isn’t possible to establish a firm chain of transmission, some general inferences are rather apparent.

First of all, cartoonist Bob Thaves (who likewise passed away a few years ago) may never have read Talbert’s column, but my joke had been put out there and any number of people could have passed it along to him. The real smoking gun, aside from the remarkable timing of its appearance, is that the entire joke is there. What I mean is that it’s really a pair of jokes, and while it could easily be a coincidence if Thaves had come up with one half of it, the inclusion of both halves is highly suggestive that its journey to the comics page may have begun with my uttering of the joke to Johnny Round and its subsequent appearance in Talbert’s column.

Now believe me, I can hear you naysayers already: “Ah, I heard that joke back in ’67, during the worst blizzard these parts have ever seen…” Fact is, I believe you did. But I don’t think the 1967 rendition is the one that ended up on Bob Thaves’ desk. If you are one of the heirs to the estate of the late Mr. Thaves, you needn’t worry about me suing for my much-deserved one ten-thousandth of his estate. I’m quite satisfied with things just the way they are. And besides, if everyone I’ve ever stolen a joke from were to sue me, I’d be doing time until everybody had forgotten my jokes so that I could pass them off as new again!

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