Choosing America’s Funniest Joke
Meet Our Judges
Sid Caesar: His 1950s TV hit, Your Show of Shows, introduced America to Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Neil Simon, and Woody Allen.
Monty Hall: Television producer and host of Let’s Make a Deal.
Arthur Hiller: Directed comedies like The In-Laws and Silver Streak.
Rocky Kalish: Wrote for All in the Family, Maude, and Good Times.
Hal Kanter: Bob Hope’s chief gag writer. Wrote Road to Bali for Hope and Bing Crosby.
Gary Owens: The voice of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.
John Rappaport: Writer and producer for M*A*S*H.
Matty Simmons: Founder of National Lampoon; producer of Animal House and Vacation.
It’s mayhem. Amid the clamor of pickle trays and pastrami-bearing waiters, eight old friends have gathered for their biweekly lunch. They’re all talking over one another, and no one’s listening. But somehow they can hear Arthur Hiller regaling Sid Caesar with a story about Billy Wilder. Gary Owens, Rocky Kalish, and Matty Simmons croon ear-wrenching, plate-shattering harmony on the old Benny Goodman standard "Undecided." Hal Kanter and Monty Hall trade stories about working with Jimmy Stewart, both favorable and not ("Jimmy was a brigadier general during World War II, and he never let you forget it," says Kanter). Any silence is filled by a Gatling gun salvo of one-liners from John Rappaport: "Hear the one about the Israeli newspaper reporter who yelled to his editor, ‘Hold the back page!’ ?"
These eight comedy legends, ranging in age from their 60s to their 90s—and with about 422 years of comedy under their collective belt—meet every other week to kibitz, eat, and reminisce. But mostly, they’re there to exercise their comedy chops by cracking wise at every opportunity. It’s this group whom Reader’s Digest has asked to choose America’s all-time best jokes. The magazine’s editors have winnowed down the thousands of submissions our readers sent in. Our judges’ job is to pick ten from that collection. That is, if I can get them to concentrate on the jokes.
"Excuse me, excuse me!" I yell over the din. I begin handing out sheets of paper containing the gags. "Can we start with the jokes?"
Rappaport begins: "A guy goes to his doctor’s office and says, ‘Give it to me straight. I know I’m sick. How long do I have?’ The doctor says, ‘Ten …’ ‘Ten what?’ asks the patient. ‘Years? Months?’ ‘Nine … eight …’ "
"That’s a good joke. I vote for that one," says Hiller.
"It is a good joke, but it’s not on our list," I say.
Rappaport peruses the list and offers to read the monk joke, which pits him against Hall, who also wants to read the monk joke. Instead of either reading the monk joke, they start telling their own favorite monk jokes. "Maybe we can read a joke from the list?" I suggest over the laughter.
Kalish taps a spoon against a glass of Dr. Brown’s diet cream soda. "Point of order!" he shouts. That’s what the guys yell when they want everyone’s attention. It doesn’t always work, but that’s what they yell. "I’m going to read one," he says. "And remember, gentlemen, Reader’s Digest is picking up the tab today, so you know what that means: Eat as much as you want."
A man, shocked by how his buddy is dressed, asks him, “How long have you been wearing that bra?” The friend replies, “Ever since my wife found it in the glove compartment.”
–Submitted by Braeden Silvermist
They all laugh, except Kanter, who sneers, “It’s so old.”
“It doesn’t matter if it’s old or not,” I say. “The point is, is it funny?”
No one’s listening, because the joke genie has been let out of the bottle, and the gags (none from our list) start flying. Simmons begins: “A grandmother is watching her grandchild playing on the beach when a huge wave comes and takes him out to sea.” Caesar leans in to hear. He knows what’s coming. They all do—it’s their favorite joke from their stockpile of gags. “She pleads, ‘Please, God, save my only grandson. I beg of you, bring him back.’ With that, a big wave washes the boy back onto the beach, good as new. The grandmother looks up to heaven and says, ‘He had a hat!’ ”
“Very funny, but I want to give you a line read,” says Rappaport. “It should be ‘He had a hat.’ ”
“No no no,” says Kanter. “It’s ‘He had a hat.’ ”
“ ‘He had a hat,’ ” insists Rappaport.
“Then she’s too angry,” Kanter counters. “She’s not angry—she just wants the damn hat back.”
“Who’d like to read the next joke?”
“ ‘He had a hat?’ ” Simmons tries.
Owens finally launches into the next gag on the list, drawing it out for all its comic worth.
A ventriloquist is performing with his dummy on his lap. He’s telling a dumb-blonde joke when a young platinum-haired beauty jumps to her feet.
“What gives you the right to stereotype blondes that way?” she demands. “What does hair color have to do with my worth as a human being?”
Flustered, the ventriloquist begins to stammer out an apology.
“You keep out of this!” she yells. “I’m talking to that little jerk on your knee!”
–Submitted by Nancy Gomes
“Great,” I say. “Who’d like to tell—”
“You know, that reminds me of a true story,” says Owens. “It was in the ’50s. The ventriloquist Rickie Layne and his dummy, Velvel, were onstage at the Copacabana. In the front row were some gangsters. Velvel starts insulting them. ‘Hey, it looks like you slept in your clothes,’ he says. ‘Don’t you make any money? Is that the best suit you can buy?’ With each put-down, the mobsters are getting angrier and angrier. Suddenly, the owner of the nightclub, Jules Podell, a real tough guy, jumps onstage. He grabs the dummy and punches him so hard, his head rolls off. Podell then points at Velvel’s head lying on the stage and says, ‘One more joke like that and I’ll kill you!’ ”
“True story,” says Kalish, corroborating it between guffaws.
“Can we read another joke?” I ask.
“Anybody hear of a guy named Evil Eye Finkel?” says Kalish. In the ’30s, Evil Eye’s job was to go to boxing matches and fix some boxer with the evil eye in hopes of jinxing him.
The contest has now been hijacked by tales of all the Evil Eyes the guys have known. That’s when I remind everyone that Reader’s Digest will pick up the lunch tab only if they actually judge the gags. The men swallow their pickles, pick up their pens, and take their jobs quite seriously, often bickering over votes cast.
“You actually like that one?” Kanter asks Simmons after the latter voices approval of the bra joke. Simmons, in turn, points out that Kanter had little company when he voted for an ill-fated gassy-granny joke.
Here, now, the rest of the ten best jokes in America (in no particular order), as decided by our judges:
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