How to Ruin a Joke

A classic joke goes like this: A nurse rushes into an exam room and says, “Doctor, doctor, there’s an invisible man in the waiting room.” The doctor says, “Tell him I can’t see him.”

Pretty simple, right?

Here’s how I tell it: “A nurse–her name is Joyce–feels a presence in the waiting room. She looks around but sees nothing. She jumps up from her desk, carefully replaces her chair, and runs down the lavender-hued hallway to the doctor’s office. She knocks on the door. No response. He’s not there. Where can he be? She continues down the hall, admiring a lithograph of an 18th-century Mississippi paddleboat along the way.” By this time, my audience has left, but I soldier on. “She bursts into the exam room and says, ‘Doctor, doctor!’ The doctor, I should mention, is a urologist with a degree from Ohio State, which is where my nephew …”

Telling a good joke is skill ... that everyone thinks they have.

You get the idea. I’m an embellisher. I can’t leave a simple gag alone.

I’m not the only joke-challenged member of the family. My sister’s worse than I am. Her problem: She can’t remember them. “‘A nurse rushes into an exam room and says …’ Uh, let me start all over again. ‘A nurse rushes into a waiting …’ No, it’s not the waiting room. She just came from the waiting room. Let me start all over again. ‘A doctor rushes into …’ No, wait …”

My uncle’s different. He’s guilty of taking a perfectly fine joke and selling it as the second coming of Oscar Wilde: “Okay, this is a good one. Ready? No, really, ready? Okay, fasten your seat belts. Ready? ‘A nurse …’ Got it? A nurse? Okay, ready? ‘A nurse rushes into an exam room and says, “Doctor, doctor, there’s an invisible man in the waiting room.”‘ Now, this is where it gets funny. Ready?”

No one is ever ready, so they leave before he gets to the punch line.

My father’s on Wall Street, so he hears all the jokes before they hit the Web. And he lets you know he knows them all by telling you all of them. He also knows that most people don’t like jokes. So he slips them in under the radar: “I was chatting with Ben Bernanke the other day. You know Ben, don’t you? The Fed chief? Anyway, we were reviewing the Fed’s policy on long-term interest rates, and he told me it had evolved into its current iteration only after a nurse rushed into an exam room and said, ‘Doctor, doctor, there’s …’ Hey, where are you going?”

My brother Mark understands that the secret to good joke telling is to know your audience. When he entertained my grandmother’s mah-jongg club one evening, he made it a point to adapt the joke to them: “A stacked nurse rushes into an exam room …”

No one in my family has ever finished this joke.

But as bad as it is not to be able to tell a joke, there’s something worse: not being able to listen to one. Take my cousin Mitch.

“Why couldn’t the doctor see him?” he asked.

“Because he’s invisible,” I said.

“Now, I didn’t get that. I thought the doctor couldn’t see him because he was with a patient.”

“Well, yeah, okay, but the fact that the guy was invisible …”

“Could the nurse see him?”

“No. She’s the one who said he was invisible …”

“How’d she know he was there?”

“Because he …”

“When you say he was invisible, does that mean his clothes were invisible too?”
Here’s where I tried to walk away.

“Because if his clothes weren’t invisible,” Mitch said, stepping between me and the exit, “then the doctor could see him, right?”

“Yeah, but …”

“At least his clothes.”

“I guess …”

“Unless he was naked.”

“Okay, he was naked!”

“Why would he go to his doctor naked?”

Next time you see my family and someone’s telling a joke, do yourself a favor: Make yourself invisible.