Heard any really good jokes lately? Andrew Hudgins is one of America's most noted poets, but he says he has a hard time recalling any actual lines of poetry. He can, however, recite knock-knock jokes he heard in the third grade. Ever since then, he has favored the kind of humor that can make people squirm or even make them angry. Jokes about religion, race, sex, weight, the O.J. Simpson case, Natalie Wood's death, and punch lines from Adolf Hitler's generals — everything is fair game. Hudgins tells NPR's Scott Simon a funeral-related joke that ran through his mind at his father's funeral, though he quickly adds, "I didn't mention [it] to my wife 'til we got back."
Hudgins is one of America's most noted poets — his first book was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, while another was a finalist for the National Book Award. In his new memoir, The Joker, Hudgins writes about how humor was important to him growing up in an unhappy home. "My parents were mourning the death of my sister," he says. "She was killed in a car accident before I was born, and I didn't know she existed until I was 13 or 14 years old. I knew I was growing up in a house where people were angry and sad. ... I realized fairly early there's a kind of disparity between what we're told and what we're witnessing, and jokes often love those kinds of contradictions."
On his family telling racist jokes during the civil rights movement
"My mother told [racist jokes], and the source for her was her brother. And he told them as racist jokes; I mean, he appreciated the power they represented of the white class ... of the whites over the blacks. And when my mother told them I interpreted them a different way. I understood them as saying, 'This is the way the racists think.' "
On other people's sensitivity to jokes
"There's clearly humor that goes too far and humor that is violative, and we are engaged in our humor in a complex call-and-response with one another. I'm telling you a joke to see if you think that it's funny ... but if one of us violates some principle or touches on a particularly tender spot of the other, normally we adjust to that and move on. But sometimes we feel that that violation is so strong that we have to register a complaint about it. ... I have called people for telling racist or homophobic jokes, and people have called me on that too when I thought that I was saying this is a joke that demonstrates a certain kind of misogyny or racism and they did not understand that I wasn't endorsing those ways of thinking. Any kind of human communication is quite complicated."
On what jokes that make people uncomfortable can accomplish
"One of the things I talk about in the book is what I learned from the taboo subjects my parents never told me about: sex. So I learned about it from jokes and had to figure it out backwards. ... It's very much a hazard. And because you get a ton of misinformation, you get a ton of misogyny built into your brain at a very early age when your brain is still forming and it can cause long-term complications."
On whether he's heard any good jokes lately
"Many, but the one I've been thinking about is the one about the preacher who is late for the funeral out in the country. He knows it's a poor man and he wants to really do the job right, and so he's driving down the dirt road looking frantically for the cemetery [and] sees these two diggers out around a hole. He rushes up, he stands over the hole, he starts just preaching up a storm, determined to give this poor man as good a funeral as any rich man in the world. He delivers this impassioned speech, runs back to his car, and one of the diggers says 'That is the nicest thing I have ever seen, and I have been digging septic systems for 30 years.' "