Where in the scale of human achievement does one put the task of compiling the most comprehensive English language database of jokes? It is really a question for theologians, but personally I would put such a feat somewhere below the invention of the internal combustion engine and above that of cinnamon-flavored toothpaste. It is certainly, to my mind, a more easily comprehensible and altogether human achievement than the building of the 10,000-year clock that has gotten so much publicity.
The most comprehensive English language database of jokes, if you believe the claims of its creator, and I do, is a collection of 50,000 jokes maintained, in strict secrecy, by Frederic Davis, a former journalist, sometime computer industry gadfly, and author of the "Windows 3.1 Bible," the "Windows 3.1 Bible With CD," "Windows 3.1 Bible in Chinese" and a dozen other books about how to get your software to do what you want it to do. For the record, Davis is also a CEO of Lumeria, a Web start-up that manages personal information. But this story isn't about Davis' day job.
You see, Davis has an idea. Maybe it's not as high-minded an idea as information profiling, but it's a money-making idea. The idea involves plastic vomit.
"It's hard to buy high-quality plastic vomit nowadays," Davis says. "You used to be able to get it in gag shops, but they've disappeared." (Davis does not volunteer, and I do not ask, the difference between the high-quality and the low-quality kind.) The plastic vomit is important because Davis cannot count on running an advertising-supported site.
"The reason there's no supersite for comedy," Davis says, "is because nobody wants to advertise. Eventually, you're going to offend everybody." That's where the plastic vomit comes in. Davis wants to sell that in the section devoted to gross-out jokes.
"In the religious jokes section," he says, "we'd have the punching nuns."
It is a little weird that I should be writing about Davis' joke database because I'm not a joke person. Don't take this to mean that I'm getting all highbrow on you. What I mean is that while I often find jokes funny if they are told well, I don't collect them, I don't often forward them and I don't remember them. My friend Tomaz is a joke person. His audience hangs on his every word for the 10 minutes he takes to tell a joke, and doubles up in laughter at the punchline. This is all the more amazing because so many of his jokes hinge on fine points of Eastern European political history. I'm a little envious of his facility with the form.
But even if it's not exactly your cup of tea, 50,000 jokes is still something impressive. Fifty-thousand jokes means you can be pretty certain that the one about Bill Gates and the light bulb is there, and the one about Gary Hart and the parachute and the one about the Frenchman, the Englishman and the electric chair. Think of it as one-stop shopping for the humor-starved.
Davis has spent six figures harvesting his 50,000 jokes. Many of them came from the Internet newsgroup rec.humor. Some were taken from printed books. The longer ones had to be slightly rewritten to avoid copyright issues. ("You can copyright the wording of the joke," Davis says slyly, "but you can't copyright the idea; you can't copyright what's funny about it.") The database isn't yet open to the public, though there's a sampling online at Laff.net. A few of the jokes are funny. A lot are unfunny. Most are funny in a way, but not really funny enough for an adult to laugh at, unless they are told very well indeed.
I asked Davis to tell me a joke. This is the one he chose (I asked him not to pick anything off-color):
A little kid ask its mom, "Where is God?" Mom says, "God is everywhere." "You mean here in California?" asks the kid. "Yes," Mom says, "here is California." "You mean here in our house?" "Yes," Mom says again, "here in our house." The kid picks up a glass. "You mean here in this glass?" "Yes," says Mom. The kid picks up the glass, turns it over and slams it down on the tabletop. "Got 'im!"
You see? It's amusing, but only very mildly. In fact, the best part of it is probably Davis' peculiar reference to a child as "it." I found that funny.
I am not sure if Davis' idea will succeed. Davis has statistics to back him up, a whole theory of what you might call Humor Commerce.
"There was a study that showed that 10 percent of the traffic on the Net was people sending jokes to each other," Davis says. Frankly, I don't believe him. Either he has made up the number, or the study was likely flawed. The figure sounds apocryphal -- but certainly less pernicious than most of the other nonsense numbers thrown around on the Net.
I probably wouldn't visit a site that let me bombard my friends with a selection of 50,000 jokes. Then again, I might be mistaken -- sites that let you bombard your friends with animated postcards are among the most successful on the Net. And they don't even sell plastic vomit or punching nuns.
And yet it seems to me that none of this matters, because I'm awfully glad that somebody is bothering to stockpile the detritus of the culture. I rather think that the less funny the jokes in Davis' portfolio, the better. After all, people with better memories than mine will recall the funny ones, but the not funny ones would just fade away.
"I think this'll be an important anthropological site," Davis says. I believe him. Don't scoff. Fifty-thousand bad jokes is no laughing matter.