Robert Benchley’s favorite joke, according to Harpo Marx in Harpo Speaks!, 1961:
A man gets on the train with his little boy, and gives the conductor only one ticket. ‘How old’s your kid?’ the conductor says, and the father says he’s four years old. ‘He looks at least twelve to me,’ says the conductor, and the father says, ‘Can I help it if he worries?’
An Englishman buys a horse and hires porters to take the horse up to his apartment on the fourth floor. The porters exert themselves and sweat. Finally they succeed in getting the horse to his apartment.
He asks them to put the horse in the bathtub.
After they finish the job, one of the porters asks him, “Why do you need a horse in the bathtub?”
The Englishman says, “Well, tomorrow evening I’m having a party at home. One of the guests will go into the bathroom, see the horse, come to me and say, ‘You know you have a horse in your bathtub.’ And I’ll tell him, ‘So what?’”
– Sion Rubi, Intelligent Jokes, 2004
In 1972 Canadian scientists R.W. Sheldon and S.R. Kerr set out to reason out the number of monsters that occupy Loch Ness. Because the creatures are reportedly large and rarely seen, it follows that their numbers must be small. (“It has been suggested from time to time that as the monsters are never caught it must therefore follow that they do not exist. This is both irresponsible and illogical.”)
By estimating the fish stock available in the loch, they determined that the total mass of monsters is between 3,135 and 15,675 kg. Taking the minimum monster size as 100 kg (“anything smaller is not suitably monstrous”), they estimate that the loch contains between 1 and 156 monsters. The high end of this range seems unlikely; and since monsters have been reported for centuries they’re probably breeding, which would require a population of at least 10.
Given the available quantity of fish and assuming a stable population, monsters weighing 100 kg would have to die at a rate of at least 3 per year. Larger animals would die less frequently, and this seems likely since dead monsters are never found (and since the juveniles that must replace them are never seen). So it seems the lake probably contains a small number of large monsters, perhaps 10-20 monsters weighing up to 1,500 kg each and measuring about 8 meters, “a size that agrees well with observational data.”
“We would like to thank Kate Kranck for drawing our attention to this problem, because until she mentioned it we were unaware that monsters were a problem.”
(“The Population Density of Monsters in Loch Ness,” Limnology and Oceanography 17:5, 796–798)
Facilities suggested by Lewis Carroll for a school of mathematics at Oxford, 1868:
- A very large room for calculating Greatest Common Measure. To this a small one might be attached for Least Common Multiple: this, however, might be dispensed with.
- A piece of open ground for keeping Roots and practising their extraction: it would be advisable to keep Square Roots by themselves, as their corners are apt to damage others.
- A room for reducing Fractions to their Lowest Terms. This should be provided with a cellar for keeping the Lowest Terms when found, which might also be available to the general body of Undergraduates, for the purpose of “keeping Terms.”
- A large room, which might be darkened, and fitted up with a magic lantern for the purpose of exhibiting Circulating Decimals in the act of circulation. This might also contain cupboards, fitted with glass-doors, for keeping the various Scales of Notation.
- A narrow strip of ground, railed off and carefully levelled, for investigating the properties of Asymptotes, and testing practically whether Parallel Lines meet or not: for this purpose it should reach, to use the expressive language of Euclid, “ever so far.”
He introduced this topic with an administrator by writing, “Dear Senior Censor,–In a desultory conversation on a point connected with the dinner at our high table, you incidentally remarked to me that lobster-sauce, ‘though a necessary adjunct to turbot, was not entirely wholesome.’ It is entirely unwholesome. I never ask for it without reluctance: I never take a second spoonful without a feeling of apprehension on the subject of possible nightmare. This naturally brings me to the subject of Mathematics …”
The Veterinary Record of April 1, 1972, contained a curious article: “Some Observations on the Diseases of Brunus edwardii.” Veterinarian D.K. Blackmore and his colleagues examined 1,598 specimens of this species, which they said is “commonly kept in homes in the United Kingdom and other countries in Europe and North America.”
“Commonly-found syndromes included coagulation and clumping of stuffing, resulting in conditions similar to those described as bumble foot and ventral (rupture in the pig and cow respectively) alopecia, and ocular conditions which varied from mild squint to intermittent nystagmus and luxation of the eyeball. Micropthalmus and macropthalmus were frequently recorded in animals which had received unsuitable ocular prostheses.”
They found that diseases could be either traumatic or emotional. Acute traumatic conditions were characterized by loss of appendages, often the result of disputed ownership, and emotional disturbances seemed to be related to neglect. “Few adults (except perhaps the present authors) have any real affection for the species,” and as children mature, they tend to relegate these animals to an attic or cupboard, “where severe emotional disturbances develop.”
The authors urged their colleagues to take a greater interest in the clinical problems of the species. “It is hoped that this contribution will make the profession aware of its responsibilities, and it is suggested that veterinary students be given appropriate instruction and that postgraduate courses be established without delay.”
A letter from John Phillips of the Yale University School of Medicine to the New England Journal of Medicine, Feb. 14, 1991:
When referring to the hand, the names digitus pollicis, indicis, medius, annularis, and minimus specify the five fingers. In situations of clinical relevance the use of such names can preclude anatomical ambiguity. These time-tested terms have honored the fingers, but the toes have been labeled only by number, except of course the great toe, or hallux. Is it not time for the medical community to have the toes no longer stand up and merely be counted? I submit for consideration the following nomenclature to refer to the pedal digits: for the hallux, porcellus fori; for the second toe, p. domi; for the third toe, p. carnivorus; for the fourth toe, p. non voratus; and for the fifth toe, p. plorans domum.
Using porcellus as the diminutive form of porcus, or pig, one can translate the suggested terminology as follows: piglet at market, piglet at home, meat-eating piglet, piglet having not eaten, and piglet crying homeward, respectively.
In 1962 mycologist R.W.G. Dennis reported a new species of fungus he had observed growing in Lancashire and East Africa. He called it Golfballia ambusta:
The unopened fruit body evidently closely resembles certain small, hard but elastic, spheres employed by the Caledonians in certain tribal rites, practised at all seasons of the year in enclosures of partially mown grass set apart for the purpose. The diameter of the volva is approximately 3 cm., its surface smooth or regularly furrowed, becoming much wrinkled after dehiscence, its texture extremely hard and tough. A gelatinous stratum, so characteristic of other phalloids, is wanting. The appearance and texture of the immature gleba is still unknown but at maturity it is extruded as a column, thickly set with short strap-like processes of an elastic consistency, each scarcely 1 cm. long and 1.5 mm. wide, abruptly truncated at the free end. As with other phalloids, there is a strong and distinctive odour, in this instance not unpleasant and identified independently by several observers as reminiscent of old or heated india-rubber. This is probably a reliable and important diagnostic character. Taste not recorded but probably mild; the fruit bodies are unlikely to be toxic but may well prove inedible from their texture. Spores have not been recovered and the means of reproduction therefore remains unknown.
It seems to be very prolific in America as well.
(R.W.G. Dennis. A remarkable new genus of phalloid in Lancashire and East Africa, Journ. Kew Guild. 8, 67 (1962): 181-182.)
In 1853, lamenting the recent vogue for “illustrated newspapers,” American satirist John Phoenix (George Derby) offered an “an illustrated publication of unprecedented merit, containing engravings of exceeding costliness and rare beauty of design, got up on an expensive scale which never has been attempted before in this or any other country”:
On May 29, 1933, Harper’s Bazaar editor Art Samuels was awaiting a piece by the notoriously unreliable Robert Benchley when he received six successive telegrams:
AM TAKING CARE OF MY SICK MOTHER.
AM ACTING AS GUIDE FOR HUNTING PARTY.
AM INSPECTING NEW PACKARD ENGINES.
AM JUDGING ORANGE BLOSSOM CARNIVAL.
AM BEING INDUCTED INTO INDIAN TRIBE.
AM WORKING ON PICTURE WITH GRETA GARBO.
All bore the current date, but their origins were listed as Worcester, Massachusetts; Presque Isle, Maine; Detroit, Michigan; Miami Beach, Florida; Santa Fe, New Mexico; and Hollywood, California. Samuels wrote back GATHER YOU HAVEN’T DONE THE PIECE.
Benchley avoided another engagement by having his mother send this wire from Massachusetts:
SORRY I CAN’T ATTEND LUNCHEON TODAY BECAUSE I AM IN BOSTON. DON’T KNOW WHY I AM IN BOSTON BUT IT MUST BE IMPORTANT BECAUSE HERE I AM.
I don’t know who came up with this — it’s been bouncing around science journals for 50 years:
hydromicrobiogeochemist: one who studies small underwater flora and their relationship to underlying rock strata by using chemical methods
microhydrobiogeochemist: one who studies flora in very small bodies of water and their relationship to underlying rock strata by using chemical methods
microbiohydrogeochemist: one who studies small flora and their relationship to underlying rock strata by using chemical methods and SCUBA equipment
biohydromicrogeochemist: a very small geochemist who studies the effect of plant life in hydrology
hydrobiomicrogeochemist: a very small geochemist who studies wet plants
biomicrohydrogeochemist: a very small, wet geochemist who likes lettuce
While on assignment aboard the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier Enterprise, Life photographer Bob Landry submitted a dubious expense report. The magazine wired him:
JUSTIFY EXPENSE ACCOUNT ITEM: TAXIS.
Landry wired back:
DAMN BIG CARRIER.
A man’s wife disappears and he’s accused of killing her. At the trial, his lawyer tells the jury, “Ladies and gentlemen, I have amazing news. Not only is my client’s wife actually alive, but she’ll walk through that door in ten seconds.”
An expectant silence settles over the courtroom, but nothing happens.
“Think about that,” the lawyer says. “The fact that you were watching the door, expecting to see the missing woman, proves that you have a reasonable doubt as to whether a murder was actually committed.”
He sits down confidently, and the judge sends the jury off to deliberate. They return in ten minutes and declare the man guilty.
“Guilty?” says the lawyer. “How can that be? You were all watching the door!”
“Most of us were watching the door,” says the foreman. “But one of us was watching the defendant, and he wasn’t watching the door.”
One day [Ben Franklin] came, half-frozen from his long ride, to a wayside inn. A great crowd was about the fire, and for some time Franklin stood shivering. Suddenly he turned to the hostler.
‘Hostler,’ said he in a loud voice, ‘have you any oysters?’
‘Well, then,’ commanded Franklin in still louder tones, ‘give my horse a peck!’
‘What!’ exclaimed the hostler, ‘give your horse oysters!’
‘Yes,’ said Franklin, ‘give him a peck.’
The hostler, decidedly astonished, prepared the oysters and started for the stable. Everybody instantly arose from the fire-place and rushed out to see the marvellous horse eat oysters. Franklin took the most comfortable seat before the roaring blaze, and calmly awaited developments. Soon all returned, disappointed and shivering.
‘I gave him the oysters, sir,’ said the hostler, ‘but he wouldn’t eat them.’
‘Oh, well, then,’ answered Franklin nonchalantly, ‘I suppose I shall have to eat them myself. Suppose you try him with a peck of oats.’
– Carl Holliday, The Wit and Humor of Colonial Days, 1912
Jokes from the Soviet Union, from University of Louisville historian Bruce Adams’ 2005 collection Tiny Revolutions in Russia:
A man is walking along the road wearing only one boot. ‘Did you lose a boot?’ a passerby asks sympathetically. ‘No, I found one,’ the man answers happily.
What is it that doesn’t knock, growl or scratch the floor?
A machine made in the USSR for knocking, growling, and scratching the floor.
It is the middle of the night. There is a knock at the door. Everyone leaps out of bed. Papa goes shakily to the door. ‘It’s all right,’ he says, coming back. ‘The building’s on fire.’
A shopper asks a food store clerk, ‘Are you all out of meat again?’ ‘No, they’re out of meat in the store across the way. Here we’re out of fish.’
Why doesn’t the Soviet Union send people to the Moon?
They are afraid they won’t come back.
A man fell asleep on a bus. When someone stepped on his foot, he woke with a start and applauded. ‘What are you doing, citizen?’ ‘I was dreaming I was at a meeting.’
‘What is the difference between Pravda [Truth] and Izvestia [The News]?’
‘There is no truth in The News, and no news in the Truth.’
“In the Soviet Army,” said Stalin, “it takes more courage to retreat than advance.”
When Franklin was negotiating in Paris, he sometimes went into a café to play at chess. A crowd usually assembled, of course to see the man rather than the play. Upon one occasion, Franklin lost in the middle of the game, when composedly taking the king from the board, he put him into his pocket, and continued to move. The antagonist looked up. The face of Franklin was so grave, and his gesture so much in earnest, that he began with an expostulatory, ‘Sir.’ ‘Yes, Sir, continue,’ said Franklin, ‘and we shall soon see that the party without a king will win the game.’
– From a letter by Frances Wright to Jeremy Bentham, relaying an anecdote from Lafayette, Sept. 12, 1821
The 1957 edition of Exotica: Pictorial Cyclopedia of Indoor Plants included a species called Rumandia cocacoliensis of the family Alcoholiaceae.
The description read “Cuba-libre tall, stemless, succulent, with brown-frosty bloom often with lemon flavor; good in summer, keep cool.”
It was indexed without a page number, and disappeared from subsequent editions.
An Irishman, unknown to me, presented a check of one of our customers, payable to the order of Pat O’Flaherty. I told him it would be necessary for him to bring some one to identify him. ‘Identify! and what in God’s name is that?’ he answered. I endeavored to explain to him that he must go and bring in some of his friends whom we knew to satisfy us that he was Pat O’Flaherty. ‘All right,’ he said, and started off; but had scarcely gone fifty yards when he returned, and with a knowing twinkle in his eye, called out to me, ‘See here, if I’m not Pat O’Flaherty, who the divil am I?’ This was unanswerable.
– Henry C. Percy, Our Cashier’s Scrap-Book, 1879
Full text of “The Unsuccessful Self-Treatment of a Case of ‘Writer’s Block’,” by Dennis Upper, from the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, Fall 1974:
In late May 1927, when the world had been rejoicing for a week over Charles Lindbergh’s nonstop solo flight across the Atlantic, Robert Benchley sent a telegram to Charles Brackett in Paris:
ANY TIDINGS OF LINDBERGH? LEFT HERE WEEK AGO AM WORRIED.
Brackett wrote back:
DO YOU MEAN GEORGE LINDBERGH?
Robert Benchley once endorsed a check:
“Dear Bankers Trust Company: Well, here we are in picturesque old Munich! Love to Aunt Julia, and how about Happy Hetzler, the old Hetzler? Yours in Zeta Psi, Don Stewart and I love you, Bob Benchley.”
Mr. Hetzler, who supervised his account, had the check framed and displayed in his office.
On Napoleon’s victory journey, every town he visited rang bells in his honor. One day he visited a town in which no bell sounded. When the mayor came to greet him, Napoleon asked, “Why were no bells rung in my honor?”
The mayor said, “Emperor, there are seven reasons why the bells have not rung. First, we have no bells.”
Napoleon stopped him and said, “That’s enough.”
(From Sion Rubi, Intelligent Jokes, 2004.)
In 1866 Mark Twain embarked on a lecture tour in California. He wrote the handbills himself:
In Nevada City, he proposed to perform the following “wonderful feats of sleight of hand” after the lecture:
At a given signal, he will go out with any gentleman and take a drink. If desired, he will repeat this unique and interesting feat — repeat it until the audience are satisfied that there is no more deception about it.
At a moment’s warning, he will depart out of town and leave his hotel bill unsettled. He has performed this ludicrous feat many hundreds of times, in San Francisco, and elsewhere, and it has always elicited the most enthusiastic comments.
“The lecturer declines to specify any more of his miraculous feats at present,” he wrote, “for fear of getting the police too much interested in his circus.”
A man meets a friend whom he hasn’t seen in 20 years. “You look fantastic!” he says. “How do you stay so fit?”
The friend says, “I have one rule. I don’t argue with people.”
The man says, “Come on! How could that account for it?”
The friend says, “You’re right, that couldn’t possibly account for it.”
From Henry Sampson’s History of Advertising From the Earliest Times (1875):
In 1821 Lord Camden decided to postpone the start of the fall hunting season. He directed a servant to notify the people, and the servant posted this handbill all over Kent:
Notice is hereby given that the Marquis of Camden (on account of the backwardness of the harvest) will not shoot himself, nor any of his tenants, till the 14th of September.
The Earl of Jersey had similar troubles — his servants once posted this notice at Osterly Park:
Ten shillings reward. Any person found trespassing on these lands or damaging these fences on conviction will receive the above reward.
“Somebody once said that nobody expects to find education or ability in a lord,” wrote Sampson, “but that is because his household are expected to fulfill his duties properly.”