Jokes that, nowadays, need explaining

I was looking at some unflattering pictures of myself and told my son “geez, I have more chins than a Japanese phone book.”
I then had to explain exactly what that meant.

“Chin” sounds Chinese, not Japanese. (Aren’t most Japanese names multisyllabic?)

Weird Al’s song “Fat” includes the line “I’ve got more chins than Chinatown.”

The riddle where the father dies in a car accident and his son is badly injured, but the operating surgeon says “I can’t operate on this boy: he is my son” was dated the first time I heard it almost 40 years ago and has only become increasingly stupid-sounding with time.

One of the comics on The Far Side website for today, September 25, 2020, is captioned “The Ty-D-Bol family at home”. Now I remember the Ty-D-Bol commercials from several decades ago, of a guy in a rowboat, supposedly in your toilet tank, representing the Ty-D-Bol cleaner that you put in the toilet tank, but does this Far Side joke just pass over the heads of younger people today?

That riddle reminds me of a business trip I took to Chicago by myself years ago. I was walking downtown at night, wearing a pair of ox blood loafers, when a guy came up and asked me if I wanted him to shine up my shoes with some mink oil. Before I could say no, he said, “give you a free sample” dropped down to one knee and buffed up the top of one of my shoes. I looked down, saw one shoe dull and scuffed, and one shoe shiny as new, sighed and said, “fine. How much?” He said “3 dollars, but double or nothing if I can correctly guess how many kids your dad had”. I said no, just the shine for $3. When he got done I asked him what the guessing trick was.

“Your dad didn’t have any kids, your mom had them all”.

Here’s a fifty-post thread from last month explaining one old Reader’s Digest joke.

I remember hearing that riddle when I was about 8 years old (which was over 40 years ago), and having to think about it for a minute. I remember doing the mental gymnastics to figure out the answer. I also remember thinking that it wasn’t a very plausible scenario, which tells you how much things have changed since then (at least for an 8-year old).

My mother and one of my aunts were both smart enough and had the desire to go to medical school, but married young and supported their husbands while they attended instead. In fact, my mother and that same aunt had better pre-med grades and test scores than their husbands. I’ve heard from boomers of that generation that as late as the mid-1970s, women had a career choice of nurse, teacher, or secretary, and that was about it.

At the time, the brain teaser (it wasn’t really a “joke”) was meant to expose our inherent sexism in assuming that the surgeon couldn’t be the boy’s mother. Today of course, the surgeon could also be the boy’s other father.

I recall first hearing of the ‘Mother as Doctor’ riddle on All In The Family (asked by Gloria I suppose), were the other characters guessed via pretzel logic things like Rabbi or Step Father or Blood Brother or the like. Don’t recall if Edith eventually got it or not, it was decades ago…

Possibly the first instance of the female surgeon riddle, or at least the first in print, was an Encyclopedia Brown story where Sally challenged Encyclopedia to a riddle contest, before agreeing to become his business partner. She claimed beforehand that she wanted him to prove that he was smarter than her, but she actually wanted confirmation that he was sufficiently non-sexist to see the answer.

In the episode of Seinfeld where Jerry buys his father a Cadillac, Jerry asks his father “But what about the Northstar System?” To which Mr. Seinfeld replies something like “What’s the Northstar System? I don’t know if I’m even using it.” Now car buffs know that Northstar was what Cadillac called their new at the time engines, but that exchange doesn’t really make sense if they’re simply discussing the car’s engine. To non car people it likely makes even less sense.

The thing is, in the 1990s Cadillac’s advertising heavily touted that their cars now all came with “The Northstar System”, but didn’t really make it clear that that referred to the technology in their engines (At least, that’s how I remember it). Most people who saw those ads probably came away asking “WTF is the Northstar System?” That’s what the joke is about.

I remember an EB story where Sally asked (a variation of) the female surgeon riddle, where the female was a famous circus performer.

Wait. So there’s a rule somewhere that a surgeon can’t operate on his/her own child?

I was walking through Chicago with some friends one day and there were some of those shoe shine guys out and about in Wrigleyville. One of the people I was with said ‘don’t let him near you, he’ll do one shoe free and then you have to pay him to do the other one’.

I don’t believe there is a formal rule that physicians can’t treat family members, but for something as serious as surgery, it’s probably not a good idea. No surgery is guaranteed to go well. What happens if there is a serious complication? The surgeon might let their personal attachment to the patient cloud their best judgement. Even if regulatory agencies don’t have rule against this, the hospital may well have one.

In the case of the riddle, the situation is even more fraught, because it’s a trauma case. The surgeon might make a mistake because it’s their child that being operated on. It would seem only prudent in such a case to get another surgeon scrubbed in ASAP to take over.

And of course, in the scenario, the father (presumably the surgeon’s spouse) is dead in the same accident. So the surgeon’s grief is going to be obvious even before they announce that the kid is their son.

Yep, I walked right into that scam (literally!)

Though, to be fair I did get a shoe shine and a bit of entertainment for a reasonable price, so it wasn’t all bad.

That reminds me of a trope from comedies of the 1970s and before—the idea that going to eat at a French restaurant was some kind of nerve-wracking situation in which people would be given a French-only menu and be too proud/embarrassed/intimidated to ask for translations, and then end up ordering something they don’t want.

Example: on Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., Gomer and Sergeant Carter went to a French restaurant for dinner. Gomer asked for a translation and ordered something nice. Sergeant Carter just pointed at something random and ended up with fried eggs.

This trope seems to have mostly died out (at least in the shows I watch). The most recent occurrence I saw was in a Mr. Bean in which Mr. Bean treated himself to a French dinner for his birthday and ended up ordering steak tartare.

I never understood why this trope would have arisen in society—of what benefit is it for French restaurants to intimidate people into ordering food they don’t want?

French restaurants were the epitome of a “fancy” restaurant. That was their brand. Cultivating a rep of exclusivity and high class is a good way to get the asses of a certain type of people who aspire to that elite status in seats. I don’t know if French restaurants in the states ever had French language-only menus, it may have only been a sitcom trope.

In my experience, you’re much more likely to receive a French-only menu in France, not the U.S. And if you are in a French restaurant in France, the server’s tip is already included in the prices, so there tends to be less kowtowing to the patrons than in the U.S., plus that fact that you’re likely a tourist that they will never see again—leading to them not particularly caring what you order. Also, most people in Europe are multilingual, and there may be some condescension involved for an American who only speaks English.

I ran into this once not in France, but in Germany. I speak a little German, but was having trouble with a German-only menu once. This was before cell phones, and I didn’t have a pocket dictionary, so I ended up ordering a cauliflower entree. It was OK, but was not what I was expecting. As soon as it arrived, I could have kicked myself, because it was obvious in retrospect that Blumenkohl meant cauliflower. (Blumen means flower, and kohl is a pretty obvious cognate.)

I think this was more of an issue in past decades, though. On our last visit to Paris, we thought the service was generally very good, and I don’t speak any French at all. (I did make an effort to greet people and thank them in French.)