OK, you folks at Guiness, listen up, because I am going to describe to you the World's Lengthiest Joke. It is one where the punch line can be anywhere from a quarter-hour to several weeks later than the build-up. That must surely qualify it for mention in the Book of World Records. Please spell my name right when listing it.
I have told this joke several times at dinner parties. It has always worked. You can tell it, too. Of course you may find yourself invited to fewer and fewer dinners. But a good joke is always worth that risk. Here's how it goes.
Finding a lull in the conversation, you remark that at a recent gathering you heard a story told that others found hilarious, but that seemed pointless to you. You'd like to retell it, to see if the present company gets the point. Thus begins the build-up:
"One day a Certified Public Accountant decided to build a house for himself, entirely out of brick. Being a typical CPA, he sat down with the finished plans and very carefully calculated exactly how many bricks it would take. He then ordered exactly that many bricks and carefully counted them when they arrived. All through the construction he watched the workmen to see that no bricks were wasted or omitted. When the house was completed, however, there was one brick left over. Perplexed, he rechecked his figures. Everything tallied. With increasing frustration, he checked again and again. Finally, in a fit of fury, he threw the extra brick up in the air. It disappeared."
At this point the company usually falls into an expectant silence. "That's all?" someone asks. "That's all," you say. They all agree that it is not a particularly funny story, and talk drifts off into other channels.
You now bide your time. Anywhere from five minutes to several weeks will do, although it is usually best to finish your work the same evening. At another lull in the conversation, you launch a new story. This time it is a free adaptation of an incident in one of Dostoevsky's novels:
"It is the nineteenth century and a train is rumbling through the night, across the frozen Siberian waste. In a first-class compartment the sole occupants are a large, untidy gentleman, and an aristocratic lady holding a small lap dog. They regard each other with disdain and do not speak. Presently the large man pulls out a fat cigar and lights it, with many puffs of blue smoke. The lap dog starts coughing. The lady is incensed, as it is forbidden to smoke in a first-class compartment. But she will not stoop to reprove the fat commoner. Instead, with a burst of energy, she pulls down the window, seizes the cigar, and throws it out into the snow. The man is at first stunned. But suddenly he realizes that it is equally forbidden to carry animals in a first-class compartment. With a furious movement, he scoops up the unfortunate dog and flings it out the window.
Tableau. At last the lady rises from her petrification and pulls the emergency cord. Bells ring and the train shudders to a halt. Officials and passengers step down into the snow. It is a bright, moonlit night. The dog has survived — far down the frozen track one can see it running toward the train. And in its mouth it is carrying an object. Can you guess what that object is?"
Assuming you've told your story well, and enough alcohol has been consumed at the table, someone will surely rise to the bait. "It's the cigar!"
"No," you reply, not skipping a beat, "it's the Certified Public Accountant's extra brick." Then you head for the door.
George Towner was born in Reno and grew up near Berkeley. As a teenager he began making gangster movies using an old 8mm camera, one of which featured a car being pushed over a cliff off State Highway 1. He has started and sold two successful technology firms, and currently works for Apple Computer, where he is the most senior in age. He lives with his wife in Sunnyvale. They have two daughters and a son.
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