I first saw my future wife drinking a beer on the porch at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs. A common friend had told me Erin would be there and had gently nudged us toward each other, though she’d warned me Erin was a California-style Catholic handwringer, one who anguished over the plight of the downtrodden. Sometimes she had a good sense of humor, the friend said, and sometimes she was earnest and touchy, so I should watch my mouth until I figured out whether my, uh, particular sense of humor meshed with hers. What I saw, looking at the woman I would marry, was a tall, attractive woman with an open face and a jolt of curly hair off her forehead. Unlike the folktale Erin, she looked eager to laugh. In fact, hers was the face of someone who gravitated to laughter the way other people gravitate toward good looks or the palpably powerful. I decided to go with my instinct, rather than our friend’s warnings, which I’ll admit were more catnip to me than a red flag.
She had a name. Erin McGraw—a name so Irish it might as well be Ireland McIrish, and when she told me who she was, I immediately asked if she’d heard about the Irishman who drowned in the vat at the brewery.
“No,” she said.
“They knew he was Irish because, before he died, he crawled out twice to take a leak.”
I held my breath for half a second, fearing a pointed rebuff, but she laughed and didn’t feel a need to inform me that not all Irish were drunks, thank you very much. Good sign, I thought. I didn’t know how good. I soon found out her brother was in AA and her father had been addicted to prescription meds for years. But I dialed back anyway and asked a cutesy riddle: What’s Irish and stays out all night. Paddy O’Furniture. She groaned with a smile and said, “Bah dum bump, Czh!,” tapping out a rimshot on her thighs. Not much of one for puns, apparently, but happy to play.
A joker, but seldom a joke teller, Erin loves to laugh as much as anyone I’ve ever met. From the beginning I loved the way our voices joined in laughter, as singers delight in their voices uniting in song. Everyone knows music is sensual, but the free jazz of laughter—soloing and asking for a response, and the two then combining in harmony—is sensual and even openly erotic. Erin seldom finds puns funny, which is a relief; while I enjoy puns myself, I don’t like being caught in a barrage of them. She doesn’t laugh at racist or violent jokes unless they really catch her off guard, and she laughs briefly before the ugliness catches up with her, but she’s interested in the forces behind them. She wants to understand the psychology of the racist joke and joke teller because they are alien to her.
I wooed Erin and her pealing musical laughter with the jokes that my ex-wife Jill had loved. I felt a bit like an adulterer, delighting one lover with the pleasures learned from another. Between Jill and me, the jokes were an open intimacy, the hilarity sparked by our delight in each other and flaring to a frantic flame by the romantic disappointments that had brought us together. Each of us then became one of those disappointments to the other. But the things that made us laugh still seemed to me so intimate that I felt, irrationally, as if I were sharing pillow talk or the details of our sex life if I repeated them. But jokes are not wholly owned by the context in which we first enjoy them or enjoy them the most; they have a life of their own. I got over my sentimental attachments and discovered that not every joke of Jill’s was a hit with Erin.
Sure, she loves and still urges me to ask people, “Where did George Washington keep his armies?” so she can laugh happily when I shoot my hands out of my cuffs and crow, “In his sleevies!” And she laughs though she knows that every single time I tell it, I think of Jill, who first told it to me.
She’s not so fond of another one of Jill’s, which I like simply because it’s silly, a pun so dumb it’s pure idiot music.
“Where does the Lone Ranger take his garbage?”
“To the dump, to the dump, to the dump, dump, dump! To the dump, to the dump, dump, dump!”
“When’d you learn that one, third grade?”
“And what do you have against third grade, Miss Bigshot College Professor?”
Erin and I laugh at most of the same things for most of the same reasons, but with different slants. Her laugh seems to me more compassionate, imbued with a generous Catholic sense that people, by revealing their flawed nature, are somehow reaffirming an ordered universe with God at the top and humans below. There is some of that acceptance in my laughter. I wish there were more. But the Calvinism of my childhood makes me expect the worst from people. I see and celebrate the occasionally necessary selfishness behind certain jokes, but I also deplore it. Erin disapproves of it, too, but finds the cheerful lack of hypocrisy charming, just as she laughs with pleasure when she sees a dog unabashedly being a dog, even if it’s protecting its food bowl from a passing shadow, trying to steal another dog’s toy, or running to the basement to hide from thunder.
After we married, Erin and I spent many evenings and weekends watching music videos and stand-up comedy on TV—talking and joking as we watched. We were tuning our sensibilities, learning in greater detail what music the other loved and what we both laughed at. We were trying to understand and even embrace the other’s pleasures.
We also watched home-decorating shows, trying to coordinate our tastes. We wanted to furnish our new house with something other than the graduate-student furniture we’d dragged around into middle age: book shelves made of concrete blocks and two-by-sixes, sofas cast off by friends and family, and twenty-year-old, swaybacked mattresses. We were fond of a short-lived show called The Furniture Guys on PBS. Ed Feldman and Joe L’Erario stripped, refinished, and reupholstered furniture while keeping up a farrago of sub-Groucho-esque puns and insults. On one episode, they brought in a woman who specialized in stenciling, and while she earnestly stippled flowers around the edge of a refinished cabinet, Ed and Joe mocked her, laughing and egging each other on. The more they joked, the stiffer her neck grew, until finally, upper lip curled back on her incisors, she snarled, “You two just crack each other up, doncha?”
It was the first catchphrase of our marriage, one we still use, burnishing and cherishing it. When one of us amuses the other in a way too silly for others to bear, one of us sneers, “You two just crack each other up, doncha?” The joke is a warning about making our private jokes in public, a caution against being so into each other we’re rude. But it’s true that we have become dedicated to making each other laugh or smile. I will mention only the lifelike plastic lizard that appears regularly in coffee mugs, in the silverware drawer, pressed into the bottom of a bar of soap, or poised to fall off a cabinet door. Taking the time to polish a pun or fine-tune a practical joke is a way of saying, I’m thinking about you and I want to please you.
For the twenty years we’ve been married, I’ve been so happy I can barely conceive of happiness without marriage. A good-humored wife who appreciates most, if not all, of my humor—her price is far above rubies, as the book of Proverbs doesn’t quite say. How good is this marriage? The day before trash day, we compete to sneak the trashcan and recycle bins to the curb before the other notices. We alternate making dinner and have an iron-clad rule that the one who didn’t cook cannot criticize the meal. Usually the cook is the tougher critic anyway. Most of my joking now is centered on making Erin laugh, and one of my great pleasures is e-mailing her a joke and then hearing from her office, which is on the second floor directly above me, a guffaw reverberate down through my ceiling. As Erin and I grow old together, I hope Mikhail Bakhtin, the literary theorist, was right when he wrote, “Death is inseparable from laughter.” He must be, judging from the jokes about aging, decrepitude, dementia, and death sent to me by friends my age. Of all the logical impasses, unknowings, paradoxes, and terrors that provoke laughter, death by its finality and unsolvable mystery is paramount. I am older than Erin by seven years, and we both know she is likely to outlive me. Her grief and the life she will live will be a blank to me.
My idea of a good ending would be Erin and me lying in adjoining beds forty years from now in the nursing home, and we overhear the head nurse (that’s the one with the dirty knees, you know) tell her supervisor, I think we are losing that old couple in room 5C. They talk to each other in the voice of a dog that’s been dead for fifty years and then they laugh till I think they are going to die.
I’ll look at Erin and say, You two just crack each other up, don’t you.
Andrew Hudgins is the author of nine books of poetry, two collections of essays, and The Joker: A Memoir, to be published tomorrow, June 11, and from which this essay is adapted. He teaches at Ohio State University and lives in Columbus, Ohio.