Joe Miller Joke Book

Daffy Duck and Joe Miller Joke Book

I’ve been kind of down recently, literally feeling like Stanley Ipkiss (Jim Carrey) at the beginning of The Mask. And I thought, “I know! I’ll do what Stanley does: I’ll get some old cartoons to cheer me up!” So I requested a bunch from the library, including Looney Tunes Super Stars: Daffy Duck. Now I’ll be honest, I’m not a big Daffy Duck fan. My friend Andrea loves him because he’s so over-the-top in his greed for money and attention. I’m more of a Bugs Bunny kind of guy, because he doesn’t generally bother anyone. He’s just doing his thing and other people intrude on him. But it turns out that Daffy Duck is more sympathetic early on.

One of the examples of this is a 1942 cartoon, Daffy Dilly. In it, Daffy is a street salesman trying to pawn off his very tired gag items like hand buzzers and lapel flowers that squirt water. No one is interested. So he pulls out a book and says, “How about a Joe Miller joke book?!” You don’t have to know who Joe Miller was to get the joke. It is kind of the same as, “How about a Sinbad joke book?!” But the joke is actually a bit different than that and not so mean. (For the record, Sinbad has a bad rap; for the kind of work he does, no one is better; and Houseguest was a nice fun comedy.)

So who was Joe Miller? He was an English actor at the beginning of the 18th century. And he was known for playing comedic roles such as Trinculo in The Tempest and the grave-digger in Hamlet. After he died, a playwright by the name of John Mottley published a book called, Joe Miller’s Jests, or the Wit’s Vade-Mecum in 1739. It was hugely popular, although it apparently had only three jokes attributed to Joe Miller. The subtitle of the book was, “A collection of the most brilliant jests; the politest repartees; and most elegant bons mots [clever remarks], and most pleasant short stories in the English language.”

The first edition contained 247 jokes, including thigh slappers like, “A lady’s age happening to be questioned, she affirmed she was but forty, and called upon a gentleman that was in company for his opinion. ‘Cousin,’ said she, ‘Do you believe I am in the right, when I say I am but forty?’ ‘I ought not to dispute it, Madam,’ replied he, ‘For I have heard you say so these ten years.'” Actually, that’s not a bad joke. But it isn’t exactly fresh. Over the years, the book contained more and more jokes. Its popularity, however, was its own undoing. Since everyone had read it, everyone knew all the jokes. So before long, “Joe Miller” became shorthand for a tired and unfunny joke.

But Dickens presented the book in a brighter light, roughly one century after its publication, in A Christmas Carol (1843). As Scrooge prepares to send a large turkey to Bob Cratchit, he says to himself, “He shan’t know who sends it. It’s twice the size of Tiny Tim. Joe Miller never made such a joke as sending it to Bob’s will be!” And another century after that, Daffy Duck was on the streets of New York with some pretty tired items to sell. But as he says at the end, “It’s a living.”


All of the DVDs have a disclaimer at the beginning of them that, while certainly necessary, are provided with more care than I would have expected:

Some of the cartoons you are about to see are products of their time. They may depict some of the ethnic and racial prejudices that were commonplace in American society. These depictions were wrong then and are wrong today. While the following does not represent the Warner Bros’ view of today’s society, some of these cartoons are being presented, as they were originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming these prejudices never existed.

I will note that a couple of things struck me as very bad, but not that many. The worst was where Daffy Duck agrees to be Elmer Fudd’s slave and does a whole Uncle Tom routine. But overall, I’ve seen far worse from the period. And frankly, Gone With the Wind is far worse than anything on any of these DVDs.

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