October 21, 2018

William Novak’s new joke book teaches us how to ‘Die Laughing’

An elderly gentleman, well dressed, walks into an upscale cocktail lounge.  He sits down next to an elegant woman of a certain age and orders a drink. Turning to her, he says, “So tell me, do I come here often?”

While exercising one day, William Novak, who is in his 60s, had an idea.

It occurred to him that a compilation of jokes about the “golden years” might make a 24-karat book. He stopped what he was doing and, of course, wrote down the idea so he wouldn’t forget it. His wife, Linda, came up with the title: “Die Laughing: Killer Jokes for Newly Old Folks.”

Writing the book was hardly a stretch for Novak. He is the co-editor of “The Big Book of Jewish Humor” (1981). In the 35 years since that classic, Novak became a best-selling ghost writer, co-authoring memoirs of famous figures including Lee Iacocca and Magic Johnson.  

He also is surrounded by a very funny family.

“Everyone in my family seems to be funny,” Novak said, “and Linda was voted ‘wittiest’ in her high school class … something she hasn’t reminded me of since yesterday.”

The couple co-parent three sons (all of whom, Novak said, are funny), including B.J. Novak, who starred as Ryan Howard in TV’s “The Office.”

B.J. Novak agrees with his dad’s assessment.

“When I was a kid, I assumed that every family was funny,” B.J. Novak told the Jewish Journal, “that all families relied on jokes, laughter and warm sarcasm to communicate, and that all parents had a big collection of joke books. A lot of our dinner conversations started with, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if …” Looking back, I realize that we were a little unusual. But I’m glad I grew up speaking the language of humor.”

While “Die Laughing” is not totally composed of Jewish jokes, when a story starts with “Shirley, a widow, decided to take her cat to the beach,” or “After the death of his wife, Silverman marries a much younger woman …” we pretty much know we’re talking about Members of the Tribe.

Then there are the more explicit references:

A Jewish woman who has just moved into a new apartment invites her adult grandson to dinner. “Go to the front door,” she tells him on the phone, “press 9-D with your elbow, and I’ll buzz you in. When you get off the elevator, turn right and press the doorbell with your elbow. Come at seven o’clock.”

“Sure,” he says. “But why should I press those buttons with my elbow?”

“What? You’re coming empty-handed?!” 

Why so much kosher comedy? “When you think of jokes and old people,” William Novak said, “you don’t even need the word ‘Jewish’; it’s obvious! But why are Jews funny is a big, complicated question. I’ve never figured out a great answer, except that Jews are often very smart, and I’ve never seen anyone who’s funny who wasn’t smart.”

As he pondered the question, Novak dug deeper. “Also, Jews look at things from different angles. Our tradition of biblical and talmudic commentary encourages us to see things from different points of view, and not to take surface truths as the only truth. What is humor, if not looking at something in a different way?”

The woman was in tears when she came to the rabbi. “Esther, I see that you’re grieving. How can I help you?”

“Rabbi, my dog died yesterday, and it would mean so much if you’d do the funeral.”

“I’m sorry,” the rabbi said, “but I can only hold a service for a person.”

“Please, rabbi. I’m alone in the world and Cooper meant everything to me. I’m also prepared to make a substantial donation to the synagogue.”

The rabbi eventually gave in and held a small funeral service in her backyard, and gave a beautiful eulogy.

When it was over, Esther said, “Rabbi, that was everything I was hoping for. It was so moving. And I thought I knew everything about Cooper, but honestly, I had no idea how much he had done for Israel!” 

Choosing the material to be included in the book was a family affair. B.J. Novak — who, in addition to his acting career, is an author, screenwriter and director — said that when his father was almost finished, “I was one of those lucky people who got to vote on the jokes and cartoons he was considering. Voting for cartoons is one job that nobody would turn down. It may have been a favor to him, but it felt more like a gift to me. I’m so glad he wrote the book and that it turned out so well.”

So as we age, is laughter the best medicine? 

“No,” William Novak shot back, “the best medicine usually comes in a bottle or pill. But I was surprised how many studies there have been about the healing power of laughter. It’s not just fun; it’s one of the antidotes to illness and even aging. It keeps us younger, happier, more optimistic, more flexible and more productive.”

“I always quote the famous talmudic phrase, which doesn’t really exist:  Blessed is the person who lives in a funny family.”

A little old man hobbled into the ice cream parlor and slowly made his way to the counter. After pausing a moment to catch his breath, he ordered a chocolate sundae.

“Crushed nuts?” asked the waitress.

“No. Arthritis.”

Steve North is a longtime broadcast and print journalist.