For such a famous joke, its origins remain a mystery. Some have hypothesized that it came from vaudeville, but the earliest known written accounts are from the mid-1950s, which might suggest Borscht Belt humor from the Catskills resorts popular at the time. One of the early published versions, though not the first, came in a 1955 collection of jokes by Random House founder Bennett Cerf.
Carnegie Hall archivist Gino Francesconi says that the best version he’s heard involved violinist Mischa Elman. As the story goes, Elman was walking from Carnegie Hall toward his hotel following a rehearsal. He wasn’t happy with his playing and had his head down. Two tourists who saw his violin case asked him the question. Without looking up, he replied, “Practice.”
“He was impish enough and known for his sense of humor to come up with it,” says Francesconi.
They also sent a camera team out to ask New Yorkers how to get to Carnegie Hall:
During the 1930s, a genre of cruel jokes became popular known as "Little Audrey" jokes. The short jokes were usually pretty macabre, involving various fatal events happening to people. They also featured the catch phrase that Little Audrey "just laughed and laughed".
In rare cases the bad stuff happened to Little Audrey and then people laughed and laughed at her.
One day Little Audrey and her mother were driving along when all of a sudden the car door flew open and Little Audrey's mother fell out. Little Audrey just laughed and laughed, 'cause she knew all the time that her mother had on her light fall suit.
Little Audrey and her grandma were standing on their front porch watching the men pave their street. There was a cement mixer, a steam roller, and all kinds of things to watch. All of a sudden grandma saw a quarter out there right in the middle of the street. She dashed right out to get it, but just as she picked it up along came that old steam roller and rolled her out flatter than a sheet of theme paper. Little Audrey just laughed and laughed, 'cause she knew all the time it was only a dime.
Little Audrey was playing with matches. Mama said, "Ummm, you better not do that." But Little Audrey was awful hard-headed; she kept right on playing with matches, and after a while she set the house on fire, and it burned right down to the ground. Mama and Little Audrey were looking at the ashes, and mama said, "Uh huh, I told you so! Now, young lady, just wait until your papa comes home. You certainly will catch it!" Little Audrey just laughed and laughed. She knew all the time that papa had come home an hour early and had gone to bed to take a nap.
Little Audrey was standing on the corner just a-crying and a-crying, when along comes a cop, who said, "Little Audrey, why are you crying?" And Little Audrey said, "Oh, I've lost my papa!" The cop said, "Why Little Audrey, I wouldn't cry about that. There's your papa right across the street leaning against that bank building." Little Audrey was overjoyed; without even looking at the traffic she started across the street. Along came a big two-ton truck that ran over Little Audrey and killed her dead. The cop just laughed and laughed. He knew all the time that that was not Little Audrey's papa leaning against the bank building.
Thanks to the recent movie The King's Speech, King George VI is now best known as the king who stuttered. But apparently he also occasionally told jokes. Several of them are reproduced below. They're not bad, for a royal. [Milwaukee Journal — Apr 25, 1937]
[In response to a speaker who was praising him in extravagant terms]. "I am reminded," he said, "of the woman who went to her husband's funeral service. The couple had never got on well together, but the minister devoted his long sermon to a panegyric of the husband's virtues. So glowing a picture did he paint that the widow completely failed to recognize her late husband. 'Milly,' she nudged her friend and whispered loudly, 'is there another corpse about?'"
There was a petrol dump where men sent a canary down into the empty tank to see if the atmosphere was safe for them to go down and clean it out. One day the foreman saw a man walking about in the bottom of the tank before the canary had been let down. "Hey, what are you doing there?" he yelled. In all seriousness the man below shouted back: "I'm just seeing if it's all right for me blinkin' canary."
This joke was found in a manuscript now preserved in the British Library. The language of the joke (Old Irish) indicates that it was written about a thousand years ago. The text is translated by Dennis King. So were those medieval Irish monks funny or not?
Three monks turned their back on the world. They go into the wilderness to repent their sins before God.
They did not speak to one another for the space of a year. Then one of the men said to another at the end of the year, "We are well," said he.
Thus it was for another year. "It is well indeed," said the second man.
They were there after that for another year. "I swear by my habit," said the third man, "if you do not allow me some quiet I will abandon the wilderness entirely to you!"
Paul Di Filippo
Paul has been paid to put weird ideas into fictional form for over thirty years, in his career as a noted science fiction writer. He has recently begun blogging on many curious topics with three fellow writers at The Inferior 4+1.