The Worst Joke I Ever Heard

I’d like to share with you the worst joke that I ever heard. Those of you who’ve heard me tell jokes before might think that you’ve already suffered through the worst joke I ever heard, but you honestly haven’t. The worst joke I ever heard was simply too awful to share. But maybe now is the time.

Children sweeping at Holme Slack playground.
The playground of Holme Slack Primary School, and the very wall that I was probably sitting on when I first heard this “joke”.

To understand the joke, though, you must first understand where I grew up. For most of my school years, I lived in Preston, in the North-West of England. After first starting school in Scotland, and having been brought up by parents who’d grown up in the North-East, I quickly found that there were a plethora of local dialect differences and regional slang terms that I needed to get to grips with in order to fit into my new environment. Pants, pumps, toffee, and bap, among others, had a different meaning here, along with entirely new words like belm (an insult), gizzit (a contraction of “give it [to me]”), pegging it (running away, perhaps related to “legging it”?), and kegs (trousers). The playground game of “tag” was called “tig”. “Nosh” switched from being a noun to a verb. And when you wanted somebody to stop doing something, you’d invariably use the imperative “pack it in!”

And it’s that last one that spawned the worst joke I ever heard. Try, if you can, to imagine the words “pack it in”, spoken quickly, in a broad Lancashire accent, by a young child. And then appreciate this exchange, which was disturbingly common in my primary school:

Child 1: Pack it in!

Child 2: Pakis don’t come in tins. They come from India.

In case it’s too subtle for you, the “joke” stems from the phonetic similarity, especially in the dialect in question, between the phrase “pack it in” and the phrase “paki tin”.

An opened food tin.
Unless the recent horsemeat scandal investigation takes a dramatic and unexpected twist, we can be pretty sure that this item contains no people from Pakistan.

In case you need to ask why this is the worst joke I ever heard, allow me to explain in detail everything that’s wrong with it.

It’s needlessly racist

Now I don’t believe that race is necessarily above humour – and the same goes for gender, sexuality, religion, politics, etc. But there’s difference between using a racial slur to no benefit (think: any joke containing the word “nigger” or “polak”), and jokes which make use of race. Here’s one of my favourite jokes involving race:

The Pope goes on a tour of South Africa, and he’s travelling in his Popemobile alongside a large river when he catches sight of a black man in the river. The man is struggling and screaming as he tries in vain to fight off a huge crocodile. Suddenly, the Pope sees two white men leap into the water, drag the man and the crocodile to land, and beat the crocodile to death with sticks, saving the black man’s life.

The Pope, impressed, goes over to where the two men are standing. “That was the most wonderful thing to do,” his holiness says. “You put yourselves at risk to kill the crocodile and save the life of your fellow man. I can see that it is men like you who will rebuild this country as an example to the world of true racial harmony.”

The Pope goes on his way. “Who was that?” asks one of the white men.

The other replies: “That was the Pope. He is in direct communication with God. He knows everything.”

“Maybe,” says the first, “But he knows fuck all about crocodile fishing!”

The butt of this joke is not race, but racists. In this example, the joke does not condone the actions of the ‘crocodile fishers’: in fact, it contrasts them (through the Pope’s mistake in understanding) to the opposite state of racial harmony. It does not work to reinforce stereotypes. Oh, and it’s funny: that’s always a benefit in a joke. Contrast to jokes about negative racial sterotypes or using offensive terms for no value other than for the words themselves: these types of jokes can serve to reinforce the position of actual racists who see their use (and acceptance) as reinforcement for their position, and – if you enjoy them – it’s worth asking yourself what that says about you, or might be seen to say about you.

"Bit it's asbestos it gets!" Click for full comic.
Among its other faults, the worst joke I ever heard relies upon an incredibly weak pun. It even makes this comic, by Completely Serious Comics, look good. [click for full comic]

It’s an incredibly weak pun

What would “paki tin” even mean, if that were what the first child had meant? It’s not as if we say “beans tin” or “soup tin” or “peas tin”. Surely, if this piece of wordplay were to make any sense whatsoever, it would have to be based on the phrase “tin of pakis”, which I’m pretty sure nobody has ever said before, ever.

To illustrate, let me have a go at making a pun-based joke without the requirement that the pun actually make sense:

Knock knock.

Who’s there?

Yoodough.

Yoodough who?

Youdough not understand how jokes are supposed to work, do you?

You see? Not funny (except perhaps in the most dadaist of humour circles). It’s not funny because Yoodough isn’t actually a name. The format of the joke is ruined by balancing a pun against a phrase that just doesn’t exist. Let’s try again, but this time actually make the pun make sense (note that it’s still a knock knock joke, and therefore it probably still isn’t funny, except in an academic way):

Knock knock

Who’s there?

Yuri.

Yuri who?

Yuri-ly expect me to laugh at this, do you?

It’s stupidly inaccurate

Let’s just stop and take a look at that punchline again, shall we: “Pakis… come from India.” Even ignoring everything else that’s wrong with this joke, this is simply… wrong! Now that’s not to say that jokes always have to reflect reality. Here’s a classic joke that doesn’t:

Lion woke up one morning with an overbearing desire to remind his fellow creatures that he was king of the jungle. So he marched over to a monkey and roared: “Who is the mightiest animal in the jungle?”

“You are, Master,” said the monkey, quivering.

Then the lion came across a wildebeest.

“Who is the mightiest animal in the jungle?” roared the lion.

“You are, Master,” answered the wildebeest, shaking with fear.

Next the lion met an elephant.

“Who is the mightiest animal in the jungle?” roared the lion.

The elephant grabbed the lion with his trunk, slammed him repeatedly against a tree, dropped him like a stone and ambled off.

“All right,” shouted the lion. “There’s no need to turn nasty just because you don’t know the answer.”

Aside from the suspension of disbelief required for the dialogues to function at all – none of these animals are known to be able to talk! – there’s an underlying issue that lions don’t live in jungles. But who cares! That’s not the point of the joke.

A jungle containing no lions.
Count the lions in this picture. If you found no lions, then you counted correctly. If you got any other number, try again.

In the case of the “paki” joke, the problem could easily be corrected by saying “…they come from Pakistan.” It’d still probably be the worst joke I ever heard, but at least it’d be trying to improve itself. I remember being about 8 or 9 and explaining this to a classmate, but he wasn’t convinced. As I remember it, he called me a belm and left it at that.

So that’s the worst joke I ever heard. And now you’ve heard it, you can rest assured that every joke you hear from me – no matter how corny, obscure, long-winded or pun-laden – will at least be better than that one.

Here’s one last joke, for now:

A woman gets on a bus with her baby. “Ugh!” says the bus driver, “That’s got to be the ugliest baby I’ve ever seen!”

The woman walks to the rear of the bus and sits down, fuming and close to tears. She says to a man next to her: “The driver just insulted me! I’m so upset!”

“You go up there and tell him off,” the man replies, “Go on, I’ll hold your monkey for you.”

Northern Radio

As I mentioned earlier, I spent some of the period between Christmas and New Year in Preston. And there, while taking a shower at my mother’s house, I had a strange experience.

My mother's shower is one of the new style of high-tech ones, with a dozen different washing functions as well as a built in light and radio. I gather that there are ones with built in phones, now, too.

One of the funky features of my mother’s shower cubicle is that it includes a fully working FM radio. Its controls are pretty limited and there’s no user interface to provide feedback about what frequency you’re tuned to already, so it’s hard to deliberately tune in to a specific station. Instead, the house policy seems to be that if you don’t like what you’re listening to, you press the “cycle to the next station” button until you hear something you like.

Listening to music is about the third or second most-enjoyable thing that one can possibly do in a shower, in my experience, so I gave it a go. Local station Radio Wave came on, and they were playing some fun tunes, so I sang along as I washed myself under the hot steamy “drench” setting on the shower.

Radio Wave (96.5FM), Blackpool, Lancashire

At the end of a couple of songs, there were some commercials and the show’s presenter shared a few words. And it occurred to me quite how very Northern he sounded.

Living and working in Oxford, I don’t in my day to day life come across people with that broad lanky dialect. Growing up in Preston, and going to school there, I came across it on a daily basis, but didn’t notice it. Now, in its absence, it’s starkly noticable, with its traditional short gutteral “t” instead of “the”, use of the archaic second-person “tha” (related to “thou”), and the ever-present pronunciation of words like “right” and “light” as “reet” and “leet”, and “cold” and “old” as “cowd” and “owd”.

It’s unfamiliar, but still “homely”. Like that smell that reminds you of where you grew up, this sound to my ears filled me with a strange nostalgia.

It’s funny, because I’m sure I carry a little bit of that accent with me. To the folks in my life around Oxford way, I perhaps sound as foreign as those people in Preston sound to me, now. I spoke on the phone the other week to a couple of people I used to hang out with, back in the day, and my immediate thought was that they’d become more Lanky than I remembered – as if they’d somehow overdosed on butter pie and barm cakes in the years since I last saw them.

But that’s clearly not the case: it’s not their voices that have changed, but my ears. Untouched by the North-Western tongue for so long, it sounds very strange to me now to hear it over the phone, on the radio, or even in person.

It’s a strange side-effect of moving around the country. I wonder what it’s like for my American friends, who have an even bigger gap (both geographically and linguistically) between their homes in the UK and their families in the US, to “phone home”.