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How to Circumcise a Whale

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Heinrich had no sense of humor. I mean literally, he was missing any trace of a sense of humor. He was a solid, reliable deckhand, and not unintelligent, but in our boisterous, fun-loving crew he stood out like a Baptist in a dance hall.

When he talked he sounded just like Henry Kissinger, only without the lilt and vitality. He was the living, breathing, stereotypical manifestation of a staid, rigid, earnest German man.

This was something of an embarrassment to the other Germans in the crew, and they worked assiduously to kindle a spark of joviality in Heinrich’s phlegmatic soul. Seeing this, the American and British deckhands joined in; the whole crew embarked on the task to Wake Heinrich Up. We arranged pranks, like imitating him, in his presence. All of us. All day. The hope was that he would see how dreary he looked and sounded, but he didn’t seem to notice, and we got exhausted trying to behave like him.

We made sure he was present on movie nights, and obtained the most raucous, slapstick titles available. He was bored by everything but the credits.

We played tricks on him, wrote skits, sang silly songs. Nothing.

Eventually we thought, wait, we are making this too complicated. Let’s start with basics. Let’s just try telling him some jokes, the simpler the better. The Germans tried first, and some of their attempts were Zen-hilarious. I remember one in particular:

A skeleton walks into a bar. The bartender says, “What’ll you have?”

The skeleton replies, “ A beer, and a mop and bucket.” This joke was funny even when I heard it in German, and I don’t speak German. But Heinrich just thought it was a sensible thing for the skeleton to do.

We tried telling jokes in English, starting with why the chicken crossed the road, and realized before we had even finished the setup that the answer was going to be far too meta for Heinrich. Which it was.

We tried sex jokes, cowboy jokes, lawyer jokes. We told of how numerous priests, rabbi’s and preachers walked into assorted bars, all for nothing, because humor is about things that begin by seeming one way, and unexpectedly turn out to be another, and Heinrich could never catch the shift. Life, to him, was a matter of putting one foot predictably in front of the other.

We had just about given up on him, when one day one of the Brits asked him, “Hey Heinrich, how do you circumcise a whale?” A group of us were gathered on the focs’le head deck, on a sunny, lazy morning. We all groaned, partly because this is an ancient and groanworthy joke, and partly because we knew that Heinrich was going to respond, “Why would I want to circumcise a whale?” Which he did. But then someone else said, a little exasperated, “No, see, this is how this kind of joke works. It starts with a silly question. That’s the setup. Then you, Heinrich, say “I don’t know,” and repeat the question, and then you get the punch line, and it’s funny.”

“Okay,” said Heinrich, “That sounds, uh, reasonable. Go ahead.”

So with no real hope, the Brit repeated, “Heinrich, how do you circumcise a whale?”

And Heinrich replied, “I do not know. How do you circumcise a whale?”

And the Brit said, “Four skin divers.”

There was a long moment of silence. Nobody moved. Then we heard a sound like a nail being pulled slowly out of wood. It repeated, and we realized Heinrich was laughing, maybe for the first time in his life, and we started laughing too, with tears of joy and relief and gladness for our fellow. After a while he jumped up and said, “I must go and tell someone this joke They will laugh.” So he ran down to the foredeck, and down the scuttle to the crew’s mess, with us in hot pursuit. He slid in next to a crewmember who was eating breakfast and said, “How do you circumcise a whale?”

She paused with her spoon halfway to her mouth, put the spoon down, looked at him, and said, “I don’t know, Heinrich, how do you circumcise a whale?”

He hesitated a moment, then replied, “Three frogmen.”




The events described above took place in 1985 or so. Since that time I have occasionally heard someone tell the primary joke about foreskin four skin divers – not surprising, as it is an old standby – but I have also heard of other  people making similar mistakes in the retelling. It’s the only joke I can think of that is even better when you get it wrong.


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Brion Toss





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