Three years ago on Thursday, March 23, Illinois’ COVID-19 death toll stood at 12. The NCAA basketball tournament had been canceled and US officials suggested the Summer Olympics should be postponed, too. There was news that day – the sort of report that would raise no eyebrows three years later but in the moment felt more than ominous: A CTA operator had tested positive.
The city made plans to rent thousands of hotel rooms to isolate people who had been exposed to the coronavirus.
We couldn’t know then that over four million Illinoisans would become infected, but we knew we were in for something dark and different. And on this day, I started telling jokes. Like these:
I asked my phone, ‘Siri, why am I so lousy with women?’ My phone said, ‘Dude, I’m Alexa.’”
“I still haven’t decided where to go for Easter — the bedroom or the den.”
“I saw this ad online: Single man with toilet paper seeks woman with hand sanitizer for good clean fun.”
“So after this quarantine will the producers of ‘My 600-Pound Life’ just find me or do I find them?”
“I went to a bookstore and asked for a book about turtles. The clerk said, ‘Hard back?’ I said, ‘Yes, with tiny little heads.’”
“There’s a self-help group for compulsive talkers called On and On Anon.”
“My proctologist gave me two thumbs up, which I did not appreciate.”
Told in rapid succession with snappy music underneath, we laughed because we weren’t obsessing about the news. The physical release was almost jarring – but good. The next day we told more.
“Lady Gaga is now going to perform with the Goo Goo Dolls. The band will be called Goo Goo Gaga.”
“I don’t want to say I’ve gained some weight during the pandemic but I now count as three electoral votes.”
“My cousin was in the World Kleptomaniac Championships. He took the gold, silver and bronze.”
Barman says, ‘Sorry, we don’t serve faster-than-light particles here.’ A faster-than-light particle walks into a bar.”
The jokes — we’ve told, roughly, 4,752 — aren’t always funny, but the whole is usually greater than the sum of the parts:
“The bishop visited our church last night but I could tell right away he was an impostor. He never once moved diagonally.”
“Here’s a quick and easy way to prepare tofu: First, throw it in the garbage, then, grill a steak.”
More than a radio bit (we now do this at 10:38 each morning), it’s a bench mark to — for a moment — not worry about whatever you’re worrying about. Indeed, we should all make time to do just that. And that has become the greatest revelation about the last three years. Regardless of how isolated or hybridized we may be, we still yearn for shared experiences and laughter.
Grandparents send our “speed jokes” to grandkids. An industrial-arts teacher in Morris collects jokes from his students and regularly sends them in. A clinician at the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital shares them with patients and staff.
A teacher has posted them to a website used by educators around the world. A father and daughter made listening to our jokes part of their routine as they drove to and from her cancer treatments. And many remote workers tuned in to see if there was still anyone out there, and if they were still laughing. I am here to report they still are.
“I signed up for an exercise class and they told me to wear loose-fitting clothes. If I had any loose-fitting clothes I wouldn’t have signed up.”
“My friend told me I say phrases wrong, but he’s not exactly the brightest knife in the chandelier.”
“I called the incontinence hotline and they asked if could please hold. I said, ‘If I could hold I wouldn’t be calling.’”
In 2022, we tried to get jokes from all 50 states in the first 50 days of the year. On Feb. 17, a letter to the editor of the Delaware State News was headlined: “Chicago radio host seeks joke from Delaware.”
And on the 50th day of that year we scored:
“I Googled, ‘missing medieval servant.’ It said, ‘page not found.’”
This op-ed titled ‘Telling jokes on WGN Radio was a chance to share laughter during the pandemic’ by John Williams was originally published in the Chicago Tribune on March 21, 2023.
John also read this op-ed on air and celebrated the anniversary of Speed Jokes on March 23, 2023.