July 28, 2005

Off-Color Expose

By: Brendan Conway

“Tastelessness breeds tastelessness.” No joke, that’s what Don Nilsen tells me when I call. I want to know what Nilsen, editor of The Encyclopedia of 20th Century Humor and former head of the International Society for Humor Studies, has to say about Truly Tasteless Jokes, the 23-year-old bestseller that remains one of the filthiest books in the English language.

Vulgar humor functions as a safety valve, Nilsen says, stopping people from doing bad things. Or not. It can also function as a rationalization, he notes, allowing people to do bad things. “It works both ways,” he says. He then urges me to see The Aristocrats, a new film by Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette that features jokes about incest and bestiality. I’m not sure how to take that.

The original Truly Tasteless Jokes, followed by more than a dozen sequels in the 1980s and 1990s, were read by millions. And retold who knows how many times. But the more I looked into what it all meant, the less I found out. Really. I began to have the feeling that my knowledge of this subject was actually decreasing.

To begin with, something about humor makes it hard to pin down. What is the significance of . . . ? is a favorite question of English teachers everywhere. Were it asked about humor in general or Truly Tasteless Jokes in particular, I’d have no idea how to answer. And as mysterious as any other aspect of my investigation was the question of who’d written the Truly Tasteless series.

The name on the cover was Blanche Knott, clearly a pseudonym. But who was the person or persons behind Blanche?

Well, I don’t mind telling you that, after a lot of looking, I found out who Blanche is.

I first encountered Truly Tasteless Jokes, dog-eared and well-read, at age ten or eleven, tucked away among Monopoly boards and checkers sets in the basement of my older cousins’ house. This was my first exposure to raunch. It was also my first exposure to racist jokes, ethnic jokes, jokes about male and female anatomy, jokes about women, and jokes at the expense of the blind, the homeless, AIDS victims, cripples, Helen Keller, and dead babies.

Students of race relations, please note: This particular Irish Catholic Bostonian first encountered racist humor not by way of an overbearing uncle still bristling over integration of the public schools, but rather in a humor volume put out by the respectable Manhattan publisher Ballantine Books, which is an imprint of Random House. Later, St. Martins Press picked up the series. These are two of the world’s leading publishing houses.

Initially, I understood few of the Truly Tasteless jokes. It would take years for me to understand all of them. Enthralled by the few sex jokes I understood, I was disposed to laugh at the others even when I didn’t understand them. By the end of high school my knowledge of sexual deviancy and American stereotypes was finally equal to the obscure sex acts and ethnic generalizations the books detailed.

Here are some examples of the book’s cleaner jokes: “What can you do with a dog with no legs? Take it for a drag.” “What’s the difference between garbage and a girl from New Jersey? Sometimes garbage gets picked up.” The rest is downright radioactive. It would rightly cost an executive or politician who uttered them his job and reputation.

Who is Blanche Knott?

So who was purveying all this to the public for nearly two decades? Who was “Blanche Knott”? Blanche’s real identity, I realized after a few phone calls, was known to a handful of editors and agents, but it was not in the public record. A Lexis-Nexis search of major newspapers and magazines dating back to the 1980s turns up one reference in the Washington Post rumoring the author to have been an editor at St. Martins Press, but not much else. The books, though widely circulated, received extraordinarily little press. Besides the dog-eared copies of Truly Tasteless Jokes sitting in cabinets around the country, the only direct trace of Blanche is a string of citations one finds on paperback bestseller lists in the New York Times and elsewhere from 1983 to 1986. In some of them, multiple editions of Truly Tasteless Jokes occupy spots in the top ten.

In spite of this lack of media attention, the series must be considered culturally significant. Blanche Knott is a towering figure in late twentieth-century American social mores. Blanche is the Diderot of dirty jokes-and an early partisan against political correctness. She recorded the dark side of American folk humor and wrote it down.

It is hard not to feel ambivalent about such an accomplishment. In some ways, it was a terrible disservice to the country-from which her publishers and probably Blanche her/his/them selves profited immensely. According to the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan, much of the material in Truly Tasteless Jokes resembles the Internet propaganda of white supremacist groups.

Of course, not all of it is so objectionable. Or particularly consequential. It may be crude, but, really, what’s a dead baby joke or two among friends? And who are we to be policing humor?

The most interesting opinion to get on these questions, however, had to be Blanche’s own. I wanted to find him/her/them, not least to know the actual identity, but mainly to hear them out.

What do we know?

First thing I did was compile all my facts and suppositions. I knew the series was extensive and that it had sold widely. “OVER TWO MILLION COPIES IN PRINT!” boasted the 61st print run of Truly Tasteless Jokes in 1991. Many, if not most, people now in their twenties or thirties have encountered the book or a spinoff. Possibly as many as five million Truly Tasteless books were sold, though exact figures are not publicly known. St. Martins, which currently holds the rights, chose not to cooperate with DOUBLETHINK for this article.

Even five million books pales, however, in comparison with a blockbuster like the Harry Potter series, which topped a quarter billion in worldwide book sales by 2003. But very few books ever sell in the millions. That the Truly Tasteless books contained little besides off-color jokes makes it even more remarkable. If today a similar compilation were to sell five million copies, everyone would find it extraordinary. Op-eds would deplore the fact; stand-up comics would announce their take; librarians would take a stand. No doubt there would be serious talk of a ban.

In addition to the fourteen direct sequels to Truly Tasteless Jokes, the list of Blanche Knott books includes Blanche Knott’s Book of Truly Tasteless Anatomy Jokes, Blanche Knott’s Truly Tasteless Military Jokes, Blanche Knott’s Truly Tasteless Lawyer Jokes, and others. In 1985, the series spawned “Truly Tasteless Jokes: The Video,” a series of trashy stand-up acts by comics who are unknown today, except one, Andrew Dice Clay. Now performing in Las Vegas reruns, Clay’s shtick is and was making orgasm and venereal-disease jokes to girls with puffy hair who giggle a lot.

The Truly Tasteless series petered out in the late 1990s, at which point it spawned a short-lived office calendar displaying dirty jokes-the certain demise of which must have been obvious to all but its creators. The series is remembered, however, if not with great affection.

To get a read on its comic legacy, I phone the editorial offices of The Onion, wondering whether any of the writers at America’s Finest News Source derived inspiration from Truly Tasteless Jokes. Carol Kolb, editor in chief, tells DOUBLETHINK that she does not remember the series, but she circulates my query around the editorial offices in New York. An associate editor, Amie Barrodale, emails thus: “I remember these. I was really into them when I was little. I think I was always expecting them to be actually tasteless, but I can remember two jokes I read in them.” When I ask Barrodale whether the books had influenced her professionally, she replies: “They just had them at the book- store. I would never say they influenced me. I was like 7 or something.”

Yet there’s plenty of evidence to suggest the population at large remains more enthused about Truly Tasteless Jokes. The Internet is littered with compilations of Blanche jokes and tributes, mostly by anonymous fans. “Think back to a simpler time . . . a time when nobody knew of Monica Lewinski, Usama bin Laden, J-Lo or even George W. Bush,” reads one. “A time when jokes weren’t exchanged via email and the only source for pornography was a magazine. . . . Think back to 1982. . . . Ronald Reagan was still in his first term, the Rubik’s Cube was a source of social interest, and nobody in the heterosexual community had ever heard of AIDS. Got it? Good. It was in this social climate that a little-known lady named Blanche Knott published the filthiest collection of jokes known to the English language.” The writer samples Knott’s jokes on gays, Helen Keller, and Jewish American princesses.

And yet, Truly Tasteless Jokes retains a number of critics, primarily academics or association heads, but also professional comedy writers.

I speak with Tim Bete, director of the University of Dayton’s Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop and the author of a parenting humor column that has been featured in the Christian Science Monitor and elsewhere. Bete, it’s safe to say, doesn’t tell many “Polock” jokes.

“This is not what humor is meant to do,” Bete tells DOUBLETHINK. The books have had “a huge negative effect,” he says. “It can’t be a good thing to be reading those.” As he sees it, real humor is healing; it doesn’t put people down in the Truly Tasteless Jokes manner. Bete quotes, who else, Erma Bombeck to make his point: “In humor writing, the only thing that is important is that you get close enough to the truth to reach people, and far enough away not to offend them.” Take away the profanity, Bete says, and Blanche Knott ceases to be very funny.

But fans and critics aside, most everything else about Truly Tasteless Jokes is hazier. DOUBLETHINK is unable to quantify how profitable Truly Tasteless Jokes was for its purveyors, but clearly it can reasonably be called a stroke of dark genius on their part. The Blanche Knott franchise expanded steadily over the years. And successful book franchises come at a premium, as any Publisher’s Weekly reader knows.

Normally, a book or a series of books that retailed racial and ethnic jokes and crude sexual humor would invite a lot of bad publicity. In this case, the use of a pseudonym seems to have spared both the publishers and the author a lot of potential flak. The writer didn’t suffer being well known as the gross-out and racial- joke specialist, and the publishing houses were never forced to own up to their product.

It also helped that the book was a mass-market publication, not the kind of thing you send around for book reviews. “We’re not interested in making any grand statements about American culture, but the books seem to have struck a chord because they are selling, and we haven’t gotten any letters of protest,” Sandy Bodner, a Ballantine spokesman, told the New York Times in 1983. The same article quoted historian and Pulitzer Prize winner Barbara Tuchman saying, “All these terribly tasteless, disgusting books and films represent a breakdown of decency and of standards of taste.” A spokesman for another publisher explained it away. “We’ve come as a culture from one basically segregated to one that is beginning to accept all groups, and humor has followed the same pattern,” he said. “It’s all intended in good fun.”

Blanche Indeed

I had presumed Blanche was a fiction. “She” was probably a bunch of hack writers and editors who started something viable and watched it take off in a very corporate direction. Or she could have been a bunch of suits in the publishing business pooling humor and paying college kids a quarter a joke. That may have been true in the later years. At least one edition of Truly Tasteless Jokes invites readers to submit their own tasteless jokes, presumably for future compilations.

Then I was told by well-informed sources that Blanche Knott was one person. Moreover, that Blanche was a woman.

These two facts I learn from Joelle Delbourgo, president of Joelle Delbourgo Associates, Inc., a literary management firm and publishing consultancy outside New York City. Delbourgo worked at Ballantine in the early 1980s and says she knows Blanche personally.

When I phoned Delbourgo in June, I floated my guess that Blanche was actually a group of savvy publishing types. She corrected me and offered to extend my request for an interview to Blanche. She declined to put me directly in touch with her, however. She needed to see whether Blanche wanted to be outed first.

A day later, I had a name. Not from Delbourgo, but from Michele Slung, most recently editor of The Garden of Reading, a volume of fiction about gardens and gardeners, and Seduce Me: Twelve Erotic Stories (2005). She is also a longtime contributor to the Washington Post Book World. Slung wrote the Washington Post item in 1983 rumoring Blanche to be an editor at St. Martins. When I phoned her, she recalled the story. The name Slung gave me was the New York writer Ashton Applewhite.

I checked with Delbourgo to confirm. This she would not do: “Although I no longer work at Ballantine, I respect the author’s confidentiality, so I’m afraid I can’t be of any further help.”

DOUBLETHINK attempted to contact Applewhite through the Alternatives to Marriage Project, a progressive, anti-traditional-marriage organization devoted to liberalizing America’s conceptions of couplehood. I also tried to reach her via email and listed phone numbers. Applewhite did not return any calls or emails.

Slung says Applewhite was already outed by the time the second or third book was published, but if that is the case, no trace of the outing is left today, not in the records left by newspapers or magazines. In publicly available material on Applewhite’s writing career on the Internet-a career which appears to have gone from success to success-there is no mention of Truly Tasteless Jokes.

Among the books Applewhite has written are: And I Quote: The Definitive Collection of Quotes, Sayings and Jokes for the Contemporary Speechmaker(2003); Virtuoso: Face to Face with 40 Extraordinary Talents (1999), written with Ken Carbone and with photography by Howard Schatz; Cutting Loose: Why Women Who End Their Marriages Do So Well (1997); and Thinking Positive: Words of Inspiration, Encouragement, and Validation for People with AIDS and Those Who Care For Them(1995).

As Slung tells it, Applewhite was fresh out of college when the series began, a low-level employee at St. Martins who on her own hatched the Truly Tastelessidea. She came from an official Washington background. Her father wrote a well-received travel guide, Slung said, and was a State Department official-which in this case is Washington-speak for working for the CIA.

The Washington Post ran an obituary this past February for Edgar Jarratt Applewhite, a retired Central Intelligence Agency officer the Post labeled “a protégé of the philosopher-inventor Buckminster Fuller.” He was the author of Washington Itself: An Informal Guide to the Capital of the United States, as well as Paradise Mislaid: Birth, Death & The Human Predicament of Being Biological and Cosmic Fishing: An Account of Writing Synergetics with Buckminster Fuller. Among his survivors is an Ashton Applewhite of New York City.

Blanche Knott- anti-Bush partisan?

One of the more intriguing aspects of Ashton Applewhite’s public profile is her role in the culture wars. Applewhite is an outspoken opponent of President Bush and of pro-marriage social conservatives. On the website of the Alternatives to Marriage Project, she writes, “I work for AtMP in the narrow sense to com- bat the Bush administration’s wrong-headed marriage promotion agenda, and in the broader sense to work towards social policy that treats American families and relationships fairly regardless of the form they take. This is an incredibly interesting transitional period in terms of the role of marriage in American society, and we need to give the virtuecrats a run for their money.”

The Alternatives to Marriage Project describes itself as a “national nonprofit organization advocating for equality and fairness for unmarried people, including people who choose not to marry, cannot marry, or live together before marriage.”

“What happens when women turn into wives?” Applewhite opens Cutting Loose: Why Women Who End Their Marriages Do So Well. “Too often they dwindle,” she answers. “Marriage reduces many women, who willingly, often unthinkingly, embrace a peculiarly circumscribed identity and set of priorities when they give up being single.” Speaking about her own marriage, which ended in divorce, she writes, “Now I wonder how on earth I reconciled my strong, articulate self with that anxious muted creature”-her married self. “What I didn’t understand was how the illusion that he and I were equal is built into our culture. The truth is that the only time when a woman’s social worth equals a man’s is during courtship, when the man must work to win her.”

Applewhite is on the radar screen of the social conservatives she criticizes. In a 2003 background paper, the Heritage Foundation’s Patrick F. Fagan, Robert E. Rector, and Lauren R. Noyes labeled Applewhite a “radical feminist” and lumped her into “the extreme wing of feminism that sees no good in marriage or in unity between men and women, and between mothers and fathers.”

In one respect it’s ironic that Heritage moralists should be targeting Applewhite, since every conservative who rails against liberalism’s thought police owes her a debt of gratitude. Truly Tasteless Jokeswas an early salvo in the war against political correctness. And while Applewhite has clearly undergone some sort of transformation since she wrote the books, she deserves credit for being among the earliest to stir opinion against PC’s stifling orthodoxies.

Considering all this, I was aching to speak with Applewhite and ask her about Blanche. I never got the call.

Oh Blanche, My Blanche

So, Ashton Applewhite is Blanche (I am all but certain), but she’s not going public with it, at least not for now. Of course, for the author of an inspirational volume written for AIDS sufferers to take credit for Truly Tasteless Jokes, which is full of humor at the expense of AIDS sufferers, would involve questions about her own sincerity. But I hope that, in the interests of contributing to our knowledge of late twentieth-century humor, she takes the trouble to tell her side of the story. (Blanche, I really don’t mind that you snubbed me. Give me a call sometime.)

Brendan Conway is associate editor of DOUBLETHINK and an editorial writer at The Washington Times.


“To be human is to hope. It’s one of the things that sets us apart from the other animals, even when we’re bone-tired, beleaguered, fearful, sad. Hope is our most powerful, most ephemeral weapon, not only in the struggle against illness and depression, but in maintaining the quality of a life worth living. Hope is what makes the difference. Harvey Milk put it in perspective when he said, ‘I know that life can’t be lived on hope alone, but it can’t be lived without it.’ Fortunately for us, it is an unquenchable human impulse.”

-Ashton Applewhite, from Thinking Positive: Words of Inspiration, Encouragement, and Validation for People with AIDS and Those Who Care for Them(1997)

“Know what GAY stands for?
Got AIDS yet?”

“Hear about the new disease gay musicians
are coming down with?

“What do fags drink?

“What did the gay paramedic give his lover?
First AIDS.”

“What do you call a black fag in a wheelchair?
Cool AIDS.”

“What do you get if you listen to too many
obscene phone calls?
Hearing AIDS.”

“What do you call a couple of gay lawyers?
Legal AIDS.”

-Blanche Knott, Truly Tasteless Jokes Three (1983)