Those tired ethnic jokes bring shame on teller

April 10, 1995|By MIKE ROYKO

In these sensitive times, you would think that a U.S. senator would be hip enough to avoid clumsy attempts at ethnic or racial humor.

Especially a senator from New York, with its diverse population.

But Sen. Al D'Amato stuck his foot in his mouth when he went on a radio show and ridiculed Judge Lance Ito's handling of the O.J. Simpson trial by jabbering in what he thought was a Japanese accent.

His clumsy performance made headlines and was broadcast by the TV networks for the whole nation to hear.

Now, he has had to sheepishly apologize to angry Japanese-Americans and anyone else who was offended.

As foolish as D'Amato was, I can sympathize with him. Like him, I am part of a generation that used to take ethnic jokes for granted.

And like him, I once managed to blab myself into an embarrassing situation. The memory still makes me cringe and feel ashamed.

It happened when I was the best man at a wedding and the master of ceremonies at the big reception banquet.

As MC, I thought I would get the crowd loose with a few jokes.

So I told the one about the German field marshal and the Italian general who were mapping last-minute strategy before leading their combined armies into a great battle against the Allied forces in World War II.

When the meeting ended, the German field marshal said to his orderly: "Otto, get my coat." And he put on a coat of blazing red leather.

The Italian general incredulously said: "Hey, you ain'ta gonna wear that red coat are you? You standa out lika sore thumb, and the Allies will all shoot at you."

The German field marshal stiffly responded: "Ja, but because the coat is red, if I am shot, the blood will not show and my men will not see it and get discouraged. And they will fight on for a great victory for the Fatherland."

The Italian general pondered that for a moment, then said: "Hey, that ain'ta bad idea. Luigi, getta me my brown pants."

Well, about half of the audience laughed heartily. But the other half just stared coldly at me.

Then I remembered -- the bride was of Italian ancestry and I had offended her many Italian-American relatives.

Instead of shifting gears and leading them in a song or a toast, I foolishly decided to tell another joke.

It was the one about the guy who walks into a joint and said to the man behind the counter: "I want a Polish sausage sandwich."

The man behind the counter said: "Excuse me, sir, but are you Polish?"

The customer indignantly said: "What kind of question is that? If somebody came in here and ordered a salami sandwich, would you ask him if he were Italian? If someone wanted a corned beef sandwich, would you ask him if he were Irish? So just because I order a Polish sausage sandwich, why do you ask me if I'm Polish?"

The man behind the counter said: "I asked you that, sir, because this is a hardware store."

Well, now the bride's Italian relatives chuckled a bit, but the groom's side scowled in obvious disgust.

And too late I remembered -- the groom was of Polish ancestry so I had offended his many Polish-American relatives.

At that point, I should have told the orchestra to strike up a tune and got everyone dancing so they could work off their anger.

But I panicked and foolishly tried to save the day with one last joke.

It was the one about the two Irishmen who lurched out of a bar and looked up at the sky.

One of them said: "Look, 'tis the sun."

The other one said, "Nah, you're daft. 'Tis the moon."

And they leaned against a light pole and argued: "'Tis the sun. . . . No, 'tis the moon."

Then a third Irishman staggered out of the bar and they said: "Tell us, friend, is that the sun or is that the moon?"

The third Irishman looked up, then shrugged and said: "How should I know? I don't live in this neighborhood."

There were a few soft snickers, but a voice came from a man sitting nearby. "An unkind stereotype, my boy, and a corny one at that."

It was the family priest who had married the couple. He shook his head sadly and sighed.

And I remembered -- he was from Ireland and a teetotaler to boot.

Well, I have never felt more foolish in my life. Fortunately, the orchestra began playing, so nobody was listening when I said:

"Hey, did you hear about the man from Mars and the farmer's daughter?"

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