Chinese Christmas jokes are crackers

Q. Why do Santa's little helpers get depressed at Christmas? A. They suffer from low elf-esteem.

Maybe that was one of last year's worst Christmas cracker jokes, but we also had a good cringe with:

Q. What is a minimum? A. A very small mother. Ouch. The point of the cracker joke is to let the family groan together. Christmas would be dangerous if we pulled our cracker and out popped not only the silly hat but, unthinkably, a great guffawing, belly-wrenching laugh.

That's the last thing Uncle Eustace's digestion needs after doubles of ham and turkey, and the extra serve of custard. I'm certain cracker joke readership at Christmas outguns Hobbits and Potters combined.

But where, we ask, do these half-witticisms come from? Common sense tells us they must be dreamed up by some distant team of cracker writers. I engaged an unreliable source to track them down. He reports as follows: The 200 writers employed by the Christmas Joke Company occupy the first floor of an old colonial warehouse in Shanghai.''

We're here because of the world's outsourcing craze,'' managing director Harry Ho told me.''

When we told the British we could replicate their lame jokes for only 20c a groan, their eyes stood out on stalks. `But would your Chinese writers understand us?' the cracker makers asked. `We think our English cracker jokes are terribly subtle.''

'Honestly, they were so culturally blinkered we had to challenge them to a joke-off. They huddled for an hour, and finally their chief negotiator marched over looking very self-satisfied. ''We want half price unless you can beat this one: Who peeps through bakery doors at Christmas?' he smirked. ''A mince spy.''

'That was a peach, so I twigged their tactic was to hit us early with their best shot. We retaliated from our own top locker - a favourite joke of Jing Tai, the Ming Emperor. Those of his courtiers who survived him did it by laughing themselves silly each time he told it.

''In which direction does a sneeze travel? Ahh-chou!' Do you get it? At-you!''Their negotiator tried to keep a straight face, but giggled. Game over. Besides, the logic of our proposal was irrefutable. If corporates can outsource customer service to wobbly call centres in Bangalore, why not cracker jokes to Shanghai? We did the deal at 19c,'' said Mr Ho.''Now come and see the factory.''

He led me upstairs into a cavernous room filled with rows of joke workers labouring at their desks. All wore party hats and faces masked with stern concentration. Occasionally one jotted something on a sheet of paper, placed it in a canister and sent it whirring along a cable to a supervisor sitting on a platform.''

It wasn't always easy. We had a tough time with the cracker makers' weird quality controls,'' said Mr Ho.''

Take `What does a mother in law call her broom - Basic Transportation.' That was a ripper, but the cracker blokes decided it might disrupt Christmas dinner's peace and goodwill. Next came a huge fuss over `What do transvestites do at Christmas? They eat, drink, and be Mary.' We'd bumped into this silly Western concept called political correctness, and had to chuck out the entire production from our blonde joke week. This caused a riot - our writers are very sensitive.''

''So how did you resolve it all? Did you sack any staff who got funny?'' I asked.''

No, we just hired a British supervisor to sign off every joke,'' he said pointing to the platform where an ancient whiskered Scotsman sat, dressed in his kilt and bonnet.''

Mr McNab's terribly strict. He rejects most first efforts.''

Quite by chance I ran into McNab in an expats' bar two nights later. When I gave him my business card, the old man glanced at it puzzled, shook his head sadly, and said: ''Sorry laddie, but I came out East because I canna read nor write. Ye must no' tell a soul, because this is the first job I've ever scored in management.''

''You're illiterate! But how do you assess all those Christmas cracker jokes they send up on the slips of paper.''

''Jokes? You say they write me cracker jokes?'' said McNab, dumbfounded. He sat there for a minute shaking his head in disbelief.''

And all these years I thought my job is managing requests for toilet breaks.''

OK, that one's bad enough to go inside a cracker. Merry Christmas!

John Lapsley is an Arrowtown writer.