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
'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
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
''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
And all these years I thought my job is managing requests for
OK, that one's bad enough to go inside a cracker. Merry
John Lapsley is an Arrowtown writer.