In his column today, Tom Friedman treated his readers to the comic stylings of Kirkuk Deputy Provincial Council Chairman Rebwar Talabani, using a joke of Talabani's to emphasize the importance of putting aside historical grievances to solve problems. It's hardly the first time Friedman has used a joke to prove a point. Indeed, a quick search through The New York Times archives reveals about 17 other instances when he used comedy to expound upon, among other things, the flatness of the Earth or the interconnectedness of Lexuses and olive trees. Here's a representative sampling, graded for funniness and insight:
Column: "An American's Respite From Disillusionment," September 19, 1993
Joke: "For years I have explained the longevity of the Arab-Israeli conflict with a joke about a very religious Jew named Goldberg who wanted to win the lottery. He would go to synagogue every Sabbath and pray: 'God, I have been such a pious man all of my life. What would be so bad if I won the lottery?' And the lottery would come, and Goldberg would not win. This went on week after week, month after month. Finally, one Sabbath, Goldberg couldn't take it anymore, and said to the Almighty: 'God, I have been so good, so observant. What do I have to do to win the lottery?' And suddenly the heavens parted and the voice of God boomed out: 'Goldberg, give me a chance. Buy a ticket.'"
Funniness: 7 out of 10. Clever enough, but not laugh-out-loud funny.
Insight: 3 out of 10. Friedman views the joke as an indictment of the unwillingness of every side in the Middle East to do their part to commit to peace. I view it as proof that Goldberg is kind of dumb.
Column: "Jesse's Right," May 31, 1995
Joke: "Nevertheless, the next time Senator Helms decides to opine about Mr. Clinton's qualifications to be Commander in Chief he might want to keep in mind that old Henny Youngman joke: When people asked him, 'How's your wife?' he would answer, 'Compared to what?'"
Funniness: 2 out of 10. You can't really get away with Youngman wife jokes anymore.
Insight: 6 out of 10. It's actually relevant to the point, though I'm not sure if there's any value added in expressing it in joke form.
Column: "My Survival Kit," February 23, 2003
Joke: "Another friend asked me, half seriously, about a counterterrorism etiquette joke making the rounds. Say you're driving home and, on your way, there is a terror alert that someone has released poison into the air. Your wife is home and has sealed herself into your family's ''safe room'' with duct tape and plastic wrap. When you arrive home, does your wife unseal the room to let you in or not?"
Funniness: 1 out of 10. Haha, sarin gas!
Insight: 3 out of 10. Yeah, we get it, people were scared after 9/11. No need to resort to creepy hypotheticals about it.
Column: "Anyone, Anything, Anywhere," September 22, 2006
Joke: "Uruguayans tell a joke about themselves that goes: If you get diagnosed with a terminal illness, move to Uruguay immediately because everything happens 20 years later here."
Funniness: 6 out of 10. Perhaps it would be funnier if I were Uruguayan.
Insight: 9 out of 10. It's country-specific, and conveys well the sentiment--that Uruguay's economically stagnant--that Friedman wants to rebut. Good job, Tom!
Column: "Big Ideas and No Boundaries," October 6, 2006
Joke: "My rabbi told this joke on Yom Kippur: At the front of the lunch line at a parochial school was a bowl of apples with a sign that read: 'Take only one. God is watching.' At the end of the lunch line, after the entrees, was a bowl of cookies, where a student had put up a sign: 'Take all you want. God is watching the apples.'"
Funniness: 4 out of 10. Clearly written as a clever sermon and/or column-introducing anecdote, not to make people laugh or anything.
Insight: 2 out of 10. Friedman's next sentence: "Somehow that joke reminds me of the debate about free trade in America today." He tries to explain, but this one is a metaphor too far.
Column: "Obama on Obama," June 3, 2009
Joke: "During a telephone interview Tuesday with President Obama about his speech to Arabs and Muslims in Cairo on Thursday, I got to tell the president my favorite Middle East joke. It gave him a good laugh. It goes like this: There is this very pious Jew named Goldberg who always dreamed of winning the lottery. Every Sabbath, he'd go to synagogue and pray: "God, I have been such a pious Jew all my life. What would be so bad if I won the lottery?' But the lottery would come and Goldberg wouldn't win. Week after week, Goldberg would pray to win the lottery, but the lottery would come and Goldberg wouldn't win. Finally, one Sabbath, Goldberg wails to the heavens and says: 'God, I have been so pious for so long, what do I have to do to win the lottery?' And the heavens parted and the voice of God came down: 'Goldberg, give me a chance! Buy a ticket!'"
Funniness: 1 out of 10. Yup, he told it twice.
Insight: 1 out of 10. No, really, he told the same joke, with the same name, twice.
Dylan Matthews is an editorial web intern at The New Republic.
By Dylan Matthews