Stupid Question ™
Dec. 10, 1998
By John Ruch
Q: What’s the origin of Polish jokes?
A: “How did the Polack get 35 holes in head? He tried to learn to eat with a fork.”
From the mid-’60s to mid-’80s, America went through a remarkably long-lasting cycle of such jokes, which portrayed Poles as stupid (and sometimes dirty, poor and uncouth as well). There were even gift-shop artifacts, like the “Polish cup” with the handle on the inside.
You might think some Polish guy once did something really dumb that inspired all this. But almost every country has an ethnic group it targets with “stupid” jokes for no historical reason. And Poland, which produced Copernicus and fought for the US in the Revolution, doesn’t offer any such reasons.
To paraphrase Freud’s book-length study on humor, a joke is never just a joke. Ethnic jokes express a sadistic aggression born of fear. They make the teller feel superior, and relieve a variety of anxieties.
Americans first targeted Poles during their first wave of immigration, circa 1917. Like all immigrants, they had trouble understanding the language, customs and accoutrements of urban technology. Nativists who found immigrants threatening found it easy to brand them stupid.
Stand-up comics who grew up with ethnic humor made it a part of their routines. Poles seemed to get special attention from Jewish Borscht Belt comics, perhaps because of Poland’s long history of anti-Semitism.
In the 1960s, West Germans began a Polish joke cycle in response to tensions with then-Communist Poland. This was then imported into American comedy.
The civil rights movement made color-based ethnic humor increasingly unacceptable (though, obviously, it never vanished completely), and the rise of left-wing comedians made blue-collar conservatism the butt of many jokes. Working-class Polish-Americans made classic, and acceptable, targets of ethnic jokes.
But Polish-Americans were now too integrated for jokes about broken English and social slip-ups to make sense. So the jokes emphasized technological stupidity.
This struck a chord. In the midst of an arms race, a space race and the increase of techno gadgets in daily life, technology seemed either threatening or just hard to keep up with.
Jokes about people who didn’t understand technology or the logic behind it articulated that anxiety and relieved it by transferring it to another group.
Polish jokes exploded in popularity. By the 1980s, many kids repeating such jokes though “Polack” was another word for “moron” rather than someone from an actual country.
Recently, Polish jokes have become socially unacceptable, both because of anti-defamation groups (which recently got a Polish joke removed from “The Drew Carey Show”) and because the Solidarity movement of the early ’80s showed Poles were smart and pro-democracy, to boot.
But the need to pick on a minority and saddle it with our fears about still-increasing technology remains. The same old jokes are still circulating, now applied to such “acceptable” targets as Iraqis and blondes.