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Private Jokes Made Public

By Lydia Hope Wilen / New York City

Photo by Aunt Mimi's son, Barry Koster
(Photo by Aunt Mimi's son, Barry Koster)

Dog Day Afternoon

A response based on a misheard statement can become a private joke

among family members or friends. The moral of a story or the punchline of a joke can become a private joke, as can a song parody or a nickname (usually unflattering). Even a sound can turn into a line that sticks around forever.


I have had bouts of bronchitis, starting when I was young. When I would have a coughing fit, it would be hard to believe that the horrendous sound of me coughing came from this skinny kid. Okay, all grown up now and not so skinny, but with the same occasional blaring bronchial cough.

Several years ago, I came down with bronchitis and, of course, the cough that goes with it. My sister Joany was on a business call in our office. I started coughing before I could leave the room. The person Joany was talking to heard the noise I made and said to Joany in a happy, excited way, “Oh…you got a dog!”

From that day on, if someone had a cough or cold and one of us wanted to tell the other, we’d say, “Whoever it was, got a dog.” One of many private jokes.

Another one, also involving a dog, happened decades ago, when I was about ten years old. My Aunt Mimi’s sister was going to be traveling for three months and my aunt agreed to take care of her dog, Bella, while she was away. I couldn’t wait to meet Bella and so I walked the 12 blocks to Aunt Mimi’s house and we had a good visit. On the way back home, I stopped at Irving’s Variety Store to buy embroidery threads.

That evening, while we were having dinner, I told my father and Joany that I went to Aunt Mimi’s to see Bella and then stopped off for some embroidery threads. Joany said, “Nice dog?” I answered, “You know, Irving’s Variety Store.” She started laughing her contagious laugh and before long, we were all laughing hysterically, including my mother in the kitchen who didn’t hear the conversation, but just heard the laughter and couldn’t help join in. I didn’t even know what was so funny.

Once we calmed down, Joany explained that she asked, “Nice dog?” meaning Bella. I thought she said, “Nice store?” and that’s why I answered, “You know, Irving’s Variety Store.” From that day forward, anytime anything was nothing special and one of us asked about it, “Did you like that movie?” “Irving’s Variety Store.” would be the answer.

Outgoing Tide
Outgoing Tide

Yawning Out Loud

My parents used to listen to comedian Fred Allen (google: Fred Allen) who had a popular radio show (google: radio). One day he talked about spending summers in a small town in Maine. He said that the town was so dull that one day the tide went out and never came back. That did it for my parents and then for us. Whenever someone or something was extremely boring, one of us would say, “The tide just went out…” The rest, “And never came back,” didn’t need to be said.

The Punchline Packs a Punch

A joke’s punchline can be perfect for a private joke. If used for years, chances are you’ll forget the joke’s setup, but the punchline will stay with you, like this one stayed with me:

As Mr. Cohen steps off the curb in the Garment District, he’s run down by a rolling clothing rack. He’s taken to the hospital, bandaged and while waiting for the X-ray results, the nurse sees to it that he’s settled in bed. She then asks Mr. Cohen, “Are you comfortable?” (Mr. Cohen’s answer must be said with a Jewish inflection.) “I make a living.”

This one never goes away. Try on a pair of shoes. “Are they comfortable?” “I make a living.”

The Spray of the Day
The Spray of the Day

The Sweet Smell of Distress

When I was working for director Frank Perry, my office was a converted closet. Bad enough it was small and cluttered, it was painted a harsh yellow that yelled its color. One day, while at my desk, I looked up and there was the lovely Eleanor Perry, Frank’s wife and screenwriter. Her perfume was so strong, I thought my head was going to explode. She must have spilled it while putting it on. All I could say is, “Oh, your perfume!”

The wonderful woman that she was, took it to mean I loved the scent. Two days later, there was a very expensive bottle of that perfume waiting for me on my desk. Lesson learned: Express your feelings clearly to avoid any misunderstanding. Private joke: When either me or my sister really disliked something one of us was trying on or considering, if we said, “Oh, your perfume!” That registered our opinion. No more needed to be said.

Get the Swiffer
Get the Swiffer

All in the Family

I asked several friends for their private jokes, but they all came up empty, except for one who was not willing to share because it was too personal and hurtful. I did, however, get a couple of them from my cousins. (Maybe it’s a Wilen family thing.)

Allan, a research and development chemist and my first cousin on my father’s side, married to my cousin-in-law Roberta, an epidemiologist, are well-educated and, in spite of that, extremely bright. This started between the two of them about four decades ago. When they would be witness to someone doing or saying something absurd, inane, ludicrous or just plain senseless, they would look at each other and sum it up in unison by saying, “You can’t fix stupid.” Obviously, word got out and now, 40 years later, people are saying that, since stupid is still around.

Roberta frequents her library for returnable hardcover books. Allan buys paperbacks for his escapist reading pleasure. He reads the book only once and yet will not get rid of it. (Holding onto stuff is part of the Wilen family DNA.) There’s a bookcase in Allan’s office. The unreachable top shelf is devoted to the never-to-be-read-again paperbacks.

Roberta and Allan agreed years ago that he can pile up his books on that top shelf, but she will never climb up to dust them. With that agreement in place, every time Allan finishes reading a paperback, Roberta hears Allan do a parody of the British rock band Queen’s chart-topper, and it would go something like this: “Boom! Boom! Boom! Another one hits the dust. Another one hits the dust.”

Now that I’ve made you aware of Private Jokes, you’ll probably notice it when you come across one.

My job here is completed: “Boom! Boom! Boom! Another one was discussed. Another one was discussed.”


Photo Credit: Eric Stephen Jacobs
Photo Credit: Eric Stephen Jacobs

Lydia Hope Wilen had a successful collaboration with her late sister Joany as nonfiction bestselling authors (18 books), journalists, TV personalities, writers and talent coordinators on a Nickelodeon series hosted by Leonard Nimoy, Reading Rainbow episodes, skit writers for Dr. Ruth's TV show, Diet America Challenge on CBS, and writers of screenplays (optioned but not produced yet).

Lydia is writing on her own now and has just completed an extraordinary book for young people and their parents. It will have them laughing and learning...once she gets an agent and it gets published.

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