Blake Griffin landed a dick joke about Caitlyn Jenner at the Comedy Central Roast of Alex Baldwin, which aired last weekend. “Caitlyn completed her gender reassignment in 2017, finally confirming that no one in that family wants a white dick,” he said to roars of laughter. Was the joke offensive? Racist? Hilarious? All of the above? For her part, Jenner took the dick joke in stride. “Caitlyn was down for it,” one of the writers of the roast said. “She was like, ‘Well, you know, I’m gonna hit hard. I want them to hit me hard.’ And so we did.”
Dick jokes have existed throughout history in nearly every culture known to man, from the greatest literature of all time—Shakespeare and James Joyce—to ancient graffiti. “Weep, you girls. My penis has given you up. Now it penetrates men’s behinds. Goodbye, wondrous femininity!” some anonymous guy scrawled on the wall of a bar in the Roman city of Pompeii around 2,000 years ago. They have been staples of comedy for millennia for a reason: They’re nearly universally appealing.
“Whether you’re rich or poor or black or white, everyone laughs at a dick joke,” says comedian Aaron Berg, who hosts a recurring show at The Stand in New York City. (Berg also hosted a somewhat controversial, entirely satirical show called White Guys Matter that addressed some aspects of white male inadequacy.)
One comedian has elevated dick jokes to poetry, launching them into the realm of high art: Jacqueline Novak, whose one-woman off-Broadway show about blow jobs, Get on Your Knees, manages to make the dick joke both hilarious and high brow. She’s not the first woman to tell a dick joke, nor will she be the last, but she is perhaps the only one to devote a show almost entirely to the penis (with a few minutes sidetracking to ghosts) and be feted by The New York Times for doing so.
Novak, who has been called a “deeply philosophical urologist,” may represent a tipping point in dick jokes, because her show is finally allowing people to see the wisdom (yes, wisdom) in penis humor.
“I don’t even think of myself as like, interested in telling penis jokes. I certainly wouldn’t sit down and go, I’d love to do a show about penises,” Novak says. “I think it’s more like an investigation of my heterosexuality. Does [being heterosexual] mean I love the penis? I’m interested in the language that I’ve been expected to use or accept as legitimate about the penis. Here’s all the reasons that that’s ridiculous.”
Novak’s show is replete with riffs on our “ridiculous” penis language, from the fact that we say the penis is “rock hard”—”No geologist would ever say, this quartz is penis hard“—to the idea that the penis penetrates a woman—”You penetrate me? Fine, but I ate you, motherfucker! I chewed you up! Spit you out, and you loved every goddamn second of it.” In some ways, Novak is the perfect teller of the 21st century dick joke, not only because she is chronicling our hangups about the penis, but also because without a penis of her own, perhaps she is able to see the dick more clearly for what it is, in all its ridiculousness and beauty.
But for the most part, phallic culture remains incoherent. Men are pilloried for exposing their dicks, while Euphoria is celebrated for its 30-penis episode; dick pics are critiqued like Picassos or seen as a public menace; judging a man by the size of his penis is perfectly acceptable or grossly objectifying; porn covers every inch of the internet, yet Facebook won’t accept ads for dildos. Dick jokes are still looked down on as cheap—to be fair, some of them are blatantly bad—but some comics say that isn’t always fair.
“Dick jokes, if you craft something amazing out of them, could be the funniest thing someone’s ever heard. And funny in a way that like, opens your mind up even,” says comedian Sean Patton. “That’s the most important kind of comedy, where you laugh at something to the point where you’re now a little more accepting of it. And that can range from anything to other people’s sexual orientation to accepting your own mental illness.” Patton’s own extended dick joke, “Cumin” on Comedy Central’s This Is Not Happening, has been viewed over 2 million times on YouTube.
Novak uses the blow job to critique cultural expectations of masculinity and the pressure women feel to become skilled at sexually pleasing men. “The teeth shaming starts early, of course,” she says in her show. “If you have your full set of teeth…don’t go into a room where a penis is. It’s not safe for him. Why would you put him at risk?”
Patton likens the dick joke to a “Trojan horse” of comedy. “You make them laugh hard at dick jokes, now they’re listening,” he says. “Then you can throw in something a little more meaningful, and they’re on board.”
Not that all dick jokes need to be intellectual to be taken seriously. The song “D*** in a Box” by The Lonely Island, featuring Justin Timberlake, won an Emmy. It turns out the concept wasn’t exactly new. “Decades before The Lonely Island, B.S. Pully was doing that in the ’40s and ’50s,” comedy historian Kliph Nesteroff says. “Pully would be holding a cigar box at his groin, walking down the aisle. [He would] start a show saying, ‘Cigar, would you like a cigar?’ Then he would lift up the lid, and there was a hole cut in there, and his dick was hanging out. The audience would go crazy.”
Dick jokes continue to thrive off audience reactions, according to several comedians I talked to. Bonnie McFarlane, who is best known for her appearance on Last Comic Standing and her Netflix documentary Women Aren’t Funny, began telling dick jokes when she started out in 1995. “You tell dick jokes because it’s a very male audience, so that’s what they want to hear about,” she says. “It’s been a thing since comedy started. People can really kill if they’re just doing dick jokes.” But there is a double standard, she says, when female comics are made fun of “for talking about their vaginas too much.”
That Novak, a female comic, is revolutionizing the dick joke makes sense, considering that historically, “the vanguard for so-called dick jokes and sexual material comes first and foremost from women rather than men,” Nesteroff says. He points to female comics Rusty Warren, Belle Barth, Pearl Williams, and LaWanda Page as “probably the four quote-unquote ‘dirtiest’ comedians of the ’50s and ’60s, more so than Lenny Bruce, more so than Redd Foxx.”
He also says African Americans pushed dick jokes further than any other ethnicity. African-American comedian Page’s albums from the 1970s were rich with dick jokes, referencing “the size of the man, the endurance of the man,” Nesteroff says. As Page recites in her 1973 comedy album Pipe Layin’ Dan: “Husband, dear husband, now don’t be a fool/you’ve worked on the night shift ’til you’ve ruined your tool/you’d better go hungry the rest of your life/than to bring home a pecker so soft to your wife.”
“LaWanda [told] dick jokes for the same reasons a lot of black comics do, because they had to come up in the chitlin circuit, which is basically comedy clubs or bars or places where only black audiences mainly go,” says comedian Harris Stanton, who has toured with Tracy Morgan. “When I started comedy [in 1999] I started in the chitlin circuit,” he continues. “Urban comedy became this big explosion in the United States. A lot of the young black comics couldn’t get into a lot of mainstream clubs, so they would have to perform wherever they could, and dick jokes were welcome to those places.”
African Americans were pioneers of the dick joke, but they definitely weren’t the only ethnic group telling them. Three of the other female sex-joke pioneers Nesteroff mentioned were Jewish. Pearl Williams was known for roasting overweight men when they entered the comedy club by asking, “How long has it been since you’ve seen your dick?” Lenny Bruce, one of the most famous Jewish comedians, was arrested for saying schmuck on stage in 1962. Seven years later, another famous American Jew, Philip Roth, published Portnoy’s Complaint, which is essentially a 274-page dick joke, or so some claim.
“I probably owe a debt to Philip Roth that I’m not even fully aware of,” says Novak, who is Jewish. She references him directly in her show, joking, “I went off to college feeling good. It’s a Catholic-ish college. Lots of virgin boys scurrying around, scrambling for sexual experience at parties. Not me. I’m a Jew and I did the coursework in high school, so I felt like a Philip Roth figure. A Jewish pervert ready to teach.”
Jewish male comics may be drawn to dick jokes, according to Berg, who is Jewish, because, “the fact that our penises were intruded upon at a very young age probably gives us a fixation on it and makes us want to talk about it more.”
Dr. Jeremy Dauber, the Atran professor of Yiddish language, literature, and culture at Columbia University and author of Jewish Comedy, traces Jewish dick jokes all the way back to the Bible. The earliest case of laughter in Jewish tradition is Sarah’s laughter when she’s told that her 100-year-old husband Abraham will give her a child. It is “a laughter about male impotence,” Dauber says.
But comedians aren’t just laughing at penises anymore. Novak is going in the opposite direction. “I’m trying to restore [the penis] to true dignity.” Will her intellectual blow job jokes allow the dick joke to be taken more seriously? Will future comedians have to deal with the flack that Patton still gets in his reviews?
“Even like positive reviews, sometimes they’ll still point out there’s also a lot of cock, cock cock,” he says. “Why do you have to make sure everyone knows that you thought some of the subject matter was lowbrow?” He thinks reviewers roll their eyes at his dick talk because “everyone constantly is terrified that those around them don’t think that they’re that smart.”
Comedy is one of the only art forms that allows us to talk about male genitalia so openly and democratically. Whatever form the dick joke takes, from idiotic to intellectual, from poetry to prop comedy, as long as it gets a laugh, it should be celebrated. And there’s no better way to diffuse the angst surrounding the modern-day penis than a well-crafted dick joke. The more we laugh about penises (and not just at them), the happier the world might be.