William Novak fondly targets old folks in new joke book

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

William Novak, a best-selling ghostwriter and co-creator of the “Big Book of Jewish Humor,” will speak at the St. Louis Jewish Book Festival (see infobox for full event details) on Saturday, Nov. 12. 

His most recent work is “Die Laughing: Killer Jokes for Newly Old Folks.” Novak has worked on memoirs for celebrities ranging from Magic Johnson to Nancy Reagan. He is the father of actor and comedian B.J. Novak (“The Office”). 

The Jewish Light recently caught up with him before his stop in St. Louis.  

Tell me a little about the genesis of your new book and how it differs from “The Big Book of Jewish Humor.”

Now, I’m a lot older. It just hit me one day. Though I usually work on ghostwriting the memoirs of well-known people or private books for prominent families, I was in need of something to do. It just entered my mind. What about a book of jokes for older people? It is not something I had been consciously thinking about but it must have had something to do with the fact that I was then 66 and I’m now 68. I must have realized as I wrote the book that a lot of the jokes I was getting in the mail from friends or hearing had to do with growing older in general and especially memory loss, which as I now know is the first symptom for most of us and the one that causes us a lot of needless worry.

Beth Shalom Cemetery ad

How difficult was it to put together?

Last time I did this hunting up jokes for Jewish humor, it was books and LP records. … There was certainly no internet at the time. The internet helps with everything. It is very hard to find a joke you have heard that is not on the internet in some version. 

Why write about humor? What’s the appeal for you?

I have a collector’s mentality. I like collecting stuff. I used to collect records. I’ve long collected kaleidoscopes. I collect songs. It felt natural for me to collect jokes. I love to laugh. Sometimes you interview guys who do a humor book, and they were the class clown. I was not the class clown.I was the guy who wanted to be friends with the class clown. As with so many of us Baby Boomers,  I grew up watching comedians on TV on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” reading MAD Magazine. Our generation created “Saturday Night Live.” We were all fans of George Carlin, Steve Martin and Richard Pryor. So I became a great fan and collector of both Jewish and general humor and jokes. Along the way, I learned to be funny, but it did not come naturally to me.

What do you hope people will get out of the book? 

I hope they’ll get a lot of laughs out of the book. I hope they’ll feel better about growing older. I also hope they’ll get some information, because I wrote little essays on each of the nine topics in the book to introduce the topic and to give a little bit of good news and reassurance. Getting older is not easy, but it is not all bad. 

I found to my surprise that older people in surveys are actually happier than people in their 20s and 30s. I didn’t know this. I’m happier than I used to be, but I didn’t know it was common. 

Do you plan more humor books?

Honestly, it depends on how this one does. I’ve toyed with the idea of a book about medical humor. I have a whole section in the book about jokes with doctors. … The interesting thing is that jokes, whether Jewish or not, tend to make fun of people in authority. But jokes about doctors usually make fun of the patient, not the doctor. I thought that’s kind of interesting. What do we make of that? Maybe we know on some deep level how much we need doctors. 

You’ve written one book entirely on Jewish humor. This one has a different focus, but is there still Jewish humor in it?

You can’t do a book of good jokes without some Jewish jokes in there, and many jokes exist in the Jewish realm, and the same joke exists in the non-Jewish realm. Just a couple of the words are different.”

How does Judaism influence you?

I’m deeply involved in Jewish life. I’m a day-school kid. … I’m involved in a synagogue that doesn’t have a building – a free-form synagogue. I speak Hebrew. I have a brother in Israel. I’m deeply involved in Jewish life, although I’m not necessarily observant in every way.