The Anatomy of a Polish Joke
Two Polacks walk into a bar… How many Poles does it take to screw in a light bulb? What is the difference between a Polack and a…? These are common introductions to the ubiquitous Polish joke – a simple type of joke based on negative stereotypes which spread in America in the 1970s. Their popularity and long lifespan inspired us to investigate deep into their genesis and characteristics. What do they mean? Can Poles take a joke? Culture.pl presents the anatomy of a Polish Joke.
Caution: The following article contains jokes offensive not just to Poles but to mankind at large. Those of you who are easily offended or believe you may be lacking the prerequisite sense of humour to appreciate/endure such crude, tasteless and vulgar jokes, we recommend clicking here and learning about the fascinating variety of pierogi that Poland has to offer instead. Now, don't say we didn't warn you.
What is a Polish Joke?
Polish jokes (also known as Polack Jokes) are jokes based on negative stereotypes, usually told in English and meant to mock Poles, Polish culture or habits. Polish jokes are often variants of typical jokes like light bulb jokes (how many … does it take to screw in a light bulb?) or ‘walks into the bar’ jokes, but because they have been told for about 40 years now, they have also wound up as their own unique stories, for example, deriding the Polish language and its abundance of consonants in comparison with English. Polish Jokes often use word ‘Polack’ in a derogatory manner.
If, by any chance, you have never stumbled upon a Polish joke before, here's an example:
A Polack goes to the eye doctor. The bottom line of the eye chart has the letters:
C Z Y N Q S T A S Z.
The Optometrist asks, "Can you read this?"
"Read it?" the Polack replies, "I know the guy!"
Here's one claiming that Poles are extraordinarily stupid and helpless:
Q: Did you hear about the Polish man that locked his keys in his car?
A: He had to use a coat hanger to get his family out.
Or a one stating that Poles are so primitive that they can’t refrain from animal-like behaviours.
Q: Why do they play on artificial turf in Poland?
A: To keep the cheerleaders from grazing.
It goes even further but the most expressive Polish jokes are not suitable for a family-friendly website.
The Genesis of Polack jokes
The interesting part of it is how scholars and journalists explain how Poles became a target of scornful jokes and what reasons are behind the anti-Polish sentiment that they carry.
According to articles and entries about Polish jokes, their history traces back to the beginning of Polish emigration to America. Poles were one of the biggest groups to arrive so late (in comparison to groups that arrived between the 16th and 18th centuries). They emigrated from Poland in a few waves, usually because tragedy had struck in Europe:
- In the 19th century, many Poles left the country and spread all over Europe and America after unsuccessful uprisings against occupiers. Those who had fought or conspired fled from the occupier's vengeance.
- A considerable number of Polish peasants left to the Americas due to a difficult situation in agriculture after regaining independence in 1918-1939.
- Poland was one of the main battlefields of WWII and a place where the Nazi plan of the mass extermination of Jews was executed. Emigration to the safer US was one of the best ways to survive.
- In 1981 and the 1980s, Martial Law was introduced and the Communist repressions against the democratic opposition fuelled the last wave of emigration to America.
Arriving late, often not knowing more than a few words of English (no one plans forced emigration, so there was no time to learn it) made most of the emigrants become blue-collar workers regardless of their occupation in their home country. Moreover, because of their longing for their lost homeland, Poles were often somewhat unwilling to assimilate into their neighbourhoods and showed deep commitment to the Polish language, culture and customs. This sort of attitude, even nowadays, is a common bone of contention between immigrants and their host country.
What was reportedly (this opinion has been disputed) a catalyst for Polish emigrants’ bad reputation in America were prejudices that followed them over from the Old Continent. From the 19th century till 1945, the Prussian, German and Nazi German states had very aggressive anti-Polish policies that went along with their plans to annex Polish territory. Their propaganda would deliberately create the image of a dumb Pole whose only ability is to work in the field. It started during Otto von Bismarck’s Kulturkampf policy and revived when Germany turned into Nazi Germany.
TV / Hollywood
Polish jokes made it into mass culture. In Tennessee Williams’ play from 1947, A Streetcar Named Desire (alongside with its very popular film adaptation by Elia Kazan starring Marlon Brando and Vivian Leigh), Stanley Kowalski is the main protagonist. He is a descendant of Polish emigrants and he is a rude, brutal and coarse blue-collar worker. The popularity of the play and movie sealed the image of the Polish emigrants coming to America because of WWII. Since then, up to the times of Solidarność (1989), Polish jokes have been a part of many stand-up comedies, talk shows (such as the Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson, and later, Jay Leno), movies and casual bar banter.
Why so serious?
Yet, despite all this serious background, Polish jokes are nothing more than typical jokes that target any ethnic or social group distinct from the majority. They don’t differ a tiny bit from all the other stereotype-based jokes, such as:
Q: What’s the difference between a Mexican and a book?
A: A book has papers.
Q: Why are Jewish synagogues round?
A: So they can’t hide in the corner when the collection box comes round.
Q: What’s the difference between an Irish wedding and an Irish funeral?
A: There's one less drunk.
Q: Why did Pope Benedict have reservations about accepting his papacy?
A: It meant moving to an Italian neighbourhood.
This list could go on and on, so why are we even talking about it? Probably because Poles have a tendency to overreact upon hearing Polish jokes and regard it as a sign of the world’s antipathy for Poland and Poles. There have even been some official reactions from the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs complaining about particular Polish jokes in TV shows – which sounds like some of the most uptight behaviour in history.
However, this is still far from saying that Poles are deprived of any sense of humour. On the contrary, when there is nobody other than Poles around they tell the best Polish jokes on earth. Full of self-criticism, mocking Poland's troubled history as well as national symbols and heroes. These made-in-Poland Polish jokes go way deeper into real Polish vices, inferiority complexes and current geopolitical situation. They have a huge dose of cynicism typical for this part of Europe and often can't be understood without knowledge of a specific Polish feature, a historic moment or the latest political event. These jokes however rarely reach foreigner's ears, and even if they do, they are usually rather untranslatable.
However, this joke may give you at least a taste of Polish self-humour:
A Pole, an American and a German were sent to hell. The Devil said that they would be locked in empty, sealed prison cells for 7 years and will be given nothing but two solid bronze balls. The one who astonished him the most by coming up with something miraculous to do with these balls was to be released. The other two would face eternal torment.
After seven years the Devil visited his prisoners again and what did he see:
The American made the balls hover in the air and glow. The Devil was damn impressed and was about to release him but decided to visit the other two first.
The German not only made the balls hover and glow but also move around and play Bach's Das Wohltemperierte Klavier. Again, the devil was so shocked that he almost let the German out… but than remembered the Pole who hadn't had a chance to present his oeuvre.
What the Pole did with his steel balls astonished the devil the most: the first one he'd lost, the other had broken.
Why are Poles reluctant to tell and listen to Polish jokes in international company? Because it is a part of the Polish manner to complain and criticise your country among your compatriots but to only praise it when foreigners are in earshot. No matter what a Pole thinks about their country, he or she usually presents themselves to a stranger as someone proud of their nationality, country and heritage.
Author: Wojciech Oleksiak, 19 June 2015.