The Joke Shop

Somehow, in 1987, I convinced my father to drive me to a joke shop in Paterson, New Jersey.

In the back, there’s a kiddie pool. JOKES, PEOPLE! JOKES!

The name of the place escapes me; it was unremarkable, something like “[X] Joke & Novelty”. Three years later, hunting for liquor and without proper ID, my friends and I were chased away from this very same area by a man swinging a chain over his head. Alongside Newark and Camden, Paterson is one of Jersey’s finest hellholes.

So getting my dad to drive me out there for gag items was quite the coup. I wanted a realistic fake faucet that could be attached to the forehead. I got much, much more.

Like this. Chromed, toxic plastic with hidden bladder to simulate water flow. A huge black suction cup on the back ensured you looked like a bad Bowie impression after use.

Upon entering the storefront, I saw rows of bins containing every imaginable type of small novelty. Brown plastic dog crap. Lucite ice cubes with tiny fake flies. Coiled ribbons that could be held in the teeth, allowing you to pull miles of colorful paper strip from your mouth. Whoopie cushions. Wind-up chattering teeth. Fart spray. Flat rubber splashes of vomit, complete with foam fragments of “food”. I was agog. 

Not this one, but very much like this.

I was already familiar with old standbys like the Whoopie Cushion. Funny thing; it only works on adults. Kids don’t have the mass to force the air out of the cushion, and it just ends up as a butt-bouncing balloon. You need a full-size adult ass to make a “Bronx Cheer”.

That’s the one.

Of course the shop had Groucho Marx glasses. I steered clear of these thanks to the “Minkman brothers” sketch on Saturday Night Live, with Christopher Guest, Billy Crystal and Harry Shearer as Mike Wallace. The gag was that 60 Minutes was investigating consumer injuries as a result of novelty items. Because of “improper glazing”, a man received a horrific rash on his face from subpar Groucho glasses. It stuck with me because it was one of the funniest sketches ever made, bar none. Track it down if you can, it’s got Martin Short as his classic oily lawyer Nathan Thurm.

If you refuse to believe Groucho Marx glasses can be funny, you’ve never seen Woody Allen’s Take The Money And Run. That’s a shame, if so.


My father reminded me that we came here for a specific purpose. I was dazed. This was around the time when I found a comic shop with every single issue of Heavy Metal and Epic Illustrated; more than I could ever afford, even at their rock-bottom prices. When I finally managed to return to that place, it was long since shut down.

If I could go back in time, I would simply run out of the store with the magazines. What would they have done? If they tried to stop me, I’d say “I’m from the future and I need these so badly I write articles about it there”, and the owner would be like “just go.” Then I’d break my arm doing it, and as karmic payback, lose the ability to write!!! All this would fade from existence!!!


Impatiently, with parking meter expiring, my father stalked an employee of the joke shop for an answer. I was overcoming horrific shyness, and would bleed out and experience lividity before alerting a clerk. Literally– I was injured by a metal toy in Ridgewood’s Drapkins Stationery once, and I instinctively concealed my gushing digit, whispering “It’s not your fault. You didn’t mean it.”


There were many customers, and the aisles were narrow. The clerk motioned to the rear of the store, which was meant for adults. No sidewalk outlet, all windows papered over and blocked with costume racks. If I had any earthly idea what a bong looked like at that age, I probably would have spotted more than a few. My dad worked on Madison Avenue in NYC. This was exactly why he didn’t want to drive me here.

He can help you,” said the clerk of his counterpart in the darker, vinyl-scented half of the shop.

I couldn’t even look him in the eye. Dad was hovering over my shoulder, for when I inevitably became tongue-tied. The clerk was behind a glass counter, helping two goobers choose an inflatable sex doll.

[This is where the picture would go, if this was a book and not the Internet.]

I only saw it for a second, but you know what it looked like; a deflated beach-ball head in a box, with a big red O for a mouth. Two guys were buying it. And consulting with an expert about it.

Sidebar: I am such a champion masturbator, I don’t need porno. Just five minutes of privacy. I close my eyes and get it done. I don’t require anything the average bathroom doesn’t provide, and I leave no trace. Stealth and secrecy are of prime import. No one wants to hear about some old guy jacking off; you shouldn’t even have to read about it now.

So it is that I have never fucked an inanimate object. I don’t cast aspersions on those who do; just, as I said, keep it to yourself. It’s nothing to take pride in. Using a fleshlight or a rubber birth canal is an absolute last resort. It’s for guys who’ve been horrifically disfigured in industrial accidents, not losers who get rejected by Sbarro waitresses. You know who respects men who resort to simulacrum when they can’t get laid? That’s right: no one. 

And here were two grown men haggling over the purchase of a balloon woman. No wonder my dad insisted on chaperoning. Plus, these dudes were Jersey rednecks, which most people don’t even realize exist. Remember Vincent D’Onofrio in Men In Black? That’s a decent Hollywood example, particularly after he becomes a suit for a giant alien bug.

New York, Pennsylvania and Jersey all have their own weird strains of redneck. The McPoyles from It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia are dead ringers for the guys in that joke shop thirty years ago.

Pennsylvania rednecks.

The clerk took a break to deal with me, while the two dudes looked over their prospective purchase. As requested, he produced a shiny fake faucet from behind the counter, and let me inspect it.

When I asked how it worked, one of the two dudes grabbed it, smacked it onto his forehead, and made a cockeyed face. His greasy, bumpy forehead was unsuitable for the suction cup, and the faucet popped off, after the mounting ring that hid the cup came loose. “Ya fuckin’ broke it,” said the man’s friend.

The clerk produced a second faucet and handed it to me, after adding the first to the dudes’ purchases. I gathered up all the cheap novelty detritus I could afford, paid the cashier and headed for Dad’s car.

Away from Paterson, to the suburbs, where there are no joke shops, to wonder for decades about those two goofs and their inflatable girlfriend.

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Filed under Bad Influences, Faint Signals, Idiot's Delight, Nostalgic Obsessions