Exploring the art of prose


Joke-Telling in Lorrie Moore’s “You’re Ugly, Too”


By Kate Kaplan •

People tell jokes to attract attention or deflect it, to express a point of view, to connect, to offend, or in the hope of shared laughter. Some people (disclosure: me) tell jokes to themselves, rehearsing for an audience or attempting to keep problems at bay. Other people are so scared of blowing a punchline that they never tell jokes. There are even people who don’t like hearing jokes. They’re afraid that they won’t get it; or that the joke teller will screw up, embarrassing both of them; or that the joke will be offensive, leading to an unwelcome understanding of who the teller really is.

In other words, joke-telling is a short, risky interaction between people and sometimes part of an emotionally laden internal process. Sounds like the raw material of fiction. A joke can do many things in a story or novel: build character, advance the plot, engage a reader’s emotions, echo themes, mask exposition so it doesn’t feel like exposition. Here we’ll look at two of these uses—character and plot—in Lorrie Moore’s “You’re Ugly, Too.”

The story is about history professor Zoe Hendricks. She’s single, has few friends, and feels isolated and misunderstood at her Midwestern university. Moore delivers the first joke in the story just after Zoe has an ultrasound to check out a growth in her abdomen. The ultrasound technician seemed alarmed. Driving home:

[Zoe] thought of the joke about the guy who visits his doctor and the doctor says, “Well, I’m sorry to say, you’ve got six weeks to live.”

“I want a second opinion,” says the guy….       

“You want a second opinion? O.K.,” says the doctor. “You’re ugly, too.” She liked the joke. She thought it was terribly, terribly funny.

The scene reveals much about Zoe: when she’s scared, she tells herself a cruel joke implying that her doctor doesn’t care about her, and that she might not be okay. Moore has already raised the question of Zoe’s attractiveness, and this joke insinuates that she’s not attractive. Yet, she insists that the joke is funny. Moore could have accomplished that in dialogue or action or some non-joke bit of interiority. What’s different about doing it with a joke?

A joke is a little story that can efficiently and effectively evoke a reaction and makes a point—a forceful point; it’s not called a punch line for nothing. This joke deflates the patient’s hope that the doctor is wrong and the patient’s belief that she can control the situation. It says that our vulnerabilities will be exploited and that we’re always moments away from being totally devalued, and it does it in only a few words.

What’s more, it’s a joke almost everyone’s heard. I certainly had, so when I read the story, I felt connected to Zoe. I’d have felt connected if, say, Zoe and I had the same kind of car or clothes, but the shared joke is different, because I’d experienced it. I’d laughed at it and been horrified by it. I brought those emotions to the story and understood Zoe differently and more viscerally because of them.

There’s more joke-telling later in this story. This time, Zoe’s at a party, being fixed up with a man named Earl. She’s just told him that as a kid, she had a speech impediment and had to plan every sentence in advance. She explains:

“I told a lot of jokes. Jokes you know the lines to already. You can just say them. I love jokes. …

Earl smiled. … “What’s your favorite joke?”

“Uh, my favorite joke is probably—O.K., all right. This guy goes into a doctor’s office, and—”

“I think I know this one, too,” interrupted Earl, eagerly. He wanted to tell it himself. “A guy goes into a doctor’s office, and the doctor tells him he’s got some good news and some bad news—that one, right?”

“I’m not sure,” said Zoe. “This might be a different version.”

“So the guy says, ‘Give me the bad news first,’ and the doctor says, ‘O.K. You’ve got three weeks to live.’ And the guy cries, ‘Three weeks to live! Doctor, what is the good news?’ And the doctor says, ‘Did you see that secretary out front? I finally fucked her.'”

Zoe frowned.

“That’s not the one you were thinking of?”

“No.” There was accusation in her voice. “Mine was different.”

This time, the charged interaction of joke-telling starts and stops the Earl/Zoe relationship. When Earl asks Zoe about her favorite joke, he’s asking her to share something of herself. When he interrupts to tell his own joke, he shows that he’s not interested in her—he’s interested in himself. Moore emphasizes this point with the way each character tells their joke. Zoe stumbles, but Earl isn’t anxious, because he doesn’t care about the joke’s reception.

Additionally, his joke is sexist. It assumes that the doctor is male and that men want to sleep with their secretaries. Zoe was hoping for romance, but there won’t be any. Earl’s joke reveals his attitude toward sex and women.

Once again, it matters that the joke is an old one. Any reader who’s laughed at it will feel uncomfortably complicit, aligned with Earl. Any reader who’s been offended by it—and it might be the same reader—will empathize with Zoe.

“You’re Ugly, Too” illustrates some of the ways jokes can enhance a work of fiction. And, to paraphrase the comedian in David Grossman’s A Horse Walks Into a Bar, if you use a joke, you might make someone laugh, and that’s no small thing.


KATE KAPLAN lives and works in Los Angeles. Her short fiction has appeared in the New England Review, the Santa Monica Review, theTampa Review, and other publications. She’s held scholarships at both the Bread Loaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences, and has an MFA from Warren Wilson College.