Knocking on Woods

Moments before the New Year 2010, as the clock was ticking towards midnight, comedian Paul Mooney was ending his routine at the Black Repertory Theater, in Berkeley, California. He looked at the all African American audience, and, as if to settle a score with white America, shouted, “That Tiger Woods!” Just floating his name sent the audience into a howl of laughter. They knew that what they were about to hear was the truth, a take on what white comedians had not given the Tiger phenomenon.
In fact, the end of the decade will always be recalled as the phenomenon known as the Tiger Joke Cycle. I heard the same Tiger Woods joke three times the same day. That night, I heard Jay Leno tell it on television:

“What’s the difference between Tiger and Santa Clause?”

Answer: “Santa Clause stops at three ‘ho’s’”

In this joke, Santa Claus, the old man with a white beard, can only make it past three “Hos.” Young Tiger, on the other hand, can go through more than three. He can — Alas! — go up to eighteen “Hos.” There is a wave of Tiger Woods jokes. What is the significance of all this? What is the meaning of this phenomena?

This brings to mind the late Alan Dundes, professor of Anthropology, Prior to his death in 2005, he was the world’s most famous analyst of the Joke. Professor Dundes liked to regale his class with the story of how some fan had written to him a letter addressed: “To the Professor of Jokes, UC Berkeley, USA.” (He got the letter, too.)

Although he was a popular teacher of folklore, it was his interpretation of the joke that both infuriated critics and excited students. One of his thousands of students, David Lewis, recalled how Dundes would begin his first lecture of the course on jokes: “He started the class with the warning that he would offend every single person in the class and within an hour and a half, he had succeeded.”

This is true. Professor Dundes rightly saw jokes as being an aggressive attack of one group against another. He openly admitted that jokes had an aggressive tendency in which one ethnic group will often attack another one: “Jokes told about the members of one particular ethnic, national, or religious group might offer a socially sanctioned outlet for the expression of aggression toward that group.”

“He had also explained why we tell jokes and how specific jokes (e.g. dead baby jokes), and how they relate to events in history/society,” Lewis recollected, Like thousands of students who took Dundes’ class in folklore at UC Berkeley, Lewis never forgot those interpretations.

Neither did I. My own fascination with Professor Dundes work occurred in Berlin, in the early eighties, when I had been living in Europe for four years. It was difficult to get an English book in Berlin with the Wall around it. A German friend had a collection of English books and agreed to lend me some. After reading Dundes, I was so impressed that I decided that I would return to Berkeley and see if I could study with him. I ended up writing my PhD dissertation there and publishing it with the Harvard University Press.

So, how would Professor Dundes interpret Tiger Woods’ jokes? In the first place, Professor Dundes would look at the Tiger Wood’s jokes as an opportunity to examine what American men are really thinking about themselves, marriage, infidelity, race, and sex.

In his classes and in his books, Dundes told us that the fact that someone is even transmitting jokes means something. “As a folklorist, I have come to believe,” he said, “that no piece of folklore continues to be transmitted unless it means something—even if neither the speaker nor the audience can articulate what that meaning might be.”

For Dundes, the meaning is never apparent to the joke teller or his audience, and the reason for this is that if they knew what the joke was really about they wouldn’t be telling it — or enjoying it. But I’m getting ahead of the theory. Jokes, he lectured to his students, are built around cycles. There was the elephant joke cycle, the dead baby joke cycle, the Helen Keller joke cycle, the Polish Pope joke cycle, the Jew joke cycle and the Polack joke cycle, the Jewish American princess and Jewish American Mother joke cycles, and the Clinton joke cycle. And now the Tiger Woods joke cycle!

Although a cycle may just be a collection of jokes with a particular theme or a particular narrative, with Professor Dundes, it has both a psychological and a social context. A hint as to the meaning behind the Tiger Woods cycle has to do with hidden subjects. “In the United States, subjects such as sexuality and racism — which cannot always be discussed openly — tend to become the hidden subjects of joke cycles.” The joke cycle springs up because of the social events that give rise to it. Dundes believed that the reason we transmit folklore is that it means something — not just to make somebody laugh, but to transmit meanings no matter if these meanings are conscious to the teller.

Joke telling “function[s] as a steam valve,” Dundes wrote in “Cracking Jokes: Studies of Sick Humor Cycles and Stereotypes, “ allowing the defense of aggressive expression against something that is causing a threat and thus creating anxiety by regressing to childish expressions of wit.”
“The release of the safety valve function of oral humor,” he went on, “would be less effective if people knew what they were saying or laughing at.”

As much as the psychological analysis alone would not explain why a joke cycle came about exactly when it did. The social-historical context must be taken into account. During the heat of the OJ trial, I saw Professor Dundes on campus at UC Berkeley. “I have a joke for you,” he greeted me, “ but it’s really dirty,” and — to highlight that he was telling the joke to a Black man — he said, “…and racist!” Then he added: “But it’s funny!”

Robert Shapiro, OJ’s lawyer, saw him dressed up in a bright, Hawaiian shirt. He asked him, “OJ, where are you going? Why are you so dressed up?”

OJ responded, “Didn’t you say we were going to Cancun?

Shapiro: ‘No, I said you were going to the Can, Coon!”

Dundes claimed that his job was to make sense out of this “nonsense.” “As a psychoanalytic folklorist,” Dundes once said, “my professional goals are to make sense of nonsense, find a rationale for the irrational, and seek to make the unconscious conscious.”

He discovered that wit is a combination of word play and puns. The association of golf terminology and sexual content allow the teller to show off his wit. Conveniently, the terminology of golf is the perfect metaphor for sex, and so is “Ho.” ‘Ho’ s the Black English for “whore.”

It has its origin in the historical relationships between white men and black women. The sound of the ‘ho’ that is traditional associated with the Santa Claus’ ‘ho,’ – the European clipped for “hello.” Two different meanings are masquerading under the same sound — all the better to sneak in past the censors who are on guard against any improprieties like sex and race.
The joke teller’s audience is surprised when he realizes that this disguise has duped him — and laughs: it is his inadvertent reaction that results. In our society it is not just, but race combined with sex and black men. This is particularly true with the puns on “wood.” another word for male sex organ:

Tiger’s name should be changed to “Tiger’s wood.”

“Tiger can’t control his wood.”

Somebody heard that he had a “9 wood.”

1st golfer: “Is it true Tiger Woods is playing around?”

2nd golfer: “Yes, he’s doing 18 holes”

The Tiger Wood’s joke cycle’s obsession with “holes” and “woods” uses symbols of female and male organs, and the tellers of these jokes like to play around with them. Other puns include “clubbing (night club activity) and “the club” (golf.) The use of “Clubbing and “club’” are very popular — the terms mixing hitting with sex. The term ‘clubbing’ is also Black English, for going to night clubs looking for sexual partners, hence “clubbing.”

What was Elin doing out at 2:30 in the morning? Clubbin’!

Apparently, jokers don’t distinguish between Norwegians and Swedes — they are all the same.

What does Tiger Woods have in common with baby seals? Norwegians club them both.

Another pun was used with “golf course” and (sexual) “intercourse!”

Tiger Woods is designing a new golf video game, hydrants are par 1, car windows are a par 5, and and Tiger’s face is a par 3.

Why did Elin recommend that Tiger quit golf and take up miniature golf? Because he’s going to have to play with his putter for a long time and he won’t need a driver.

As I looked at the Tiger Wood’s jokes on the Internet, on television, and listened to comedians like Letterman and Jay Leno, I saw that there are two types of cycles.

There are jokes in which Tiger is the hero:

Tiger’s neighbor asked him: Tiger, where are you going so early in the morning?”

Tiger says, “I’m going to go play eighteen holes.”

Neighbor says, “You’re not dressed for golf!”

Tiger says, “Golf?”

Tiger is an early favorite for 2010 Noble Piece Prize.

Elin: “Who’s Jamie? Tiger: The one that’s polishing my clubs.”

Hey Adidas, this is Tiger; Nike found your number in my phone. I need you to change your name…

Q) What is Tiger Woods’ handicap?

A) White women

Question: What is handsome, talented, rich, smart and black? Answer: A groupie’s fantasy.

In 1969, Dundes published a major study on the elephant joke “On elephantasy and elephanticide,” in which he considered elephant jokes to be convenient disguises for racism, and symbolized the nervousness of white people about the civil rights movement. While blatantly racist jokes became less acceptable, elephant jokes were a useful proxy.

In the first type, the elephant is the epitome of sexual power, which Dundes believed represented the Black male. ”His immensity (especially that of his phallus) and his alleged ability to procreate even under the most trying conditions are recurrent themes.”

Therapist Susan Block claims “The Tiger Syndrome” in CounterPunch that her white male clients are already idolizing Tiger and imagining that he has slept with their girlfriends and wives. “The most popular turn-on for my Caucasian cuckold clients is to see their white wives having wild sex with well-endowed African-American men,” she reported. “Now that the Cadillac has hit the tree, so to speak, their biggest fantasy is to see their wives or girlfriends doing Tiger Woods. He’s the old myth of the ‘Mandingo’ come to life, the black man who comes to town and seduces all the white men’s wives.”

In the second type of the Woods joke cycle, people who want to knock Tiger down. Associating Tiger with “phallic grandeur” of the Elephant, most joke tellers put Tiger in the victim role, the second category. They try to, as Dundes said of the Elephant jokesters, “represent a defense against the super phallic elephant. These jokes contain diverse techniques for keeping the elegant away and castrating him.

How do you keep an Elephant from charging? Take away his credit card.

How do you keep an elephant from stampeding? Cut his ‘tam peter off.

This is the type that Paul Mooney was aiming for on the New Year Eve’s celebration. He suggests that Tiger wasn’t even a Black man:“That white woman [Elin] beat his ass!” he laughed. “There is nothing as embarrassing as when Becky [black slang for white woman] beats your ass! Becky beat the black off that boy!” As Mooney sees it, the incident just proves that Tiger Wood is not much of a black man. What black man would let a white woman beat him up? When Elin hit him with the golf club, she caused him to give up his blackness and rely on his Asian background, Mooney said:

“That was why he ran into the tree!” He couldn’t drive straight, because, you know, Asians can’t drive. “When Becky was finished with his ass, he woke up under a tree…eating a bowl of rice!” The audience went crazy. Mooney extended the joke.“Becky [Elin] said, ‘Tiger may hit those little white balls,” meaning golf. “But she said, ‘I’m gonna hit me some big, black balls.”

Today in America, in a time in which the most powerful man in America, the president, is a black man, whites—even the liberal whites—experience anxiety over white women and black men. The Wood’s joke cycle indicates this as well:

Q) What is Tiger Woods’ handicap?

A) White women.

If Tiger had been white or if his girlfriends had been black, the Tiger joke cycle would have no reason to exist, because it wouldn’t cause anxiety in white men. In the Clinton joke cycle, Clinton is praised for his misdeeds — here Tiger is punished. The moral of the story is that if you are a white male, you are not a threat. If you are a black male, the joke is against you.

Even David Letterman, who was sexually involved with a female staff member, had the nerve to criticize Tiger. Yet the women whom Tiger dated were not employed by him. According to the jokes, we are a nation of hypocrites. While they may not be aware of it, the tellers of jokes are showing their unconscious sexual envy of Black men. If the reader thinks the folklore jokes don’t tell an accurate picture of the white male fantasy’s about Tiger Woods, one might consider the conclusion that Susan Block came to after numerous interviews with white male clients.

With the Barry Bonds joke cycle, the jokes gained momentum as Bonds reached Babe Ruth’s record. Once Bond had reached the record and the white male’s threat had diminished, so did the joke cycle. When a black man challenges white male dominance in a sport, joke cycles flare up. When a threat is no longer imminent, the cycle subsides.

“These white people are mad at Tiger,” Paul Mooney joked as the night yielded to 2010, “He done lost them billions of dollars, in endorsements, in advertisement, in stocks. He should just go away somewhere and change his name…. yeah, from Tiger to Cheetah.”

To tell a Tiger joke becomes a socially sanctioned way of putting down a black man — especially one that has it all — both on the golf course and in the bedroom. In a culture in which black men dominate areas that used to be ruled by whites males, jokes that will gratify their egos, if only for a few minutes, are needed. White males have seen themselves bested in every area of sports — basketball, football, tennis, baseball, and now golf. (A Black man occupies even the Presidency. So where is the white male supremacy?)

The January Issue 2010 issue of Golf Digest featured Obama and Tiger together. In the image, Tiger hovers over the President, and the caption reads, “Ten Tips Obama Can Take From Tiger.”

By conflating—and compositing–these two images, the magazine encourages us to imagine these two powerful Black men as one. Since they dominating areas that white men use to occupy, white men have reason to be wary.

What the Joke Cycle makes clear is the Tiger phenomenon is not of much about his infidelity as it is about our own anxieties. Tiger’s mishaps are a perfect foil to put him down.. Images of powerful men like Woods and Obama fuels fears of racism. Telling a Tiger joke is a good thing.

CECIL BROWN is the author of I, Stagolee: a Novel, Stagolee Shot Billy and The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger. He can be reached at:


Cecil Brown is the author of Dude, Where’s My Black Studies Department?. His latest book is Pryor Lives: How Richard Pryor Became Richard Pryor.