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Photograph showing thousands of index cards divided by general subject.
Robert Orben’s “Skelton Stockpile” of jokes arrived at the Library Congress in boxes that once held 1000 blank index cards. Robert Orben Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Lots of Laughs: Comedy Writer Robert Orben’s Stockpile of Jokes

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If you happen to be looking for a joke about the Cuban Missile Crisis, Watergate, air pollution, or miniskirts, the Robert Orben Papers in the Manuscript Division has what you need. Robert Orben was a comedy writer, humor consultant, and speechwriter for President Gerald R. Ford. In 2019, Orben donated a stockpile of thousands of jokes, one-liners, and witty patter that he generated over more than fifty years. He created some of the material while writing for television in the 1960s, prepared some of it for specific performers and public figures, and published many of jokes in compilations for use by anyone who needed to get a laugh.

Robert Orben typed his jokes onto individual 3” x5” index cards. Thousands of them arrived at the Library of Congress, stored in boxes that once contained 1,000 blank index cards. A highlight in this section of the collection are the boxes he labeled “Skelton Stockpile,” filled with jokes and one-liners that he wrote while a writer on the television comedy-variety show The Red Skelton Hour from 1964 to 1970. The jokes are grouped by topic and arranged alphabetically from “Acting” to “Zoo.” The content of categories like “Hippies,” “Modern Life,” and “Smog,” and jokes about miniskirts and dancing the Frug, reflect the era in which he wrote them but his jokes about high prices at the grocery store might still work today.

Photograph of a single card file box and an example card with a joke about food prices.
A joke about high food prices in the “Skelton Stockpile.” Box OV 13, Robert Orben Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Orben’s earliest comedy material is found in a grouping of small, self-published paper-bound books of jokes and humorous banter he wrote for use by magicians, emcees, comedians, and other performers in the 1940s and 1950s. Titles like The Encyclopedia of Patter (1946), Patter Parade (1947), Magicdotes (1948), Bits, Boffs, and Banter (1952), and The Working Comedian’s Gag File (1953), along with the colorful graphics on the covers, establish the purpose and tone of the humor inside. The content was broad and timeless enough to allow people to include it in their performances at any time.

Image showing the covers five of Orben's joke books with the titles Emcee Blockbusters, Patter Parade, Working Comedian's Gag File, Comedy Caravan, and Bits Boffs and Banter.
Covers of some of the joke books Robert Orben published in the 1940s and 1950s. Box 36 and Box 37, Robert Orben Papers, Library of Congress.

A good source for more of-the-moment humor is Orben’s Current Comedy, his topical humor subscription service that supplied jokes about current events, public figures, and cultural trends from 1958 to 1989.  First published monthly and later bi-monthly, this periodical is filled with jokes and one-liners relating to issues of the day, and was used by emcees, disc jockeys, comedians, and others who needed topical humor. Here researchers can find one-liners about what are now historical events, like the Cuban Missile Crisis: “Kennedy was so firm in this crisis, three manufacturers want to name girdles after him!” Or the Vietnam War: “I know a comic who has the same problem President Johnson has. Can’t stop bombing!” Or on Watergate: “To make a long story short, have President Nixon record it.” Boxes of index cards hold unpublished material intended for Orben’s Current Comedy.

It takes a bit more searching to find Orben’s jokes about events in the 1990s. They are primarily found in the Alphabetical File series under the names of the periodicals and people to whom he sent them.

The Robert Orben Papers are a rich resource for those interested in the history of humor in the last half of the twentieth century. In addition to illustrating changes in the details of life over the years, some of the jokes point out changes in taste and sensibilities as to what people consider funny.

Orben died in February 2023 at the age of 95. Through his stockpile of jokes, Robert Orben will continue to make people laugh for years to come.

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“Kennedy was so firm…” Orben’s Current Comedy 5, no. 1, November 1962. Box 45, Robert Orben Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

“I know a comic…” Orben’s Current Comedy. 9, no. 7, February 7, 1967. Box 46, Robert Orben Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

“To make a long story short…” Orben’s Current Comedy 17, no. 12, January 31, 1974. Box 46, Robert Orben Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

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