An Unreliable History of the Lightbulb Joke
First let me admit that I have not carefully researched this, I am simply recording the history that I lived through.
When I was a teen, way back in the 60's, we still had ethnic jokes. Polish people were used more often than almost any other group, and for some reason the jokes portrayed them as stupid. Perhaps the most famous of these Polish jokes was how many Poles does it take to screw in a light bulb.
I once tried to challenge this stereotype by telling a college class I taught in New York City that the father of modern science, Copernicus was Polish. This did not work. None of the approximately fifty students in the class knew who Copernicus was.
I explained that Copernicus discovered that the earth goes around the sun. One of the students said, it does? It seemed pretty stable to me. She seemed worried to learn she was moving.
About one quarter of the adult population of the United States does not know that the earth goes around the sun, and another quarter does not know that this happens once a year.
No doubt the Poles find it amusing that a nation as ignorant as America thinks they are stupid.
Remember that in America we put an emphasis on knowing your own area, while remaining ignorant on the world in general. I know a brilliant math professor that did not know birds are warm blooded. America wins the majority of the Nobel Prizes in the sciences because we are collectively knowledgeable even though we are individually ignorant.
Actually, Americans in the 1960's could hardly care less if your grandparents were Polish, Irish, or German. Regardless of where your grandparents came from in Europe you were simply white. It was simply tradition to make the Poles the object of stupid jokes.
At any rate the popular lightbulb joke I grew up with was, "How many Poles does it take to change a light bulb?" "Eleven, one to hold the bulb, and ten to turn the ladder."
But some time in the late 60's or early 70's ethnic jokes were banned. Even earlier jokes aimed at African Americans and other oppressed minorities were banned. It took longer to ban jokes about ethnic minorities who were by that time accepted members of the main steam of American society, and probably had average household incomes above the American average.
Sometime later, I believe it may have been the late 70's or early 80's a new lightbulb joke about Californians appeared. How many Californians does it take to change a light bulb. Four, one to change it, and three to share in the experience.
As Californians were not an ethnic group and the joke was aimed at current psychobabble the joke was considered politically correct, or at least acceptable in polite society.
The second joke in this new tradition that I remember referred to New Orleans. How many people from New Orleans does it take to change a light bulb? Three, one to change and two to mix the drinks.
Another early one targeted Virginia. How many Virginians does it take to change a lightbulb? Three, one to change it and two to talk about how good the old one was.
In those days, which were the early to mid 1980's it was tradition to go after American states, which were considered fair game, of course ethnic groups were not.
Eventually, other groups were targeted. Politicians, psychologists, women, real men, etc.
So while the original light bulb joke referred to Poles and ladders, the light bulb joke about Californians' sharing in the experience was the one that really kicked the whole tradition off.
You would not be able to learn this from the Wikipedia article, and I decided not to change that article because I do not have a source. Instead, I put it here.
You might have noted that I sometimes write light bulb, and other times write lightbulb. Both are correct. When writing on paper one chooses one form and sticks to it. On the web I use both so that search engines can find me with either form.
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Last Updated August 27, 2006