Writer William Novak’s talent is not limited to a single genre. In 1981, the Newton resident co-edited the classic “The Big Book of Jewish Humor” with Rabbi Moshe Waldoks, which the two men followed with “The Big Book of New American Humor: The Best of the Past 25 Years.” Novak then collaborated on several best-selling memoirs with the likes of Lee Iacocca, Tip O’Neill, Tim Russert, Nancy Reagan and Natan Sharansky.
In his new book, “Die Laughing: Killer Jokes for Newly Old Folks,” Novak has gone out on his own to present and curate jokes about aging baby boomers and their elders. The jokes, introduced by a short essay on each topic, are arranged under subjects such as sex, death, loss of memory and marriage. Novak and his wife, Linda, have three sons, the oldest of whom is actor and writer B.J. Novak.
Novak recently spoke to JewishBoston in anticipation of his Jan. 10 appearance at Newbridge on the Charles in Dedham.
Why did you decide to edit another humor book?
When I was doing exercises for my first-ever physical therapy problem, the idea for putting together a book of jokes about getting older suddenly popped into my head. At the time, it didn’t occur to me that this might be related to doing exercises for physical therapy. Of course, I made a note of the idea because I wanted to remember it, otherwise you forget stuff. I went back to the idea the next day, but I was pretty sure that books like this had been done a dozen times. Yet when I checked the internet and the library catalogue, I found essentially nothing.
When did your interest in jokes begin?
I was never the class clown, but I was always the kid who wanted to be the friend of the class clown. I love to laugh, but doesn’t everybody? And while I enjoyed jokes and riddles, I didn’t show a particular passion or talent for them; I had to learn how to be funny. It got easier when I married someone who was funny and then we had funny kids.
Where does the title come from and were you worried about intimidating people with the word “die” in the title?
The title came from my witty wife, Linda. She thought it was the right title, but I didn’t know if a publisher was going to like it. One publisher said, “There is no way we’ll publish a book with that title.” Another said, “We’ll publish the book only with that title.” I also thought the title could offend middle-aged people who might be afraid to buy the book for older people. But people seem to like the title—especially older people who are not so sensitive. We older people know how the story ends. After all, we’re more realistic as we get older. We’re not so afraid.
Who are “newly old folks”?
A newly old person is someone hitting a birthday numbering 50 or higher. An older person is somebody born before you were no matter how old you are. I’m 68, so I feel newly old. Fortunately, being alive in your 60s and 70s is a much happier experience than it used to be.
What was the vetting process for these jokes?
Linda and I read every joke out loud. I then sent the ones we liked to a handful of friends whom I mention in the beginning of the book. There are also cartoons from The New Yorker throughout the book and something like 95 people were happy to go through them and choose their favorites.
Why did you decide to introduce the book’s various sections with short essays?
Rabbi Moshe Waldoks pointed out that a lot of jokes about older people can be seen as denigrating. There’s some truth to that, which gave rise to the idea of writing a short essay on each topic to put these jokes in context. These essays also provide some good news about growing older.
Although this is not a Jewish book per se, it feels very Jewish. Why do you think that is?
While it has a number of Jewish jokes in it, I’m surprised by how Jewish the book feels to people. I have written Jewish books before, but this didn’t seem to be one of them. Except for a review in The Wall Street Journal, everything written about this book has appeared or will appear in Jewish periodicals. The same is true for speaking engagements, almost all of which have been or will be for Jewish audiences, which is a special treat for me.