Phyllis Diller donated her most jealously guarded and prized possession—her joke files—to the Smithsonian more than a decade ago. Stored in 48 steel file drawers, the jokes span almost 50 years and cover a range of topics, from taxes (“I’m in the 50% bracket. I make exactly half the money I need to survive”) to Texas (“Asking Texan how he likes NYC—it’s the first time I’ve been in this part of Texas”) and aging (“You know you’re getting old when your back starts going out more than you do”) .
Now, in honor of Women’s History Month, the Smithsonian is inviting us all to become Smithsonian Digital Volunteers and become part of the project of making each and every one of the comic’s 53,000 jokes available online.
Breaking the Mold
Diller’s trailblazing approach made the Feminine Mystique into a punchline, turning the image of the Perfect ’50s Housewife on its head by celebrating her complete rejection of the era’s impossible standards.
“Housework can’t kill you, but why take a chance?”
Transcribing historical texts was never like this.
She took aim at every convention of what women should be, do or say. In an era of supportive wives and “take my wife” jokes, she took aim at husbands in general. She targeted one husband in particular: her imaginary man “Fang.”
“Fang told me he was a self made man. It wasn’t till later that I discovered he would have been wise to get some help.“
How to Transcribe Diller
Diller’s single-minded, businesslike approach was no joke: She typed each gag, one-liner and joke neatly on an index card and organized the cards by date and topic. The Smithsonian has scanned each card and wants to make them available online in a form that’s easy to read and search. That means each joke has to be transcribed and categorized. It’s a herculean task—53,000 jokes!
The solution? Crowdsource the task.
Anyone can be a Smithsonian’s Digital Volunteer—all you need is online access. Visit the Smithsonian Transcription Center’s Diller page, pick a file drawer, and you’ll be shown a series of images, each of them a scanned joke. All you have to do is pick a card that’s labelled “Needs Transcribing,” type the joke in the box next to it along with the author (Diller also bought jokes), topic and date, and hit Mark for Review. Once you’ve saved your transcription for review, the next joke automatically pops up on your screen. If you find the scan hard to read, you can use the built-in tools to zoom in and out. (Get a more detailed intro to transcribing here.)
Volunteers can also opt to review and edit jokes that have already been transcribed, but you’ll need to create a login for that.
Not a Diller fan? Browse other Smithsonian Digital Volunteer opportunities.