Leopold Fechtner Has Collected 2½ Million Jokes, but His Wife Says His Humor Is No Laughing Matter

updated 02/13/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/13/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

As a young photographer in prewar Austria, Leopold Fechtner began saving jokes from the daily papers to tell to his subjects. "People get in front of a camera and they freeze," explains Fechtner, now 73. "They always appeared relaxed and natural in my photos. Humor became my hobby."

Did it ever. Fechtner fled the Nazis in 1939 and emigrated to New York with his bride, Fini. More than 50,000 jokes came with them, packed in a box labeled "photographic equipment." Before long Fechtner had a second box, then a third. He bought out-of-town newspapers and began divvying the quips, puns, one-liners and other humor into 170 categories. (Car joke #4,121: He is so dumb he thinks a fjord is a Norwegian automobile.)

In 1964 Fechtner opened an exhibit of cartoon blowups and jokes at the New York World's Fair. By 1969 he had written his first book, American Wit and Gags. Meanwhile, the collection kept growing. (Two-liner #520: That's a pretty loud suit, isn't it? Yes, but I've got a muffler to go with it.)

Fifteen years ago Fechtner retired from his photography business but not from his hobby. Occupying an entire wall of his three-room apartment in Queens, N.Y., are 4,250 humor books and magazines, some dating back to the 19th century. Filing cabinets are kept in storage, filled with more of the 254 million jokes now in his collection.

For new material, Fechtner visits his neighborhood library, where he pores over Boys' Life, Dr. Seuss books and anything else that might offer a new knock-knock joke or riddle. ("If I have read it and typed it, I remember it," he says when asked about potential duplicates.) Three afternoons a week he goes to Public School 99, where he has been a volunteer tutor for the past 13 years. "I get new jokes from the kids," he says. "With children, anytime you ask a question, you get a punch line."

By late this year Fechtner plans to complete his fifth joke book, this one on the humor in the English language. ("If a small book is a booklet, is a small toy a toilet?") His wife has heard just about enough. "Either you go or the book goes," she warned him recently. Fechtner's reaction? A Jack Benny-esque pause. Then, "I'm thinking it over."

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