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The welcome sign in Juneau, Alaska. Photo by Trevis Rothwell

Looking for a lighthearted joke? Call this Alaska hotline

About a month ago, dialing the hiking hotline in Juneau, Alaska, would have provided information about its volunteer-led walks in the area. But when the coronavirus pandemic hit, the city had to temporarily close the hiking program, among other activities it had organized.

Officials in the city’s parks and recreation department, however, didn’t want to give the phone number the boot. So they dialed up another use: a daily joke for anyone who needed a laughline.

If you dial (907) 586-0428, you’ll hear a prerecorded message with a joke. If you called on May 11, you would have heard this fishy punchline: “Why won’t the lobster ever share? … Because he’s shellfish.”

Audio of the May 11 joke.

Each day’s joke is chosen by a team of three volunteers who record ones they come up with, or others chosen from submissions. This isn’t edgy comedy — they’re largely puns or in the “dad joke” category. But that’s by design, Dawn Welch, a recreation coordinator in the department, told the PBS NewsHour. She said she trusts the team “to find good, clean, corny jokes.”

If you’d like to submit a joke to the hotline, send it to Parks.Rec@juneau.org.

On April 21, the hotline recorded its first joke: “I went to the zoo yesterday and saw a baguette in a cage. The zookeeper told me it was ‘bread’ in captivity.”

Almost immediately after launching, demand for the day’s joke knocked the hotline off the hook — there was such an overload on the phone number that it went offline. It took about a day and a half to get it back, Welch said.

The idea was inspired by a Facebook group of parks department professionals across the country, who bounced around ideas on how to connect with their communities while programs were suspended because of stay-at-home orders and social distancing measures.

Welch and Lauren Verrelli, a recreation and public services manager, developed the hotline, which is kept up by volunteers.

“We debated a more diverse hotline with good news, inspirational messages and jokes,” Welch wrote in an email. “However, in the end we decided to keep it simple and goofy. After all, laughter is the best medicine.”

Audio of the April 27 joke.

To date, the hotline has received joke suggestions from across North America, from more than 1,000 miles away in Nome, Alaska, and much farther in British Columbia, Louisiana and North Carolina.

“We immediately went beyond our own community, clearly,” Welch said. “But to have such a reach and to share something fun with the world [and] the nation has been pretty exciting.”

The hotline also got a boost from the local library. Kate Enge, a grants and marketing coordinator for the Juneau Public Libraries, shared the parks department’s Facebook post with an offer to book some jokes for the volunteers.

And in this stressful time, when people can feel disconnected from others, jokes may bring some much-needed joy.

“This joke hotline gives a bit of humor, which is a great coping tool, plus helps our community stay connected,” Enge wrote in an email.

While the idea was to keep the hotline going until the department’s hiking program got reinstated, Welch said, officials are keeping that decision open-ended right now due to the positive response to the jokes.

“We had no idea that it was going to reach as many people as it has,” Welch said. “Hopefully, it’s brought lots of smiles to people’s faces.”

As for Welch’s favorite jokes from the hotline? One of them is a campy kicker to this story: “You can’t run through a campground. You can only ran because it’s past tents.

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