Q&A: Kent Purser discusses the mission behind his free joke hotline

BEHIND THE LAUGHTER: Yes, Kent Purser is full of jokes, as his hotline reveals. But his thoughts behind the free service extend beyond any given punchline. Photo courtesy of Purser

Here’s a question for you: What’s the difference between a hippo and a Zippo?

The answer: One’s a little lighter. (Rimshot!)

Such jests fill the free joke hotline that Kent Purser has been operating in Asheville since 2013.

Growing up in Andrews, Purser was surrounded by the arts but could never make a decision about which medium (or profession) to pursue. Such indecision led his life as a multidisciplinary artist. Along with jokes, he paints, does collage, makes costumes, creates stained glass and works with wood.

“To me, one thing gets old pretty quick,” he says. “So I’m always exploring and trying new things.”

The free joke hotline began through this process.

“I remember telling jokes in elementary school and looking forward to hearing new ones,” Purser says. But over time, the punchlines fell few and far between. “As an adult, I was like, ‘What happened?’ That used to be a daily thing.”

Purser’s enthusiasm for comedy has been welcomed by a loyal audience. He averages around six calls a day on weekdays and 10-20 on weekends. The joke hotline runs on a personal cellphone, and he updates the jokes about once a week.

Xpress sat down with Purser to discuss how he selects his jokes, the importance of keeping the hotline free and the way small gestures can make a big impact. The free joke hotline number is 828-67-JOKES.

Editor’s note: This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Xpress: Where do you find your jokes?

Purser: I used to save all of my favorite ones, so I had a stockpile. After I started getting more calls, I began doing research looking up jokes. And now anybody who knows me will send me texts when they hear a joke. Also my joke hotline is a voicemail box. So when people hear the beep at the end, a lot of times they will leave me jokes. That’s cool. I did not really expect that. I thought I was going to be doing all the work, but the people are helping me keep it going.

What’s your joke selection process like for the hotline?

I’m trying to reach the most people I can. So I don’t want my jokes to be all kids’ jokes. The adults would probably quit calling if that were the case. I want everybody to get a laugh. So, I’ll throw in some elementary physics jokes along with a little sarcasm for the adults. But nothing that would not be right for the kids.

And also, I’m not afraid to use topics that are obscure. Like, it’s OK  if callers don’t get it. Because sometimes, especially with kids, that could be a good teaching moment. So, I’ll pick some that are challenging.

Why was it important to you that the hotline be and remain free to call?

From the time I was little to being an adult, pretty much all I was taught was you need money. Money is a necessity. Money is the reason that you have a job, and money makes the world go round.

I never did like that, and I never really agreed with it. So in my own life, I have been fighting that. Sometimes it’s hard, because we do need money, but I still think that other things are more important.

Let me give you an example. Every time I would make art, my friends would be like, you could sell that. Instead of just appreciating it for what it is or showing gratitude, everybody just sees dollar signs.

And it’s been the same kind of thing with the joke hotline. I have people saying, you can charge and make a lot of money. No, that’s not what I’m trying to do. Our culture and our world needs more giving.

What’s been a major takeaway from running the hotline? 

Everything we do has a ripple effect, and sometimes we don’t see that. Like with the joke hotline, I don’t always know if people like it. I don’t always know if they are going to tell one of their friends. I’m just putting it out there.

But in my dream, I can see the potential. You know, if one person tells one person and then that person tells another person. Or what if one person told four people and so on?

This one lady called and said that she calls regularly. She was recently in the hospital. And that really opened my eyes. I’m like, wow, she’s in the hospital going through serious stuff, and yet she’s still thanking me for the joke hotline.

I always wanted to make a difference in the world, but that notion always seemed like this huge thing. But now I feel like I accidentally stumbled upon it with the hotline. Maybe it’s not as hard as I thought. Maybe it’s just as simple as smiling at somebody on the bus or sharing a joke.

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