The things a culture jokes about can reveal its more serious concerns—or at least that’s what TIME posited in 1958, when the magazine reprinted a list of one-liner space jokes. At the time, the Cold War and the Space Race had infiltrated the zeitgeist in the most serious of ways: It was a year after the launch of Sputnik 1, and the United Nations was setting up its ad hoc Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.
But that doesn’t mean the jokes aren’t stupid.
Here are just a few:
- A Martian lands in Paris, spots Brigitte Bardot and, electric-bulb eyeball flashing furiously, demands: “Take me to your leader—later.”
- A Martian lands on Broadway, hops up to a ducktail-coifed youth in pink pegged pants, asks: “Who are you?” Reply: “Say, daddy-o, I’m a cat.” Martian: “Take me to your litter.”
- A Martian lands in a small, quiet town in dead of night, enters a near-empty eatery, goes up to the jukebox with flashing lights and iridescent bubbles, demands: “Say, what’s a slick chick like you doing in a nothin’ town like this?”
- A Martian lands in Chicago’s Loop, skips up to a traffic light and says sympathetically: “Gee, Charlie, you must have had a rough night.”
- A mamma Martian lands in Brooklyn, sees the jungle of television antennas atop the tenements, cries in alarm: “You kids get right down off the roof.”
The germ of the jokes was a “partisan political yak” that had been circulating, in which a Martian approaches President Eisenhower and asks to be taken to his leader—the gag being that Eisenhower himself was failing to lead. Another variant referred to that summer’s “Vicuña Coat Case,” a scandal in which a top White House aide accepted a fur coat and other inappropriate gifts from a friend under federal investigation. “A gift-bearing Martian, wearing a vicuna coat, last summer landed on the White House front lawn, skittered up to a guard,” began the joke. The punchline: “Lead me to your taker.”
Read the rest, here in the TIME Vault: Out of This World