Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Whose Joke Is It, Anyway?

Contemporary humor-writing methods are an extension of past techniques. Most of the "jokes" websites I've visited are repetitive variations of one another. Even authors are repeating jokes that are so well-known, they've become cliché. 

What do you get when you play country music backward?
You get your girl back, your truck back, and maybe even your dog back. 

The country music joke is so old it's essentially rhetorical. 

The first "joke" book I ever read was Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes. Thomas Cathcart & Daniel Klien had me rolling in laughter, literally, and my one true love, Philosophy, instantly transformed itself in my mind into endless one-liners.

If you see a heat wave, should you wave back? 

Unfortunately, to my utter dismay, I discovered that Cathcart & Klein repeated some of the jokes they included in Plato & a Platapus in their sequel, Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through Those Pearly Gates. I felt ripped-off! 

Hearing the same jokes again and again is like resting in peace with a tombstone inscription that is basically a rip-off of a joke someone else wrote. 

Apparently, in exploring life, death, the afterlife, and everything in between, Cathcart & Klein forgot to read their first book. They failed to recognize the need for new joke material. Evan Scott Smith, in his book, Writing Television Sitcoms, said that "once the surprise of the joke is lost, it just doesn't seem as funny."  My disappointment in reading the same jokes tarnished the brilliance of what I felt after having read Plato & a Platapus the first time, but it didn't tarnish my appetite for funny. In fact, that "high" I experienced in letting go of pretenses and laughing was like a drug, and I wanted more! 

Wanting more IS human nature. 

As with any contribution to a subject, new material is necessary to further the craft. If jokes written over a thousand years ago in Ancient Rome are still getting laughs, what does that tell us about human nature? Does human nature have to evolve for new joke material to evolve? 

Stop! Don't answer that last question. It was rhetorical. 

The unfortunate byproduct of extensive rewriting to make jokes appear fresh is that sometimes new material is just that, new - not necessarily better. The conflict in writing humorously is that you need to write new material without it sounding like a revision for the sake of revising. 

Marie Antoinette's famous line, "Let them eat cake," (actually, this is a misquote), Joseph Addison's, "He who hesitates is lost," Will Rogers's, "I never met a man I didn't like," and Franklin D. Roosevelt's, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," were all previously written by someone else. 

While humor-writing is certainly an art, the science behind it might reveal how to circumnavigate this age-old dilemma.

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