The comedian Paul F. Tompkins talked about “Joke Stealing” once. It’s an occasional accusation among professional comedians. “Hey, you stole my joke.” His commentary boiled down to two thoughts:
First, your average person will never care about Joke Stealing, even in a professional capacity because for most people, humor is entirely joke stealing. Someone hears something funny and repeats it later. They almost never attribute it to the source they heard it from, and it would be weird if they did. So while there might be a case against stealing jokes in a professional capacity, it doesn’t really fly with comedy amateurs, which is pretty much everyone not standing on a stage.
His second thought was that it only works to steal a joke if it is fairly generic. It can’t be something complex, built around observation and the teller’s personality. It has to be something that can be dropped in easily and that almost anyone can use. To paraphrase Tompkins, if it takes more than seven seconds to say, it’s probably not a comedy bit that can be stolen with ease.
This is why most easily repeatable jokes have almost no context around them, and why they’re popular but also, usually not that funny. We’ve all heard them before. They’re the “funny” racist jokes that lead into a punchline that everyone already knows is coming because a variation of it has existed since humans started telling jokes. They’re “Why did the Blonde do this?” jokes. They start with a universal premise and work backwards, and even if they’re harmless (though they aren’t always), they require almost no creativity on the teller’s part, no point of view, no personality. They only require the teller memorize a series of words and repeat them.
Kids’ jokes are a lot like this, and it makes sense. Children are still trying to understand what humor is, so they need something they can repeat easily. They also don’t generally have as much sophistication as adults (generally) and so anything requiring more than a pun or a funny image tends to be lost on them.
As a “Funny Writer”, I sometimes bristle at the title. Not because I mind being called funny, but because I find that most humor is pretty generic stuff. I almost never write jokes. I write absurd situations and have characters honestly deal with those situations. I tweak fantasy conventions. I create odd characters with unique points of view. The humor in all those cases is meant to come almost always from those elements, not from a gag inserted like a plug-in in the middle of the scene.
I’d compare it to the musicals I like versus the musicals I dislike. The musicals I love, such as The Nightmare Before Christmas, has songs that are related to the plot and often advance the story. The musicals I dislike tend to have songs just because it’s time to have a song. The tune might be pretty, but it’ll always seem superfluous. So it is I often find with humor in fiction.
Not coincidentally, this is why I’ve never been a fan of puns. I know some people adore them, but they tend not to be particularly clever. One word sounding like another doesn’t strike me as especially funny. It’s why I’ll always rebuke anyone who says I rely on puns for humor because it’s just not true.
The problem with situational and personality driven humor though is that it isn’t nearly as quotable and simple to carry forward as more generic humor. Donkey from the Shrek movies is the most quoted character of the series because nearly everything he says is unnecessary for the scene and doesn’t add anything but a quotable line. It works fine for most people, but it’s why Donkey was always annoying to me. He has personality occasionally, but mostly he’s just there to spout generic jokes to put in the trailer.
The other truth is that this isn’t just about humor. We’re talking about how people tend to create opinions as well, a cute and paste patchwork of ideas they’ve borrowed from other sources. Life is complicated. Who has time to think about it all? So we putter along, spitting back what we believe we believe.
Plug-In Humor works fine. It’s great for casual conversation with strangers and passing acquaintances, but we should recognize it for what it is: A conversational substitute, a superficial exchange. And great humor doesn’t fit any situation or even most.
Take it from this Funny Writer.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,