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Have You Heard The One About…

In my series on Jury Duty last week, Jaz from Off The Cuff made a comment regarding a story I used in the post Jury Duty – Oh the Drama!

His comment was: “That’s an old joke that I have seen on the net for years. This sounds like you saw it yesterday or something. Weird.”

This raises a good point about using humor.

When is it OK to use “old stuff,” to recycle humorous jokes and stories?

Acccording to many researchers much smarter than I, there are only Seven Basic Plots for all of literature:

  1. Tragedy
  2. Comedy
  3. Overcoming the Monster
  4. Voyage and Return
  5. Quest
  6. Rags to Riches
  7. Rebirth

But according to Cecil Adams in The Straight Dope, “never mind the 36, 20, 7, or whatever basic plots–take out sex, violence, and death and you lose 90 percent of literature right there.”

You also lose a lot of the humor out there too.

The point being, there really is no new humor. Everything is recycled.

For a great example, grab a Boys Life Magazine from the 1970s and compare the jokes to a current issue.

So when we are looking for a joke, story, or observation to illustrate a point, the objective is to find the humor that fits. If you are concerned about being called out on old material, there are a couple of ways to handle this.

Start by saying: “I’m sure you’ve all heard the story about…”

Or, if very recent: “Did you hear what Letterman (or Leno, or whoever) said about this the other night?”

And if there is someone out there who has heard your story?

So what?

Trust in the fact that when most people say they can never remember jokes, it’s the truth. My job has been humor for a number of years, and the second time I took Comedy Defensive Driving, all the jokes were new again.

Another good strategy, when using humor, is to personalize the story, make it your own. Instead of “Two guys walk into a bar…” say “I stopped by the lobby bar for a drink last night…” or you may be able to change that particular venue into, “I stopped by Starbucks this morning…” Consuming alcohol is not always required for the punchline, a bar is just a place to meet. Make it a church, a restaurant or a football game.

It’s your story to use as you please, football can become baseball, a bar can become a classroom, strawberries can become Toyotas. Remember, if there are only seven basic plots, how you dress them is your option.

And if you are telling what is ostensibly part of your own story, who can say they have heard it before?

Next I’ll post an example of a modified story and variations.

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  1. Robin says:

    You make some excellent points here! The thing about humor is that you can find something humorous in almost any event. Even in our daily lives, it is sometimes best to look at the humorous side of things … makes life a lot easier!

    What amazes me is that different cultures react to humor in different ways. My Brit humor is very often not understood in some circles!


  2. VE says:

    I would agree that humor is recycled when you look at it from the point of the method and type of humor one is using. It’s in the details and material where one can be original. I try to make the majority of my humor original and creative. It does stand out as a result; I get comments all the time from people wondering where I come up with this stuff. Sure; I know some of it has been done before but perhaps not in the same way. Others…I know nobody would have come up with.

    Good post!

  3. DanBrantley says:

    Multicultural humor is an entirely different animal – I should probabaly post on that. A friedn of mine was making aresentation in London and mentioed “falling on our fanny” which in the US is a milder way of saying ass or butt, but in the UK fanny means the exact opposite (so to speak) The presentation went downhill from there.

    Thanks for the comment, Customization is the key, absolutely. And the more you utilize your personal humor lens, the easier it is to pick out those little details that make the difference. And you do have a singularly unique point of view displayed on your blog. I LIKE it!

  4. chris says:

    in my circle the humour is in the repackaging or lack of it. do it successfully and you’re the star, fail and you’re the new joke of the night. but you’re absolutely right, there isn’t much new humour.

    @ robin i love brit humour. most americans don’t seem to “get it” and i used to think that it’s because it was “smarter.” but i think it’s because you leave a little bit more of a leap of faith to get to the funny. you don’t “sell” the punchline, you just kinda leave it there. a lot of people like to be taken by the hand and lead to the laugh. imo, of course.

  5. John Baker says:

    Writing humour is one of the most difficult things to do. A study of the use of humour in the novel or in drama, rather than through the joke or the music-hall kind of comedy is very instructive and always involves an assertion of invulnerability.

  6. DanBrantley says:

    I have been in those groups myself. It certainly hones your one-liner skills!

    Absolutely correct about written humor being hardest. There is no tone of voice, or nuance of inflection to get a point across. The words have to be chosen carefully and extensive editing is nearly always required. All of this has to be accomplished while using a distinctive, personal, voice and style, otherwise the humor can appear forced and is not so succesful.
    If by invulnerability you mean fearlessness, or a disregard for consequences, I agree. Most successful humorists, like successfull basebaall batters, have struck out as many times as they have hit home runs. The best ones keep swinging, or writing as the case may be.