Telling a joke until it is no longer funny.
December 18, 2010 7:18 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for stories about telling jokes until they are no longer funny. How do people who write comedy tell if the jokes they are writing are still funny after repeating them so many times? I'm interested in hearing more about the short half-life of the joke, and the ways a joke can function after it has lost it's ha-ha-ha.

It seems like there might some good theory, an episode of This American Life, and a movie or two about this topic but I'm having trouble digging up anything at all.
posted by caseyg to Writing & Language (11 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Hm. That's a good question. I know that in some media (like say, Monty Python, or sometimes Kids in the Hall) they will pound a joke into your brain and people seem to like it. From doing improv comedy myself, I have been taught that audiences like seeing a gag repeated about 3 times before 'that's (probably) enough'. I also imagine that people who admire slapstick or physical comedy don't mind the repetition as much as those of us who don't.

But by 'story' do you mean, anecdote?
posted by bitterkitten at 7:56 AM on December 18, 2010

Comedian, a documentary about Jerry Seinfeld and another comic, covers some of this issue. I found it very entertaining, too.
posted by TrarNoir at 7:56 AM on December 18, 2010

I heard this years ago:

There are three rules of comedy.
1. if something is funny, repeat it until it's not.
2. if something isn't funny, repeat it until it is.
3. if something isn't funny, repeat it until it is.
posted by rmd1023 at 8:13 AM on December 18, 2010 [6 favorites]

Mike Sack's book And Here's The Kicker is interviews with well known comedy writers about how the work. It is wonderful.
posted by R. Mutt at 9:31 AM on December 18, 2010

Some of the discussions in the doc Comedians of Comedy touch on this.
posted by Lorin at 10:20 AM on December 18, 2010

Check out The Aristocrats - a full-length documentary on a single joke told over and over by comedians (and over and over in the couse of the film). The joke (if it works for you at all), doesn't lose its appeal during all the retellings. It becomes less about the punchline and more about individual style or framing or the teller's obvious delight in sharing the joke.
posted by zanni at 11:52 AM on December 18, 2010

You can know something is funny even if you don't think it is (anymore). In fact, I'd say it's required, since there has to be a mechanism by which people can tell jokes they think are funny without laughing.
posted by rhizome at 12:02 PM on December 18, 2010

I remember hearing on one of the Simpsons commentary tracks that the writers spent so long rewriting episodes that they would often discard perfectly good jokes because they'd heard them too many times.
posted by Chenko at 12:33 PM on December 18, 2010

Seconding zanni's suggestion of The Aristocrats. Really worth seeing if you're at all interested in jokes and joke-telling. Or just in laughing a lot.
posted by Paris Elk at 12:58 PM on December 18, 2010

A friend who was a contributor to The Onion described the meetings where stories were pitched to the staff as fairly un-hilarious affairs. They had heard so many news-structured jokes that almost nothing elicited out-loud laughter any more -- but for that same reason, they were able to understand intellectually whether a joke worked or not.
posted by the jam at 2:17 PM on December 18, 2010

the documentary i am comic goes into this some too, you get to see a guy retell part of his set and see how much he improves.
posted by yeahyeahyeahwhoo at 12:16 PM on December 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

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