Friday, May 30, 2014

Everyone is funny and most jokes have been told

You know that old saying about how there are only a few plots in the world? And every story falls into one of those seven--or twelve--or twenty plots?

If you ever doubted that, you should look on Twitter when someone sets up a game for people to play. For instance, when the show @midnight asks people to come up with "dirty songs"; or when the Barnes & Noble Book Blog asks people to come up with "useless prequels"; or--whatever it is, just keep an eye on that game and that hashtag and you will see definite patterns forming.

I was reminded of this because the BN Book Blog did ask for #UselessPrequels and if you look now at Twitter (or on my Facebook page), you'll notice there are some definite patterns that form. And, frankly, there are some repetitions. So far, I've noticed

  • Number-related jokes: 
    • Fahrenheit 451 -> Fahrenheit 450
    • 1984 -> 1983
    • Slaugherhouse-5 -> Slaughterhouse-4
  • Time-/Age-related jokes:
    • Midsummer Night's Dream -> Midsummer Day's Nap
    • No Country for Old Men -> No Country for Middle-Aged Men
    • Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil -> 11 PM in the Garden of Good and Evil
  • Backstory-related jokes:
    • Romeo & Juliet -> Romeo & Rosaline
    • The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy -> The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Planet
    • Dr. No -> Pre-med Student No
  • and so on.

To be clear, I'm not immune from this; and there's not a lot of mystery here. Of course, when playing a game like this, you would (a) want to choose a well-known work, hence the overwhelming presence of high school classics and bestsellers (and, to a lesser extent, children's books); and (b) want the joke to be clear enough for the reader to recognize what you're joking about.

That not only limits your raw materials: Shakespeare is in, but Thomas Middleton is out--and if you have to look him up, then you're both proving my point and shouldn't feel bad since I had to look him up too. It also limits how far afield you can go: "Romeo & Rosaline" only works because (a) people read it in high school English and (b) people may have some memory that Romeo starts off the play being heartbroken about a different woman.

So, yes, the game is somewhat limited by these two, er, limits. But still, I was surprised not just by the patterns that formed, but by the duplicates that popped up. Which means... what, exactly?

Only that, as you'll notice with @midnight's games, some of the funniest entries are by both comedians and civilians; that the ability to turn a clever phrase or come up with some comparison or other is actually pretty widespread through the population (of Twitter users).

And that, if you want to make a living being funny or (cough cough) writing interesting things, you have to work a little harder than your average Twitterer. That you'll need to stretch your mind a little further and not just settle on the first joke you make; and that,  if you're trying to do some longer piece of writing, keep in mind that these sort of clever ideas are cheap. Everyone can and will come up with 1983 as a joke; if you want to make it mean something, you're going to have to sit down and put in the work to make it.

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