“Oh hi Becky who refused to kiss me during spin the bottle in 6th grade & now wants to play “FarmVille,” looks like tables have turned,”
Recently, I shared the above meme that I had recently come across on the “Secret” iOS app on my iPhone (an app where anonymous users local to your city post “secrets” as images with overlapping text, which are just as often visual jokes and commentary on the outside world as they are true confessions).
I laughed and showed it to my friend, who rolled his eyes and said that was a super old joke from, like, Facebook in 2014 (as it turns out, my friend was wrong, too – the origin of the joke was @iamchrisscott on Twitter in July 2014, according to Business Insider.) I was momentarily embarrassed before I thought better of it, saying out loud to my friend “Who cares? It’s still funny.”
“[I]n the moment I read it; it made me chuckle and I found it witty enough to share”
The fact that I was behind-the-times when it came to Internet memes (just another sign of getting older, like virtual crow’s feet) didn’t make the joke any less “funny” to me in the moment I read it; it made me chuckle and I found it witty enough to share to my (younger) friend.
Of course, I’m not a comedian or comedy writer. If I was, I could be infuriated by the over-simplification I just made regarding the art of comedy. However, as a poet, I openly admit to there having been a few times when I’ve unknowingly used a turn of phrase or “move” from another poem, song or piece of art only to realize it later when reunited with its origin. This isn’t uncommon; in fact, the way in which our subconscious sucks up bits and pieces of the world around us without us sensing it in the usual way is, to me, one of the most important aspects of the creation process. I paraphrase a former professor of mine when I say that our subconscious minds are much more in tune with our body and world, so it’s important to create and write first – figure out what it might “mean,” later.
“Cook had simply become a well-oiled, optimized ‘success machine,’ gobbling up all the “good jokes” within his perimeter, sometimes without even realizing it.”
Dane Cook is a successful comedian who has been admonished for years for stealing the material of others. On the second season of his hit show Louie, Louie C.K. (the real-life comedian who writes the fictional show based on his real-life experiences) talks to Cook (playing himself) “backstage” about what has been said about Cook stealing jokes from Louie C.K in 2006:
CK ends up describing Cook’s joke-stealing methodology. CK explains that instead of intentionally stealing his material, Cook had simply become a well-oiled, optimized “success machine,” gobbling up all the “good jokes” within his perimeter, sometimes without even realizing it. What’s interesting about this slightly-less-negative-but-ultimately-condescending perspective of Cook’s comedic process is that it’s very similar to what I consider a “normal” creation process in poetry.
Now, whenever I discuss the similarities between the process of writing or publishing poetry and really any other field that exists, I have to mention the obvious fact that, almost by definition, poetry is not a money-maker. Even the most famous poets in the world do not make a living on their poetry alone, and the number of living poets that a non-poet could name if you asked them on the street is probably less than zero now that Maya Angelou has (sadly) passed away. The point is, I can’t claim to have a similar experience with my process of creating poetry as a comedian has to create comedy because their business is a capital-earning form of popular entertainment. That raises the stakes and makes everyone a critic, while us poets sit in our homely, candlelit corner picking at each other’s pantoums.
A good joke: How do we know if a joke “deserves” success?
So, how do we solve the problem of origin when it comes to comedy? How do we know if a joke “deserves” success? Do we have to run jokes through plagiarism software?
For example, if a plagiarism search engine like Unicheck (which is partnered with Google and Bing) existed for comedy, how would it work? Scan one page of one (or several) memes or video or transcripts of a joke, compare the content to the Internet, other files of comedy you might have on your computer or in the cloud, and then receive a PDF report with an originality and similarity percentage? Then, and only then, could you (or perhaps an executive board of comedy judges that could simultaneously review the same PDF) decide if something was fresh enough to earn your guffaw?
Of course not. However, we’ve probably all felt the pang of second-hand embarrassment when a stand-up comedian or older relative starts telling a joke that we’ve all heard a thousand times, so it definitely benefits a comic or writer that wants to earn their keep to stay on their toes when it comes to creating new content. In an age where hilarious people everywhere can have their jokes go viral (i.e. “The Becky Tweet”), it’s getting harder and harder to be (or, at least, seem) original in comedy.