John’s World: Stop Me If I’ve Told You

January 3, 2014 06:56 PM
John Phipps

It now has become part of my writing process to pull out the archived copies of this column to make sure I haven’t been down this path before. History may not repeat itself, but I sure do. More alarmingly, I frequently have no recollection of writing the words printed with my name. More often than I care to admit, I have to ask Jan, "You let me write this?"

In the past decade, I’ve also developed sensitivity to certain facial clues from listeners that the verbal story I’m building into is a rerun: eyes widening in alarm, a slight distancing and a carefully neutral expression used to puzzle me. Now I halt mid-story, abruptly pretending to get a text message. Or if I’ve forgotten my phone, a kidney stone.

This has not always been the problem for humorists. Ancient bards would memorize boisterous and, let’s face it, mostly ribald yarns of enormous length, lasting for hours in the re-telling. Audiences loved it, even though it was word-for-word from the last time the bard played the old ancestral hall.

We might not have changed much. At several points in my life, I have listened to or read the same humor so many times I could recite it from memory. Anybody watch "Christmas Story" for the umpteenth time this past December? Who amongst us cannot rattle off a few lines of "Trouble in River City" or for Millennials, the "rock-paper-scissors-lizard-Spock" explanation?

I have read scholarly books on comedy such as—and I am not making this up—Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar, which attempts to connect some very obscure jokes to philosophy. I have listened to Steve Martin talk about doing standup and how hard it was to come up with 10 minutes of material. And it turns out the best answer is, like the bards, to find new audiences, not new material. So, please share this issue with a friend or two.

What was funny is no longer outlandish. Who smiles at bib overalls in a room full of pajama pants

My point is not merely how hard writing award-resistant humor is, but that it becomes even harder if your audience doesn’t change much. Of course, as one friend told me, "If you can’t remember, not many of your readers will." It is an odd comfort to realize your work is so forgettable it might just counteract your lack of creativity.

It’s no wonder that many great humorists burn out relatively early. Dave Barry, Bill Watterson, Berkeley Breathed, Dan Quayle—all gone too soon. Originality, even when boosted by obviously flawed brain chemistry, is not inexhaustible.

What’s left? Another more specific challenge for me is the relative range of farm humor. Let’s face it: How many jokes can you make about fractious animals, new technology, marketing failures and even our favorite old standby, government programs? Heaven forbid we actually do what I advocate and eliminate the farm program, leaving me with even less cannon fodder. The LDP quips have kept me going for what—three years?

Nor has technology been an inexhaustible vein. While I laughed at my efforts to master everything from PCs to drones, the basic jokes are similar. Learning stuff is hard, especially for people who learn by doing, not reading, or perhaps more accurately, learn by breaking.

Farm life has not been exactly static either, so spoofing the disadvantages of country life doesn’t have the same kick. In fact, the few remaining differences between rural and urban life boil down to ambulance arrival times (you’ll start thinking about that, too), pizza delivery envy and the hilarity of the idea of "school choice." Seriously, in my part of the country, our only option is, "I’d like one, please."

Formerly hilarious farmer behavior is no longer outlandish. What used to pass for bucolic absurdity can be matched regularly in the halls of government or boardrooms of high finance. Snipe hunting makes more sense than Bitcoin, after all. Who smiles at bib overalls in a room full of pajama pants? And when reality is drone delivery of your Cuisinart accessory, tipping cows seems downright reasonable.

Today’s jokes become tomorrow’s reality. Air-conditioned tractor seats? Selfies? Talking refrigerators? Life coaches? Dog cologne? Too late—you should have laughed earlier.

So if we in the business are tempted to reach back into our inventory, it may be because we are fearful the next wild idea we make fun of will come true. Funny how that works.

What do you get when you cross the intellect of an engineer, the heart of a farmer and the charm of a TV host? The ever-witty John Phipps. Contact John: 




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