Saturday, October 18, 2008

Spin This Joke

As soon as I write something, I find that someone has said it better. For instance, after writing "Steal This Joke," I found this gem from Arthur Godfrey's Stories I Like to Tell. (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1952, p.79) I'm not going to steal it or "spin" it as one compiler of jokes calls what we do; I'm going to borrow it, that is, quote it -- at least until I figure out a way to make it mine.

A 13-year-old high school boy originates a joke and puts it in his school paper. A press agent, home from New York for a vacation, sees his old school paper and clips out the joke. He sends it to a Broadway columnist who prints it. Someone else puts it in a book as something that happened to Alexander Woollcott or John Barrymore. A man acting as a toastmaster at a big dinner picks it out of the book and uses it. A radio writer at the dinner steals it and uses it on the show the next day. A night club comic hears it on the air and tells it at the club. A high school teacher, in New York for a fling, hears the joke at the night club and tells it to his principal when he gets back. The principal remembers seeing it printed in the school paper so he calls the boy in who wrote it and gives him a severe talking to for printing old jokes.

Poor kid.

Godfrey doesn't know who thought this up either, but he uses it as an example of the life cycle of a joke. All humorists, including those who merely aspire to the name, recognize the phenomena. We laugh while going, "Now how can I steal, pardon, spin, this?"

As always, feel free to appropriate.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Steal This Joke

About the most originality that any writer can hope to achieve honestly is to steal with good judgment. -- Josh Billings

In a class in Stand-up Comedy, the instructor advised us to steal jokes to make up our routine. Fortunately for us, among the things that can’t be copyrighted are jokes and titles. Comics do create original material, but it takes both practice and experience to write good, funny jokes. I did make up a couple of the jokes I used, but for the most part, I stole the material.

One joke in particular I lifted from the Reader’s Digest -- an excellent source, by the way.

Hi! My name is Letricia Ferguson, and I am very glad to be here tonight!

Do you like the name “Letricia”? I picked it out myself. When I was born, my mother didn’t give me a name, only the initials, L.B. When I went to work at my most recent job, the Human Resources Department demanded that I give them my full name not just initials. We argued about it for some time. They finally agreed to accept L. (only) B. (only) Ferguson. Sure enough when I got my first check, it was made out to Lonly Bonly Ferguson.

There are people on the West Coast who think my name really is “Letricia.”

Of course, I changed the set up, the location where the situation occurred, the organization, and the name to a variation of my own which in turn modified the punch line. In short, little remained of the joke but the idea -- which is, of course, what I stole.

That is what writers do, we steal an idea or situation and then we modify it. T.S. Eliot is reputed to have said, “Mediocre writers borrow, great writers steal.” I don’t think that is actually what he said, but at least when modifying it, we give him credit.

There are only 1 to 36 standard plots, depending on who is counting and the criteria being used.* We take these basic situations and we change the names, the genders, the characteristics, the locations, the technology, the threat, the means to overcome it, the climax, and the denouncement. We add and subtract sidekicks, love interests, villains, and obstacles. But the basic plot, yeah, we steal that.

So if you are ever privileged to hear my stand-up routine, feel free to steal from it.

* Here is a link to a list of these plots: Google has an interesting answer to the 7 basic plots here: Scroll down to the last comment to find a summary of Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories. Here is a link to a very funny discussion of RPG plots: Finally, here is a link to a Scientific American article about story telling:

BTW My mother gave me a perfectly good name, not initials. It is a joke.

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