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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