Inerrant Rampancy

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Humor writing is hard. Let’s go shopping!

One of the many aspects of writing humorously is making sure that your jokes are current or, failing that, that they aren’t so incredibly specific to one single pop-culture event that your humor piece isn’t one the week after you write it. It’s the difficulty with any joke that seeks to be long-lasting; what do you do when no one knows what you’re making fun of anymore?

Recently I ran into this problem at a grad student reading. I was doing my non-fiction rant, ripping on Starbucks, and things were going well until I got to the part where I reference Michael Richards, of Seinfeld fame. See, a long time ago he said something really bad at a comedy club and for a little while was the butt of an untold number of jokes. Well, the number was untold; the jokes were told constantly and most of them were funny, mine included. At the very least it was relevant to the topic and to the time in which it was written, which was – again – a long time ago. As I was coming up to the line I realized that it wasn’t current at all anymore, and that some people might not even get it. I mean, I can almost guarantee most of them don’t watch as much TV as I do, so there were bound to be a few in the group who chuckle on the outside but on the inside they would feel nothing.

I didn’t panic though; I merely executed one of the appropriate responses – I acknowledged that what I wrote was no longer current. The honesty went over well and people laughed anyway. I guess I managed to get both groups, the people who got it and the people who didn’t but understood it as something that was meant to be a joke, and so as far as the reading goes it doesn’t matter. But this is a piece I had published in an online journal (as much as that’s publishing). Would someone stumbling through the archives notice how dated that line is? Would he or she care? I guess the answer is probably not, but I have other pieces with similar lines in them, referencing events and people who, while they may be in the spotlight now, will almost certainly exhaust their 15 minutes sometime soon.

So what to do?

Well, you can rely on a class of word/phrase-jokes that is almost guaranteed NOT to go out of style any time soon. They’re called “Snowclones” and they are funny in a contemporary and pop-culture oriented way, but can span decades merely by being repeated with adaptation. In a way it’s like evolution. See, you start with a catch phrase like, “Dammit Jim! I’m a Doctor not a Scientist”. Now, this comes all the way from the 70’s or so (Trekkies feel free to correct me and then hang yourselves), but it’s still bandied around today in various modified forms. I could site specific examples but you can just as easily make them up:

“Dammit Jim! I’m a contract lawyer not a mechanic!”

“Dammit Jim! I’m a hooker not a contract lawyer!”

Really, anything will work as long as it’s pertinent and it follows the same format as the original, i.e. “Dammit (Name)! I’m a(n) (Occupation) not a (2nd Occupation)!”

Snowclones get their name from a fallacious analogy involving the assumed number of words Eskimos have for snow and other linguistic instances of that phenomena, i.e. “If Eskimos have 1000 words for snow then Germans have 1000 words for bureaucracy.” It’s fallacious because Eskimos don’t have 1000 words for snow (they actually have 2 and the second one is dirty), but it was so widely used that other similarly used and modified catchphrases were deemed “snowclones”.

There’s a whole slew of them out there too, many of which you can find on either wikipedia or http://www.snowclones.org, which is amassing them as quickly as people can think them up. Some of my personal favorites are “X is the new Y”, “You’re gonna need a bigger X”, and “What do they got in there, King Kong?” which, though technically not a snowclone, is a fucking awesome line of dialogue from Jurassic Park, so shut up.

Some of these snowclones go back to the early part of the century, so there’s great potential for timelessness. You could drop a couple of these in your writing and never have to worry about being dated (except for the fact that all your humor writing is about Rick Astley, but that’s another problem). And you don’t even have to use a common one, since any line of dialogue from any movie is bound to be funny or meaningful to some loser out there who watches the same crap you do. Really, all you have to do is move a few words around and wait for the thing to take off. I suggest submitting your new snowclone to the .org database and then printing it out on a t-shirt for added legitimacy.

I, for one, plan to start using them right away, though only the highest class of snowclones will do. After all, snowclones are the new black, and only cool people can wear black.

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December 4, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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