What is a Joke? Same Joke, Different Day
In a previous article in this occasional series, I asked when a joke is not a joke. A slightly different question is when a joke is the same joke but in different clothing.
Some jokes, which different people arrive at independently, are the same in a very obvious way. For instance, someone I know who dabbles in stand-up and comedy writing (and hopefully won’t take that description as an insult) came up with the following gem:
‘I met a guy who insisted that he was an Eighties pop star. I didn’t believe him, but he was adamant.’
A gem which a couple of years later I discovered a fairly well-known stand-up had also arrived at (he didn’t use it in his set, but each audience member got a sheet with extra jokes he couldn’t fit in, and this was one of them). The wording was different, but only very slightly (there’s only so much leeway this kind of joke allows).
A slightly trickier example: compare Demetri Martin’s joke about toilet graffiti (11.20 here)
With Mark Smith’s observation about dates (at 5 minutes):
I’m inclined to say that these are the same joke – they have the same premise, are structured the same way, and only the details of each situation differ. On the other hand, it’s possible to judge them as better or worse jokes (I prefer Smith’s), whereas if they really were the same joke, it should only be possible to contrast the delivery of each, or perhaps the phrasing.
In thinking about these examples together, a short answer is that they fall at different points on a sliding scale, from being all but identical to having something more abstract in common. What’s lacking is the kind of structured way of thinking about jokes that is possible with music, where we can compare pieces in terms of melody, harmony, chord progression and so on.
One practical implication of these questions concerns the thorny issue of joke theft. Apart from cases where the wording (or the relevant gestures) is exactly the same, such cases can only be accounted for by a common idea, or a common idea set up in the same way. [ii] But of course what counts as a common idea or as the same way of establishing it is very much up for debate, as the above examples indicate.
[i] Full disclosure – this is one of mine. I first told it a few years ago, hence the now misleading age.
[ii] Obviously it requires more than this to show that it’s a case of theft as opposed to comedians independently coming up with the same joke (as was the case in each of the examples above). But without some criterion for the ‘same joke’, the issue of joke theft could not arise at all.