The Problem With Jokes

There’s a fundamental problem with jokes.

Think of music. There’s no “getting” a song. No nice, that’s that, move on. You can hear a song that moves you thousands of times before you need to give it a rest.

When you love a piece of music, the affair goes on and on until one of you changes. The song’s permanent, so the relationship only changes when you change. Even then, you’re probably still wed for life.

That old Adam And The Ants song doesn’t move you in the same way as when you were eight, but it’s a touchstone. You’ve got history. It’s a family member that knows you better than your own family.

Think of jokes. A vital element of a joke is surprise (see here about that). Once you’ve heard the punchline, that vital element is gone. You can still enjoy introducing someone else to that feeling you got when you first heard the joke, but for you, the thrill is gone. As a thing that’s supposed to do a thing, it’s stopped doing that thing.

Tom Stade and Rich Hall got around this problem with two routines. And I think it’s because they’re like music. In case you haven’t got time to click, I’ll outline them.

One of them is Tom Stade’s “Meat Van” routine. Tom talks about being in Bilston (it’s already funny) and a man shows up to sell meat from the back of a van. The salesman has a style half-way between carnival barker and Martin Luther King, Jr.

If this routine was a song, the verses would be the meat van guy introducing each cut of meat (verse one: “I got a rump roast…”, verse two: “I got eighteen pork chops…”).

The choruses would be: “Do you know what I’m going to do with this [insert name of cut of meat]..? I’m gonna put it on the scale!”

In songs, after the second chorus, people get used to the pattern. Time for a guitar solo. The guitar solo in this routine is when Tom says: “I got a bag full of faggots”. He moves away from the main theme tune to riff on the bag of faggots. It’s a blistering guitar solo.

Rich Hall’s Tom Cruise Bit is equally beautiful. He describes the formula for making a Tom Cruise film (“He’s a cocktail maker. Pretty good cocktail maker, too. Then he has a crisis of confidence. Can’t make cocktails anymore. Then he meets a good-looking woman, talks him into being a better cocktail maker. End of film!”).

Then he says the whole thing again, but substitutes “cocktail maker” for “race car driver”, then he does it with “jet pilot” – On and on, each time funnier than the last, as the predictability of Tom Cruise films is roasted.

This one’s more like a ballad. We’re thinking: “Where’s he going to go in the next verse?” Rich finally pulls out a surprise ending to make it work as a joke joke.

My guess is, because these routines are such beautiful creations, Rich and Tom didn’t set out to solve the problem of how to make a replayable joke. They just showed up to work, beavered away, and one day were proud parents.

Maybe it’s because these jokes are like music, I’ve actually enjoyed listening to them just now with the same intensity as I did when I first heard them.

It’s just a pet theory of mine, I don’t know what it means, but I thought I’d share it with you.

Ps. If you’re having a crisis of confidence, just check out the thumbs down on these YouTube clips. They’re both about as good as art can possibly get, but there’s still someone out there not smiling. Trying to please everyone is just not a worthwhile mission.

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