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February 03, 2008

Only Funny Once?

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowards --

"It's only funny once" was an expression I heard a lot when I was a kid. I haven't heard it much since then, for some reason.

From one perspective, it makes sense. That's if humor results from some sort of surprise. In other words, in one way or another, you are led to expect one thing, then suddenly something else happens.

It's early and I haven't had my coffee yet, so this shaggy joke is the best I can come up with at the moment. And I'll leave out the flourishes I'd use when telling it verbally.

A man and a guy named Benny Schwartz are in a bar having drinks. Benny boasts that he know everybody. The man says "That's ridiculous!" Benny says "Wanna bet?" So the man bets Benny that he doesn't know ... [here the joke rambles on where two famous persons are named and the man and Benny travel to encounter the person who, of course knows Benny]. ... In desperation, the man says "I bet you don't know the Pope." So they go to Rome. The next morning Benny says "Be at the square in front of St. Peter's at noon." So the man goes there. Huge crowd. Has to stand on the periphery. Two figure appear on a balcony, but they are almost too far away to be recognizable. The man turns to an Italian fellow next to him and asks "Who are those men on the balcony?" "Well, I don't-a know about-a the guy in-a white. But the other guy, he's-a Benny Schwartz."

If you've downed enough beers and the joke is told right, it's actually funny. But the point is the twist at the end.

On the other hand, sometimes repeated humor can be side-splitting. When they were new, Road Runner cartoons had me in hysterics, almost rolling out of my theater seat. I was laughing at the same sort of thing that had happened in every other Road Runner I'd seen.

This is a form of the running gag. In those pre-historic, pre-television days, Jack Benny had a wonderful radio program broadcast Sundays evenings featuring repeated items dealing with his stinginess. And then there was his ancient Maxwell car whose start-up was portrayed by Mel Blanc (voice of Bugs Bunny) in virtually the same slobbering way each time the car was in the script: the audience always howled in glee.

A milder and more recent example of running gags was the Muppet Show where distinctive characters kept on doing the things they always did and always provoked laughter.

Here's my problem: I'm having a tough time trying to analyze why running gags can be so funny. Yes, there usually is a slightly new wrinkle introduced which might offer a tiny element of surprise. Even so, the main element seems to be familiarity.

Why should familiarity be funny? The audience recalls its previous happy experience with the joke/situation?

What do you think?



posted by Donald at February 3, 2008


In my experience It's only funny once is a disdainful put down about some one's behaviour and has very little to do with proper humour. You say it to some jerk who has done something stupid but is snorting as if it were meant to be funny as a way of covering his ass. A coded way to remind them that you see right through it and they better not try it again.

Now surprise twist and familiarity both work because humour is a disarm button for fear and anxiety. One is a release and one is a comfort.

Posted by: TW on February 3, 2008 1:24 PM

Nah, you're thinking too much. It's only funny once is a simple put down of someone who pushes the joke too far. His first joke was funny, but he's got no timing, confidence, or skill or whatever to leave the joke or quip or remark or gag or whatever alone and move on. Everybody can say or do something funny once; accidents happen. True wits can leave the joke be, leave them wanting more, and avoid pushing it. Boors seem to be so shocked that, wow! people are enjoying something I said! Enjoying my company!! that they can't seem to resist running with the gag, trying out that one more permutation... and falling flat, leaving a bad taste, a bad impression. Primacy and recency. You want to start with a good one and end with a good one. Close well.

It's only funny once is something a sister might say to her brother to keep him in line, shut him up, help him develop some social skills.

I had two older sisters.

Posted by: CC on February 3, 2008 2:04 PM

There's something completely reassuring - because you know the exact order of every word and every gesture - about classic comedy skits. I'm thinking of Abbot & Costello's, Who's On First? Deeply satisfying on the tenth viewing. Why? It's a comfy chair you can totally relax in. And that total relaxation seems to be a prerequisite for the enjoyment of comedy, at least for the audience.

Posted by: ricpic on February 3, 2008 3:00 PM

Humor is not just about the surprise alone. Humor results when you express something that is both appropriate and inappropriate at the same time.

When a surprise is part of the joke, the surprise is usually the inappropriate part. Typical joke:
X happens.
Y happens, and Y is like X.
Z happens, and Z is like X and Y (appropriate), but not in the way you expected (inappropriate).

The reason jokes become less effective the more you hear them is that your brain learns to expect the inappropriate element, rendering it appropriate.

In the case of the running gag, the gag plays the role of the appropriate element. Something unexpected needs to be juxtaposed against the expected. The running joke is X and/or Y, and you just need to find some Z to play off it.

I've found this a useful way to break down comedy, but the only problem with this definition is that tragedy has pretty much the same definition. What the heck separates comedy from tragedy?

Posted by: Ken Arneson on February 3, 2008 4:19 PM

"What the heck separates comedy from tragedy?"

Self consciousness of the audience and social pressure of public shame.

Posted by: TW on February 3, 2008 5:06 PM

Maybe this link is relevant:

"Why We Laugh"

Posted by: Alan on February 3, 2008 5:25 PM

For some reason I remember this definition according to Mel Brooks:

Tragedy is, I'm chopping vegetables, the knife slips, blood is spurting, the ambulance comes -- tragedy.

Comedy is, YOU'RE chopping vegetables, the knife slips, etc.

Posted by: Flutist on February 3, 2008 7:20 PM

I seem to remember the concept of some jokes being "funny once" was laid out in Heinlein's "Stranger in a Strange Land" as a way to explain to a Martian raised boy that you couldn't just keep telling the same joke over and over again and expect the same response.

Posted by: Rick on February 4, 2008 10:09 AM

The way running gags work is a total mystery to me. Hmm, then there's also what you might call "signature" gags -- stuff like Jackie Gleason doing his "To the moon, Alice!" line. People loved it, and then they loved it again and again. Why?

So far as comedy and structure goes, there's something called "the rule of three" -- in other words, if you get a rhythm going, don't stop at two or four, create a little cluster of three. It seems to work too -- people seem programmed to recognize and enjoy things that come in bundles of three. I'm a little prone to get a bit speculative and mystical about this and try to connect the three main classical orders, three-act dramatic structure, the Christian trinity, the basic pattern of mother-father-child ... I'm really annoyed that there are four (and not three) bases in DNA ... Dang! It'd be so nice to be able to trace the taste for threes down to the sub-DNA level ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 4, 2008 11:02 AM

The Brooks quote I've heard is this: “Tragedy is when I stub my toe, comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die“.

On running gags, it seems to me the underlying element is the disjunction between feelings of love, and feelings of disdain or disgust. Of course the twist is necessary too. The love can be for the character, for some running gags. Or it may be self-love, in a comic portraying some weakness we know in ourselves.

So, the running gag of Homer Simpson being dumb, or liking food overmuch. You have to find a twist to make it new, but people will never get enough of him acting like a bonehead or "oooooh --- donuts!". Or Jerry Seinfeld and his germophobia.

Test of theory: look for counterexamples. One question is, are there running gags played by characters we dislike? Are there running gags about a liked character's real strengths?

Posted by: Leonard on February 4, 2008 4:47 PM

I agree with TW -- perhaps my own mother's version of "it's only funny once" will make it clearer:
"First time is funny,
Second time is silly,
Third time is a spanking."
But I've heard that repetition is funny -- that recurring characters on SNL don't get laughs until the audience knows just what to expect, and the jokes that are endlessly spoiled in movie ads are the ones that get the biggest laughs in the theater.

Posted by: Noumenon on February 4, 2008 5:09 PM

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