This is no. 98 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
When telling a joke, I am simply trying to please myself. That might be my only writing rule. I am my own audience first, before a reader ever sees anything. I have to enjoy it. If I don’t, then what’s the point? This is an opinion many share about creative work. In the creation and in the consumption, it is foremost about pleasure.
Plenty of people love to piggyback on a good gag. Post your own on the internet, and you get a slew of copycat replies! Some people just want to add to it, to feel like they’re participating in the joke. But quite often someone replies by trying to tell it “better.” I use quotes here because that’s the thing about jokes; often there isn’t a better way to tell them. Something that feels funny to one person might not resonate with someone else. What gets our funny bone is often decided by our personal lived experiences: how we grew up, what we watched and loved as kids, how we relate to pop culture and media.
I am not saying copycatting is a bad thing. I do it all the time! I have riffed off a million jokes that were not mine. Sometimes they come from a television show or from a stand-up routine. Sometimes it’s a funny story I overheard at a party or a bar. All humor has an origin story. The place where you find the nugget and then expand upon it. For instance, one night I was at a bar in Tallahassee, Florida, and the woman beside me ordered a white wine. Except she didn’t say a white wine, she asked the bartender for a “peanut grigio.” This was unbearably funny to me, though no one else at the bar said a word about it, including the bartender, who simply poured the woman her drink.
Later on, I told that story at an online literary event. I mentioned how much I missed bars and working at the library, missed hearing people speak when they thought that no one else was listening. The author I was in conversation with brought up the fact it could work as a very good drag name. Peanut Grigio! This was taking the riff and spinning it out, collaboratively mining it for further content. Up front was the woman asking for the wrong drink, followed by me talking about the incident itself, followed by another person adding on to it, turning the joke into something else entirely. A completely different format. I spent a few days thinking about converting the bit into fiction that included other wine-themed drag names. The initial thing I had found funny turned and morphed. The writing became yet another layer to the joke.
Here, imitation is not only the sincerest form of flattery, but also a collaborative process, one in which we are able to uncover more layers and deck different approaches on top of one another. Lots of writers do this. Consider Samantha Irby’s wildly funny (and wildly successful) essay collection Wow, No Thank You (Vintage, 2020). All these essays are gloriously funny and many reformat jokes for gutting and repurposing, but in particular, let’s look at the essay “Lesbian Bed Death.” The essay takes a look at the “Sure, sex is fun…” riff that has been so popular on Twitter, then subverts it to encompass the trope of lesbians in long-term relationships who no longer have sex. Did Irby make up the “Sure, sex is fun…” joke? No, but the essay works because she takes the idea and collaborates with it to create something nuanced and layered, furthering the comedic effect in new ways.
Sadly, these days we live in a world where collaboration is restricted to a computer or phone screen, but in this time of isolation, I will take whatever connection I can get. So bring on the joke-replies, buddy. If anything, maybe we’ll get a new meme out of it. And if a short story pops up from that…I’ll make sure to credit you.
Kristen Arnett is a queer writer based in Florida. She is the author of the novel Mostly Dead Things (Tin House, 2019), which was a New York Times best-seller, and the story collection Felt in the Jaw (Split/Lip Press, 2017). Her writing has also appeared in the New York Times, North American Review, Gulf Coast, Guernica, and McSweeney’s, among other publications. Her second novel, With Teeth, is forthcoming from Riverhead Books in June.Thumbnail: Alexander Popov