Sometime in 2011 or 2012, a thought popped into my head that I decided to share with my friends: “money can’t buy happiness, but it can’t buy pizza rolls, which is basically the same thing.” I posted that as my Facebook status, it got a handful of likes, and I forgot about it. Then, a few weeks later, I noticed that some Men’s Humor-style Twitter account (maybe it was Men’s Humor, I don’t remember), made the exact same joke, except instead of pizza rolls, their version said beer. Another version of the same joke said donuts. That was when it dawned on me that my original joke was nowhere near as funny as I thought it was; it was an obvious joke construction that could be done to death with literally any material good.
But hey, they can’t all be winners, so need to be harsh on myself for some joke from five years ago. It’s just that I couldn’t help but think of this occurrence last week, when Workaholics writer John Quaintance tweeted out a picture of a board from the show’s writer’s room that featured a list of comedic phrases they think should be retired. Amazingly, “money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy x” didn’t make the cut (well, not yet), but a ton of other cliched jokes constructions that I’ve also been known to use did. I’ve definitely worn out jokes like “…too soon?” or “and by X, I mean Y.” The one thing I took comfort in was knowing that I wasn’t alone; all of us had played are part in making these jokes so played out.
Some of the jokes on the board were originally pretty funny when they were first conceived of. A thorough examining of the list reveals jokes that originated from places like The Simpsons (“…I can explain!”), Norm MacDonald (“Wait, what?”) and Louis CK (the infamous “bag of dicks” line) and were simply driven into the ground. Other phrases like “cray-cray” and “white people problems” were never funny. When looking at the originally funny jokes that became played out after overuse, it’s worth considering why those jokes were so done to death. When thinking back to my uninspired pizza roll joke, I have to think that the rise of social media plays a role in that.
Just as the internet turns everyone into amateur pundits/economists/lawyers/whatever, it also turns us all into comedians. We want to make our friends laugh and get those sweet, sweet likes on our Facebook statuses. Sometimes, we think of jokes that are actually pretty inspired, but other times, we rely on an old staple to do the trick one more time. And if we’re too lazy, we can just borrow a meme from places like 9GAG or The LAD Bible, or any number of outlets who have thousands of followers from basically posting the same jokes over and over again. With all of this over-saturation, it takes hardly any time at all for jokes that were once funny to grow incredibly stale. While this overflow of mediocre humor may seem like a negative, there’s a strong argument to be made that it has ultimately made comedy stronger for one simple reason: everyone has to try harder in order to stand out.
In the pre-social media days, anyone at school or the office could immediately become the cut-up just by memorizing a handful of jokes. Now, everyone has access to those jokes, so getting a reputation as The Funny One means you have to be a bit more clever. Perhaps more importantly, the same holds true for actual comics. For years, we’d hear the same jokes over and over as we wondered if each instance was a case of theft or parallel thought. In the age of Twitter, dozens of people are all going to think of the same joke, and if you try it out on open mic night, the crowd is going to know what you’re up to. People don’t go to the club to have their Facebook feed regurgitated back at them, so you’ll need to try a little harder.
In the social media age, we burn through humor a lot quicker (just look how quickly we all got sick of Harambe jokes), and while that may mean we have to put up with irritating memes long after we’ve all grown tired of them, it also means that the people really willing to work for it can stand out and create material that rises above what you’ll find on your typical humor aggregation page. With so much material out there, the bar for what you need to do in order to be truly funny has been raised considerably, and that is most certainly a good thing. If we have to weed through some stale jokes and memes to find the truly inspired material, the brilliant comedy we’ll find on the other side will be more than worth it.