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The Go-To Joke

Funny people — honestly, inspiringly, hilariously funny people — have the enviable talent of making it look easy. Get a few of them in the room together, or in a virtual “room” like a Facebook thread, and the bon mots flow like water from a faucet. Each clever quip is like a challenge for the others to top, and the rise to the occasion. The responses seem unpredictable and spontaneous. I’m not sure if I’m one of these funny people, or if I’m a pretender. I’ve just become aware of the “go-to joke,” and I suspect I’m not the only one.

See, you prepare to be funny by mentally filing a set of potentially funny references, then referring to them when the time is right. This works best for pop-culture jokes. My go-to joke in the category “James Bond,” for instance, is “No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die.” My go-to “Star Wars” joke is “I find your lack of faith disturbing.” You may see a pattern here. So if a group of people are joking about a Hello Kitty-marked Darth Vader costume, I’m likely to respond, “I find your lack of pink disturbing.”

This isn’t a perfect strategy. If you’re a professional comic or a prolific tweeter, it’s likely that you won’t want to repeat a joke, or a joke form. So you have to choose the right moment, with ninja timing, to spend the cultural reference that you’ve privately found amusing.

There are shared go-to jokes that lose their power by being shared. By now, you’d have to come up with something really innovative to get mileage out of “All your base.” And if your go-to joke about Kanye West starts with “I’ma let you finish,” I think I’m probably a not let you finish that particular joke. It’s been done before, and you get laughter of familiarity, not of surprise. Ideally, the joke will be something that everyone knows, but no one’s thought to joke about.

Then again, there’s the “never not funny” category, which does have its charms. I must confess I’ll laugh at any joke where the punch line is “Ryan Seacrest.” In fact, this could be a good update to some old knee-slappers:

“Why do firemen wear red suspenders?”
“Ryan Seacrest.”

“Did you hear about the blonde who was fired from the orange juice factory?”
“Ryan Seacrest.”

A side note. If your go-to joke about Ryan Seacrest is “Brian Dunkleman,” here are two pointers: One, you need to update your go-to file from the 2002 edition, and two, Ryan Seacrest IS the joke.

Another side note: Sometimes old jokes can be flipped. A joke in which the setup is Richard Gere and the punch line is “gerbil” would be old a decade ago. But if the setup is talking about gerbils and the punch line is Richard Gere, it could work. This wouldn’t apply to the Dunkleman joke, because only one person ever thinks about Brian Dunkleman anymore. (Yes, that would be Ryan Seacrest.)

Humor is often about characterization. In casual settings, when you tell jokes you present yourself as a character, in effect saying, “Wouldn’t it be funny if I were the kind of person who actually said this?” This effect is heightened in sitcoms, which not only have to make jokes funny, but make them develop characters that we’ll want to watch weekly. This is how “The Office” makes the old “That’s what she said” joke new again — we’re also laughing at how juvenile and banal Michael Scott is for falling back on that joke, but also giving ourselves permission to find it funny.

This principle is why a sitcom can walk a tricky line–the line between a clever go-to joke and an offensive stereotype. It’s probably no mistake that the first original American episode of “The Office” was “Diversity Day.” We could laugh at Michael Scott for being a boor who finds nothing inappropriate about reciting Chris Rock routines–but also laugh at ourselves for laughing.

A counter-example comes from the 2008 season of “Last Comic Standing,” advertised as featuring comics from around the world. A comedian from India went by the stage name of Papa CJ. It became obvious that the two go-to jokes about India that formed his act were:

1. Indians have long names that are hard to pronounce.
2. Indians work at call centers.

Even though I am inclined to like Indian culture and Indian humor, I thought Papa CJ fell terribly flat. For one, the majority of people I met in India had one of four surnames: Kumar, Kapur, Sharma and Singh. Only a handful of them work at call centers. So Papa CJ was not making comedy from his own character, but from his wild guess about what an American would find funny. We didn’t have a character to laugh at, just a reinforcement of the ways Indians can be annoying to someone who’s never left America.

Humor about people will always walk that tricky line, because you can’t talk about people without talking about categories. Categories of religion, ethnicity, language, ability, sexuality, etc., are all ripe for humor, but also the basis of discrimination and mockery. If I may get all Buddhist for a second, there’s a humor of compassion, a humor about people that grows from the observation that people are wonderful, and the differences among people are wonderful. A joke that hinges on knowing that a certain population speaks unusually or behaves unusually doesn’t have to be an ostracizing, mocking humor. It can embrace people as part of a wonderful world. Having a go-to Korean joke isn’t necessarily a sign of racism. But it could be.

India has a billion people, and as such, has a billion sources of funny. After two trips to India, I’d have to say my go-to India jokes are:

1. “Hallo sir, you buy peacock? I sell you peacock, veddy cheap price.”
2. Monkey attacks.

Seriously, pedestrians usually move to the other side of a road when they see a monkey coming. It seems a little racist. That is, until I experienced first-hand what monkey muggers are capable of … but that’s another story.

I joke about my visits to India to cover a truth I’m a little ashamed of. I hated India. During my first trip, I tried in vain to get Air Canada to move up my return ticket; after one week in India I was begging to escape, calling it a hell-hole. I swore I’d never go again. After four years, though, I couldn’t deny the urge to go back — but I also couldn’t explain it. I needed a word for what made me buy another ticket; what would get me on another flight to Delhi. The only word that made sense: “I’m going back for the LOLs.”

This is all to say that a sitcom about an American’s experience in India would have the potential to be very funny. Or not. This will be tested this fall, as NBC announced it had picked up a series called “Outsourced,” and released a short video — one of those sitcom trailers that reveals most of the plot of the pilot episode in three minutes. From what I’ve seen so far, I’m hopeful.

Yes, its very premise is the go-to joke that was tired for Papa CJ two years ago. But maybe that’s a good sign. The show “Community” got the go-to jokes about community colleges out of the way in the first episode, which left it free to explore the characters and let us see from their perspective. If “Outsourced” has any kind of staying power, it will be because we come to care about the characters and see from their perspective. Any disdain for the characters’ Indian ways will come from the character of the schlubby manager from America, so it’s as much a joke about schlubby Americans as it is about Indians.

And the show also has Indians-and-their-funny-names humor. One of the employees is named Manmeet, which the American manager smirks at. Yes, juvenile humor. But when I was in a taxi on the outskirts of Amritsar in Punjab, I laughed so hard at a sign for the Hotel Manmeet Palace that I had to share it on Facebook. The schlubby American — that’s me.

Bija Andrew Wright


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  1. Sad that I know this off the top of my head, but it’s Brian _Dunkleman_.

  2. Fixed. Brian Dunkleman thanks you! Now he’ll be able to find this article in a Google search.

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