Jokes, The Public Domain And Storytelling

Have you heard about the constipated mathematician?

Have you heard about the constipated mathematician?

[Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, but I know a few lawyer jokes].

Although this is another one of those subjects which other people have almost certainly already written whole dissertations about, I thought that I’d share my views on it. I am, of course, talking about what jokes can tell us about storytelling.

I started thinking about this after I read an absolutely hilarious joke on the internet about an old man waiting outside the gates of heaven (it’s at least slightly irreverent, and possibly even vaguely blasphemous, so I won’t repeat it here).

Anyway, I later ended up telling the joke to someone else and, whilst I was telling it, I noticed that I was embellishing parts of it and describing things differently. This is, of course, nothing special – it’s how people tell jokes. After all, delivery is everything.

But it made me think about jokes in general. After all, I had essentially created a new version of this joke. A new retelling which was slightly different from the one that I’d read. Again, this is nothing special. It’s part of what jokes are. Every time they’re told, someone adds something different to them or changes something slightly.

Apart from a few jokes which have been told by stand-up comedians, no-one really knows who wrote most of the jokes which exist today. In other words, most jokes don’t really “belong” to anyone. And, most interestingly, there isn’t really a “definitive” or “authentic” version of any particular joke – there are just lots of slightly different versions.

Anyway, since most longer jokes are basically very short stories, this can teach us something about storytelling.

Like with old folk stories (where, again, there are lots of slightly different versions and retellings), most jokes are essentially part of the public domain. As I said earlier, they don’t usually “belong” to anyone (unless, sometimes, if people write them down).

As such, they get passed around verbally and everyone creates their own slightly different version of the joke when they’re telling it. Instead of reciting them from a book, people usually tell their favourite jokes in their own words and in a way that they feel will be the most amusing and dramatic.

Back in the old days, the same used to be true for stories as well – then the printing press was invented and copyright laws were passed. Now, even with old stories that have gone out of copyright, there’s usually only one “definitive” version of a story. And, with newer stories, no-one else is allowed to re-tell them. In essence, stories went from being part of the collective imagination to being private property.

Although this isn’t really an article about the many faults of modern copyright law (does anyone really need to keep their copyrights until seventy years after they have died?), centuries of ever-expanding copyright laws have changed how we see and understand stories.

After all, these days, a story is something which is told in one way by one person. We say that a story “belongs” to a particular writer rather than just seeing the story as a “thing” in and of itself. Again, there have probably been whole books written about this subject and I’m probably not exactly saying anything groundbreaking here.

Jokes, on the other hand, give us a brief glimpse into how storytelling used to be. The only things that really matter when people tell jokes are that the main events of the joke have to be the same as other versions of the joke (or have to be replaced by something even funnier) and, most importantly, whether the joke is told well or not. Even the most cheesy one-liner can still be funny if it’s told in the right way by someone who knows how to tell jokes properly.

The same is probably true with stories. Because, these days, only one person is allowed to tell a particular story – there isn’t any room for embellishments and dramatic re-tellings by ordinary people.

Yes, a story might get turned into a movie and a lot might be changed but, even then, people will usually compare it to the original. Not only that, only film studios with a huge amount of money and resources can really adapt a lot of stories and, even then, they usually have to pay quite a bit for the rights to do so.

If you’d gone back four hundred years and told Shakespeare that he couldn’t put on any of his plays unless he paid large amounts of money to whoever came up with the original stories which he based his plays on, you would probably be laughed out of the ale-house.

Now, most of Shakespeare’s plays weren’t his original ideas, but he’s still famous over four thousand years later purely for the way that he re-told those stories and made them his own. For his version of someone else’s story.

What I’m trying to say is that, when it comes to stories – how you tell them matters as much as what the actual story is. So, if you’ve come up with a good idea for a story, then make sure that you tell it in a way which does it justice.

Because, even the most hilarious joke in the world [insert Monty Python reference here] can still be dreary and boring if it’s told with terrible timing and very little emotion.

And, whilst I’m kind of sad that there won’t be numerous re-tellings and different versions of all my favourite stories (and I can’t make any of my own), it’s a fact of life these days that only one person can tell a particular story. So, if that story happens to be your story, make sure that you tell it as well as you can. Because no-one else will.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

One comment on “Jokes, The Public Domain And Storytelling

  1. […] “Stand-Up Horror – A New Genre? (And How To Perform It).“ – “Jokes, The Public Domain and Storytelling.“ – “Creating Without Thinking.“ – “Feeling Uninspired? Make The Projects […]

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