The value of repeating a joke


Humour is constantly evolving and some jokes wear thin

When we were read stories as children, which many of us can recall, a large part of the enjoyment was knowing what was coming and being able to join in.

“Fee, fi, fo, fum,

I smell the blood of an Englishman,”

or “Trip, trap, trip, trap,” of the Billy Goat Gruff going over the troll’s bridge.

As more sophisticated adults looking for realism in our reading, this appreciation of repetition, or of fulfillment of expectation, has largely migrated to our sense of humour.

Sideshow Bob of ‘The Simpsons’ can step on the tines of a rake and bang his head with the handle multiple times, and it’s still funny.

Comic characters rely on repeat phrases and stances, even if it’s just the calling out of a name. Again in ‘The Simpsons’, there’s the school inspector’s inflexion as he yells: “SKIN-NER!!”; we instantly look forward to seeing the Principal in trouble.

These catchphrases are a form of branding. The audience lifts them out and uses them, and their enjoyment of the original is intensified.

The same thing works in written fiction. ‘Shiver my timbers’ is uttered 7 times by the ‘Treasure Island’ pirate Long John Silver and is then adopted by Nancy Blackett, the Amazon Pirate of the children’s classic series ‘Swallows and Amazons’. It’s the pirate’s comical exclamation ‘par excellence’.

Two articles in the BBC News, one from yesterday and one from today, list a total of 30 euphemisms, some of which have become widespread due to their application in a political context and others of which have their origins in private family use. They’re invariably funny; that’s what makes them memorable and what made them catch on, and it’s through repetition that they come into their own. I particularly like ‘Paddling up the Mohawk River’ – look it up!

What better way to highlight a fictional world than by creating original and humorous phrases, and repeating them to the point that they stick!

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