I heard a joke on TV recently – I can’t remember where, and it might have been Dead Ringers – that went something like this:
While controversy surrounds Victoria Beckham over having a tattoo on her wrist of the date she first had sex with her husband, David says he can’t understand it as he’s had a tattoo of that for years. Friends then pointed out to him that that was a watch.
It might have been a tattoo of the time he’d first done something else, I can’t remember. That doesn’t really matter.
Now I don’t want to go all Jane Espenson on you, but the joke doesn’t work, for the following reason: even David Beckham isn’t stupid enough not to notice that his watch tells a different time every so often. The joke is that he’s a little bit less stupid than that, but it’s completely masked by the listener response of “but the time would change“.
Let’s try the joke again, without that problem (while we’re here we can fix the last sentence to flow better; I can’t remember for certain that the original phrasing was as above, but it was pretty close):
While controversy surrounds Victoria Beckham over having a tattoo on her wrist of the date she first had sex with her husband, David says he can’t understand it as he’s had a tattoo of when he last thought of having sex with Victoria there for years. He’s since been told that that is a watch.
It’s still not perfect, but it now makes sense, and there’s an important point here: the funniest joke in the world will only get luke-warm reception if it’s packaged so that people listening to it start thinking of an incongruity just before they laugh. (Unless the incongruity is the joke.) It usually doesn’t take much to fix, although sometimes to sort this kind of problem out means saying more, which is then difficult to get punchy enough to be funny, although (and this isn’t said enough to writers, in my opinion) if you trust your actors they’ll usually find a way of coping.
Normal service resumes…
Currently listening to: Black Cat Bone by Laika.