New York Times Writes Second Obit for the Joke - and Then a Third

It’s been months — four months, in fact — since the New York Times first announced the death of the joke — an art form, the Times suggested, that may have at last succumbed to other forms of humor. Irony. Sarcasm. Seinfeldian observations.

It was in May that Warren St. John wrote a witty autopsy of the joke for the Times’ Sunday Styles section, recounting the life and death of the art form. It wasn’t an entirely convincing thesis, but while the joke may or may not be dead, we learned this past weekend that the Gray Lady is still busy tossing dirt on its grave.

To wit: Yesterday, in an interview with comedian Stephen Colbert for the Sunday Times magazine, Deborah Solomon did her part to help confirm the rumors.

“I just read somewhere,” said Solomon, “that jokes are less popular than they used to be.”

“You mean like, ‘Two guys walk into a bar’?” Colbert responded. “I think you are right. I get emailed jokes a lot — by friends who are not in the business. Jokes live on in email. Email has become a museum of jokes.”

But let’s back up to the joke’s original demise. The way St. John put it last May was this: “In case you missed its obituary, the joke died recently after a long illness, of, oh, 30 years. Its passing was barely noticed, drowned out, perhaps, by the din of ironic one-liners, snark and detached bons mots that pass for humor these days.”

“The joke died a lonely death,” he continued. “There was no next of kin to notify, the comedy skit, the hand-buzzer and Bob Newhart’s imaginary telephone monologues having passed on long before.”

“While many in the world of humor and comedy agree that the joke is dead,” concluded St. John, who then contradicted his earlier speculations by confessing that “there is little consensus on who or what killed it or exactly when it croaked.”

While the question of who killed the joke may remain a mystery, one thing is clear — the Times intends on burying it again. And again. And again.

Yesterday, for instance, the same Times magazine in which Solomon and Colbert re-interred the joke, debuted a new section called the Funny Pages. In the introduction, the editors noted that while in some sense the section was a throwback to an earlier era, the weekly dose of humor would also be very much of the current zeitgeist (read: heavy on observational humor, light on jokes).

“With this issue, the New York Times Magazine introduces a new department: The Funny Pages,” wrote the editors. “No joke — but, we hope, smiles, suspense and satisfaction.”

“Each week, a new author will present a story from his or her life, told (as we hope you’ll find) with a sense of humor,” added the Times. “Like the lectures, our True-Life Tales represent one effusion of a new cultural phenomenon (which is, of course, also an old cultural phenomenon): humor writing that employs the tools of storytelling, not joke telling.”

Good idea. Because, we read somewhere that jokes are as stale as “Two men walk into a bar …”

Felix Gillette

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Felix Gillette writes about the media for The New York Observer.