When I was the judge of a weekly newspaper humor contest in the 1990s, part of my job was to give readers an example of a potentially winning entry for each new competition. You might think that I’d be the best person to come up with jokes that would impress the judge, who was me. But I wasn’t. Week after week, the eventual winning entry was better than my example had been.
One week, for instance, the contest was to write a riddle that is answered by a painful pun on someone’s name. My example was:
Q: In the world of nudists, who represents Everyman?
A: John Q. Pubic.
Not bad. But not as good as the reader-submitted winner:
Q: Who wrote The Hatchback of Notre Dame?
A: Victor Yugo.
This was 1996, but I realize now that, even then, long before the advent of Wikipedia, I was seeing a primitive, proto-Internet phenomenon at work. When an audience of thousands descends as one on a challenge, the Hive Mind goes to work and produces something better than the sum of its parts. Good ideas rise to the top like cream — or in the case of my particular tastes in humor — like bubbles in a septic tank.
Basically, I know that every one of my columns could be made funnier if first submitted for improvement to the Hive. This comes as a ... stinging realization.
Of the roughly 379,502 words I have assembled into 22,712 sentences in 11 years of column writing, I have reluctantly concluded that only a single line — a hyphenated dependent clause published on Dec. 18, 2005 — is so good it cannot possibly be improved upon. It was in a column about a plumber who saved Thanksgiving by abandoning his fancy tools that hadn’t worked; he stood over my clogged toilet like a colossus, plunging it madly with all his might, turning himself into a human piston. The plumber, I wrote, was a modern-day John Henry, “a stool-drivin’ man.”
Other than that line, my oeuvre is pretty much hackwork, when compared with the theoretical possibilities of the Hive.
This is dangerous self-awareness for a humor writer. As any stand-up comic can tell you, humor requires a swagger. If you don’t think you are the funniest guy in the room, before you say a word you’re already toast. Wry toast.
I deal with this problem the same way I deal with most of my shortcomings: by fearlessly confronting the painful truth, and then denying it flatly. Sometimes, very flatly. For example, I do not have good muscle tone, in the sense that if I were hit in the belly by a line drive, the ball would comfortably nestle in, like a fetus. But in my mind, I’m a stud: My middle is as gutless as a fish fillet — cartoonishly flat, like Dagwood Bumstead’s.
In the same vein, I continue to believe I’m the funniest guy in the room. Sure, it’s delusional and obnoxious, but, hey, I’m a writer, not a comic. I can’t hear you boo, so there’s nothing you can do about it.
Or is there? Can you make this column funnier? Submit your revisions by e-mail — only one revised line per e-mail, though you may submit multiple e-mails — to firstname.lastname@example.org. Subject line: Wikicolumn. (Or you may submit revisions by commenting on this column online, one revision per comment.) Gene will objectively weigh your humor against his, and publish a new, improved column online, with all the appropriate substitutions. All published improvements will be credited. The best single change will win a signed copy of “The Fiddler in the Subway,” a collection of Gene’s feature stories.
The joke about Victor Yugo was written by Dave Zarrow of Herndon, the world’s funniest office-products dealer.