Funny, in 140 Characters or Less

Comedian Andy Kaufman

The Internet killed the joke. Humor still exists, witticism are coined all the time, sarcasm is widespread and of course there are still television sitcoms. But the joke, at its best a short story that ends with a punch line, is dead. An ancient tradition that took place when people met up and someone said "I've got a joke," waited for those around to stop talking and began telling a story at the end of which everyone was expected to laugh - it's gone.

Here and there one can still hear jokes being told. Older people still enjoy saying things like, "Do you know the one about the Persian and the sock?," ignoring the response in order to relate, in agonizing detail, a joke that is supposed to evoke gales of laughter. Young children, too, maintain the tradition religiously. They enjoy being the focus of attention for long minutes and take pleasure telling, in their sweet inarticulate way, stories about rabbits who meet lions that win forced laughter from their parents.

But it seems that between those extremes of age, jokes are rare. Jonathan Sharoni, 23, a radio journalist and reporter, says that among his friends no one tells jokes anymore and it seems they are not alone. "Our humor has changed. Instead of telling jokes we exchange barbs. Telling jokes to make people laugh doesn't fly, it feels like something my parents would do."

It's hard to put one's finger on a single explanation for the phenomenon. Five years ago The New York Times ran an article on the death of the joke. Then, when the Internet just began to really blossom, the explanations - geared to an American audience - focused on the strangulating effects of political correctness. But there seems to be no connection. Sharp satire still exists, as does insulting and off-color humor. Political correctness has lost its shine over the years and one can assume it never had much influence in small forums, among friends.

Another explanation, not mentioned in the NYT article, is that the Internet, or to be more precise the virtual space, is what killed the joke. Various studies and articles from recent years claim that the surplus of information on the Internet stymies the development of long narratives; in addition, they argue, Internet access creates a dependence on bits of information with no central connection forming them into a coherent plot.

A few weeks ago journalist Ben Macintyre published a commentary in The Times of Britain, dramatically titled "The Internet is killing storytelling." He argued that the nature of text messages, Twitters and short blog items that we contend with daily dictates how we read texts. We have lost our patience for long texts, preferring instead to accumulate fragments of stories and information. The fate of the joke is apparently a symptom of the wider phenomenon described by Macintyre. The lack of patience and of attention allows for no more than the punch line, and those who once told jokes now skip over the story and go straight for the witticism. The virtual space restricts the freedom once enjoyed by the joke-teller. If you want to be funny you must conform to the formats available, whether they be tweets on Twitter, parodic videos posted on YouTube or just ordinary e-mails trying to grab the attention of the reader.

Nimrod Kamer is the manager of social networks on the Web site of the Beep cable television comedy channel and creator of the comedy series "Michael and I," due to be broadcast in a few months. In an interview he says that in his private life he doesn't tell narrative jokes. "It seems so exhausting and superfluous to create characters and a story, and it's not necessary." He declares that in the case of the Internet, "the format killed the story."

This statement is clear when it comes to television comedy series in which the framing story is more or less fixed and all that remains is for the characters, who are also permanent, to land countless punch lines. Kamer says that in addition to the various sitcoms and parodies - and, on Beep, characters who are themselves the story, such as Israeli musicians Tzvika Pik and Avi Bitter and, soon, model/actor Michael Lewis - even day-to-day humor surrenders to the formats. "Inventing a joke seems very 'out of the blue' to me, and people no longer like it," Kamer says. He says that most of the humor he encounters is based on a specific format, a sort of technological advance on the 'knock-knock' joke, based on a fixed format. As a heavy user of Twitter many of his comic experimentation and texts and consumption of humor is based on "hashtag humor." in Hebrew.

In Twitter hash tags are used as keywords to search among countless tweets sent by millions of users. Twitter messages often end with a pound sign, followed by the subject of the message. So, for example, around Thanksgiving many added "#Thankfulfor" at the end of a message, enabling anyone looking for expressions of thanks from fellow "Tweeters" to search for them. Witty users quickly adopted the concept of the hash tag, which today has almost no except in a joke in the format "Statement, #, punchline, as in: "Driving crosscountry to my mom's lousy cooking #Thankfulfor."

When you are trying to be funny within Twitter's 140-character format you must submit to the strictures of the form; in this case, all that remains is hashtag humor. Internet humor sites are often based on similar things. They offer a combination of funny video clips, ironic photographs and especially parodies about actual events with which visitors are assumed to be familiar and thus not in need of an explanation. Here, too, there is no room for the narrative joke.

An extreme exception is the joke contest on the popular blog shotevekam (www.shotevekam.co.il/). The contest, sponsored by a well-known local beer company, suggests that writers compose archaic jokes, like those starting with "a man walks into a bar." Alon Uziel, a content developer and regular reader of the blog, says, "It's amusing. There are some good jokes there." But when asked whether he himself tells jokes he says, "No, I prefer to make people laugh with wit than tell a whole story and end with a punch line."

In an interview conducted via e-mail, the blog owner - known as Shoteh, or "drinker" - explained how the idea for the contest came about. "One can say I was attracted to the format of 'a man walks into a bar' jokes precisely because there is something low-tech and old-fashioned about it. It's an imported genre, usually based on puns in English and generally not really funny. I was intrigued by the possibility of taking this rotten style, with no connection to the here and now, and making it funny. I think that creative readers and myself managed to create a few funny jokes, but more than that - the mere act of inventing such jokes with no context is comical and perhaps even better than the joke itself. In this respect one might say that something a bit more sophisticated was done here than just telling a joke. You don't laugh only at the joke but also at your engagement with it. Unless, of course, that isn't funny to you, in which case the joke's on me."

But isn't it true that the joke's status has declined significantly?

"I agree that the joke's status has declined," said "Shoteh," adding, "The joke-teller has become a leper, but in any disgrace there is also an element of interest, and so it is here. The moment someone announces that he is going to tell a joke you know that an embarrassing moment will soon follow, that there is a 99-percent chance that you won't laugh and that this itself is a comical situation. Many comical moments in "The Office" are based on this moment. Ricky Gervais (the creator and lead actor in the original, British series - A.S.) has built a career on this."

It seems that only time will tell whether the joke is truly dead, or just in a temporary coma. Still, even if it's dead one can console oneself with the knowledge that humor, the heart of the joke, has not died; it just developed in more sophisticated, and perhaps funnier, directions.