I was in the shower just now, and came up with a joke. It is a horrible joke; it is a low, disgraceful joke, and so I am happy I also came up with some philosophical meanderings to wrap around it.
The joke is:
“I wonder if anybody every called Little Richard… Tiny Dick?”
Now. I am very sure many other people have come up with this joke before me. (That they have actually inflicted it on other people, I’m not so sure about.) That’s the problem with jokes: you can come up with them on your own, and still appear unoriginal. What’s worse, because me and most of us aren’t professional wits, our jokes can appear like mutilated, half-remembered, less funny versions of existing jokes.
This is not such a problem with, say, novels, because literature has a coarser granularity. (Fancy words, aren’t they?) The judged unit of literature is “a novel”, not “a novel idea”. You could give a couple of novelists the same hundred-word novel idea, and each would (could?) produce an independently interesting novel. (Writer types often say that ideas are easy, and execution is hard. This is true; in my amateur novelist capability I’ve come up with hundreds of ideas and ran away from execution like… uh, Wikipedia has no list of famous people who have escaped the death penalty so I have no stinger for this.)
With jokes, there’s the idea and the telling of it, and the idea is much more important. With humor it’s much easier to appear a plagiarist, or an unoriginal hack. (I don’t know if there has been research on people re-telling jokes vs. coming up with original ones, and the spread of such things; if you could inflict horrendous 24/7 spying on people, that might create interesting data. Oh, wait; maybe eventually a university will go to Facebook, cash in hand, and suggest a data transfer…)