That Name Sure Sounds Funny

Jul 13th 2017


Names are comedy gold. Using a personal name instead of a generic pronoun can instantly make a joke more evocative, more relatable, more specific and, paradoxically, more universal.

In a drive-by medium like one-liners or Twitter, adding so much texture with a single word is priceless. Comedians know it, too. See how the name works in a bit like this:

It just wouldn't be the same without the "Karen," would it? How about this one:

Or this:

Starting to get the picture? Yes, Karen is the name of choice to make a generic woman sound comically specific. And if Karen is the queen of Twitter comedy, Linda and Susan are her royal court:

Whenever the Internet needs to summon up a quick wife, colleague, secretary or mom, it turns to Karen, Linda and Susan. Those three names have a lot in common. Weighing in at five letters and two syllables, they're simple and no-nonsense. Just as important, look at their historical popularity curve:

All three were top-10 names of the 1950s. That sturdy, throwback familiarity is what makes them work as everywomen. You might think of them as the grownup counterparts of the "Mid-Century Normative Child," the little Sally or Timmy who we still trot out to represent a typical child, even though today's typical American child is named Paisley or Alejandro.

Notably, there's no male counterpart to the reigning comic everywomen. On the occasions when a comedian does use a male name for effect, it's not a mid-century everyman but something more specific. Somehow, Mike or Tom just isn't funny. Todd or Kyle, though, is funny.

This gender divide makes Karen, Linda and Susan heirs to a timeworn comic trope. They're the name equivalents of the long-suffering mom in every sitcom and comic strip. Which is to say, the comic foil: the eternal straight woman rolling her eyes at the goofy man and smart-aleck kids.

That stereotypical role can rankle, because -- let's be clear -- real moms are hella funny. (Nobody better try coming to my house and making me the comic foil, thank you very much.) And yet, I'm never sorry to see Karen & co. pop up in my Twitter feed. The names are the key. They do more than amp up the humor. Even the generic, archaic secretary of a "Susan, hold all my calls" joke is a little bit more human than the nameless secretary of a cartoon panel, thanks to the magic of names.

 

Comments

1
July 14, 2017 6:37 AM

Am I the only one who totally doesn't understand the first joke, and can only sort of make sense of the third one? I think it's exactly the addition of the name that's messing me up both times, because it makes it unclear who's who and who's saying/doing what parts. Or I'm just dense.

2
July 14, 2017 10:42 AM

In the first joke, "I" is the husband and Karen is the wife. In the third one, "he" is the husband and Karen is, once again, the wife. To me, this is crystal-clear, and I'm having trouble understanding how it could be unclear to anyone else. (Especially to my twin sister, who presumably thinks similarly to me.)

3
July 14, 2017 4:41 PM

I'm a comedy writer and frequent attender of improv shows (oh, the things I do for friends...), and in my experience there is ABSOLUTELY a male counterpart to this. Similarly to Karen, Linda, and Susan, it also tends to be names that refer to a certain era of naming. The names I hear most often are names like Gary, Todd, Greg, Kevin, and other names popular from midcentury through the 70s. 

I'm curious whether the time disparity (Linda and Susan feel more 40s-50s while Kevin and Gary are more 60s-70s) has some specific meaning, or whether it's just that a lot of comedians are 25 year old guys who know nothing about names but instead have a sense of which names sound "stodgy" to them.

I'll also say that in comedy shows nowadays, I hear more Karen, Denise, and Lisa than Linda or Susan. So it could be that Linda and Susan are being phased out for "today's" mom names. 

4
July 14, 2017 4:55 PM

HNG, thanks for making me feel better.

I get the jokes. But 1) I don't think they are that funny and 2) I don't get why the names make them funnier.

5
July 15, 2017 2:35 AM

Anyone watch The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt? There's a huge joke in there about a guy who's way too "together" and has everything "figured out", so much so that he named his baby LINDA. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=31rjM7_wKoE

"That's not a baby name! That's a name for an adult woman who works in human resources!"

But I'm sure that in the 1950s, Linda did, in fact, seem like a baby name.

6
July 15, 2017 4:18 AM

I do watch and do get the joke! Linda IS a weird baby name. Great show BTW.

7
July 15, 2017 11:25 PM

Half the kids I knew from infancy and grew up with were named Linda. Nothing weird about it. What's weird is little kids named Sophie, Sadie, Hazel, Mabel, Emma....

8
July 16, 2017 1:58 PM

I shouldn't have used the term "weird." I just haven't seen or heard of anyone with the name Linda younger than my middle-aged self. If you've never seen the show, it's hard to imagine how funny it was.

But I don't think any of the ones you mention are weird either, although a couple maybe over-used.

9
By ejh
July 16, 2017 6:20 PM

When I was younger, Hazel was definitely an old lady name, and Sadie and Mabel weren't even names I thought of real living people having...

 

That said, I was born in the 70s, so I know several Heathers my age, and I found it funny on a high school trip to Germany that they thought Heather was a weird name. Now, though, I don't think I know anyone named Heather under 30, so it's probably close to being "weird" here, too... (Hm, so in another 50 years, will Heather be a hip, vintage name?)

 

(That said, I've met exactly two other people under 18 who share a name with my daughter, and know of two others, and we almost never meet anyone under 50 with her name, so I don't mind if it sounds weird on a kid or baby...)

10
July 16, 2017 6:44 PM

My son will turn 38 next month, and every single mom in my pregnant lady class who had a girl named her Heather. This is not hyperbole, every single one. Now that he is an adult, there are quite a few Heathers in his adult social circle, but so far there have been no Heathers among my little grandson's cohort.

When I was a girl, Sadie was my great aunt and Sophie was Sophie Tucker, the last of the red hot mamas. And no one thought they were cute names for little girls.

11
July 16, 2017 8:01 PM

@sarasmirks, thanks for your insights! I absolutely agree that there's a Greg/Todd/Kyle set of male comedy names, but I have the impression that they'reused someone differently from the everywoman Linda and Karen. Todd is a particular kind of guy -- probably a guy who wears polo shirts and has worked in sales. Note that the popularity of the name Todd peaked at #28, Linda was the #1 name of an entire decade and thus much more of an everywoman.

One other pattern I noticed is that when the comic foil is referred to as a girlfriend rather than wife she instantly loses a generation off her age and becomes Jessica, or occasionally Jen.

 

 

 

12
By mk
July 17, 2017 4:52 PM

I've heard Chad and Cheryl used a lot as well.

13
July 18, 2017 1:23 AM

Steve, although never Steven.

And of course the classic Kids in the Hall song, These Are the Daves I Know.

14
By EVie
July 18, 2017 1:39 PM

Did anybody ever read the old blog catalogliving.net? Sadly, I don't think she's updating much anymore, but her protagonists are Gary and Elaine, and their counterparts on the magazine living series are Gareth and Martin. It's hilarious, if anyone feels like exploring the archives.

Kate Wagner on McMansion Hell (currently my second favorite site on the Internet, after BNW) uses Cheryl in a similar manner. 

15
July 18, 2017 3:07 PM

I don't know any baby Lindas yet (only a matter of time, I assume), but I do know a baby Betty. Which has the same "old" associations to me, as an someone who is part of the "Heather" generation. When I think of an "old person", I think of Betty, Linda, Doris, etc. and not Sadie or Emma, which sound like names for little girls who I might have babysat in college.

It's wild to think that in 2 or 3 more turns of naming trends, someone younger than me is going to want to name their baby Stephanie or Jason, seeing those as "classic", "old-fashioned" names.

16
July 18, 2017 8:19 PM

Gah, you need to put warnings on these things! I've just wasted mumble hours on catalogliving.net. Also, she does seem to be updating her Instragram site (https://www.instagram.com/catalogliving/), just maybe not as frequently as she used to update the blog.

17
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