Here’s a question that used to bug the heck out of me when I was a kid. How does a cartoonist refrain from repeating a joke he has already made? I don’t mean variations on a joke. Lucy yanks away the football Charlie Brown is going to kick; Calvin goes sledding while philosophizing. In those cases the joke is different, but the frame is reused. No, I mean the exact same joke. Same wording, same setup, punchline. Everything. This becomes more pertinent as time goes by; when you’ve been drawing your comic strip for ten or twenty (or, like Charles Schultz, fifty) years, how do you keep track of the jokes you’ve already made? Do you keep a file? Do you know you’ve already made a joke the way you know to keep breathing all the time?
The question was answered for me not long ago when I read the introductions to The Complete Far Side and The Complete Calvin and Hobbes. Both Larsen and Watterson pointed out a joke they unconsciously drew twice. Amazing! No one noticed! And the fact that it was only one joke in fifteen years (the Far Side) and ten years (Calvin and Hobbes) made me feel better. I’d be worried if I started repeating myself more frequently than once a decade.
I have to assume that their editors missed the repeat as well. That makes me wonder: what if you started repeating jokes on purpose, just to mess with people? How long would it take before you got a reaction? I don’t think that’s the kind of “joke” people read the newspaper funnies for, but it’s an interesting thought.