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That Name Sure Sounds Funny…

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.


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