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:
*Wife blows me a kiss from across the room*
*I pretend to catch it*
*I walk over to the window and toss it outside*
“Grow up Karen”
— GoaT FacE (@EndhooS) May 19, 2014
It just wouldn’t be the same without the “Karen,” would it? How about this one:
*shakes wife awake*
Karen. Karen! Don’t make any sudden moves…he’s back again. pic.twitter.com/4Xb5jPfXPL
— Lazer Cat (@Laser_Cat) August 20, 2014
He died doing what he loved: his wife of 40 years, Karen.
— pat tobin (@tastefactory) May 12, 2016
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:
[sifting through mail]baby shower invitation? Haha, um no thanks, Linda. I have a regular size shower that I can use whenever I want
— Marin (@marinhubka) August 29, 2015
yes, we are a highly diverse company. susan in accounts is a goth
— Deirdre (@figgled) August 1, 2016
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.