Couple’s business is a joke — seriously

The Comic Wonder Web site is one couple’s attempt to keep the art of
joke-telling alive.


MILWAUKEE — People have campaigned to save whales, children, even the planet.

Now two Fox Point, Wis., entrepreneurs want to save the art of telling a joke.

Every joke that lands in your e-mail inbox is a reminder of how the Internet has compromised the ancient tradition of telling them, say Kelly and Jeff Fitzsimmons.

Sure, the Internet provides an easy, speedy way to send jokes to a wide audience. Hundreds of sites offer jokes for reading, and endless e-mails zip the texts of jokes around the globe.

But Jeff Fitzsimmons and his wife are trying to raise the bar. Their 7-month-old company, Comic Wonder LLC, is reviving joke-telling by using the very technology that has undermined it.

Performers with pseudonyms such as Captainhilariousness, MoveOverMidget, RancheroMan and StabbyThe Clown are jumping on the company’s Web site — — and competing in the oral tradition of keeping the yuk alive.

“We’re putting a flag on the hill and saying if you want to hear great joke performances, or compete to be the best joke teller, is the place to go,” said Jeff Fitzsimmons, the company’s creative director. “Our slogan is, ‘A joke is not a joke until it’s told.”’

Much of the “funniness” of a joke is, in fact, diminished when you ºsee only the text version, says Steven Sultanoff, a self-described “mirthologist” and adjunct professor of psychology at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., who always carries a clown nose with him. Research shows the social interaction, not just the joke, helps elicit the laughter, he said.

So far, Comic Wonder’s site is attracting about 1,000 unique visitors a day from places as far-flung as India and Japan, said Kelly Fitzsimmons, the company’s president and chief executive. It has also attracted a lot of attention from the state’s growing community of investors in young companies after the Fitzsimmonses presented to financiers in Madison last month at the Early Stage Symposium.

“There was a huge amount of interest — they focus on jokes, but they’re really focused on helping companies interface with customers through telephone and the Internet,” said Teresa Esser, managing director of Silicon Pastures, an angel investing group based in Wauwatosa, Wis.

Anyone can listen to the jokes just by going to Comic Wonder’s Web site.

To vote on a favorite performance or join the ranks of Captainhilariousness and the other joke tellers, users must register.

To do a performance, you provide a phone number. Comic Wonder automatically calls, and you tell your joke into the phone. Land lines make for better recordings.

Joke-tellers get no more than three minutes. And the worst thing you can do is read your joke into the phone, Jeff Fitzsimmons said.

Captainhilariousness, the only joke teller to win Comic Wonder’s weekly contest twice, told a joke that had been performed by three others but he told it better, Fitzsimmons said. One of his winning jokes, called “Definitely Dead,” was one of the funniest jokes found by a British research study, said Allen Klein, a speaker, author and self-described “jollytologist.”

Captainhilariousness says he chooses jokes based on the number of voices they allow him to do, and he once even picked a joke for the sound effect that went with it.

“For the purposes of Comic Wonder, it’s not how funny it is, it’s how much ham you can put into the performance of that joke,” said the Captain, also known as Chris Cashman, a stay-at-home Seattle dad and freelancer who does voices for radio.

Ham, in fact, is one of the prizes Cashman and other weekly contest winners can choose to receive. Canned, of course.

Comic Wonder joke tellers agree to “do media,” but they get a ramp to fame that’s easier than learning to sing or play an instrument, Kelly Fitzsimmons said.

“Our whole mission is to try to fuel that feeling of fame for the winner,” she said.

Despite their experienºce, couldn’t anyone start a site just like theirs?

Sure, they say. But they’ve already spent a year building an infrastructure to handle high traffic and developing a simple way for people to tell their jokes.

“Anybody could set up a Web site that allows people to send in videos of them singing and competing, but ‘American Idol’ is ‘American Idol,’ “ Jeff Fitzsimmons said. And everyone loves a well-told joke.

“Jokes are funny,” he said, “but people are hilarious.”

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