Everybody loves a clown.

Well, except for people who are paralyzed by fear at the mere mention of clowns (e.g. anyone who has seen the movie "Poltergeist" or heard of John Wayne Gacy, Jr.). Or people who think clowns are boring (e.g. anyone whose parents were so manipulated by classical conventions that they actually hired a clown to perform at your birthday party). Or people who think clowns are stupid (e.g. anyone who has ever borne witness to the musical stylings and stage antics of the Insane Clown Posse). Or anyone who thinks clowns are depressing (e.g. all vocational clowns).

OK, that's a horrible example. Let's start over.

Everybody loves a funnyman. He's the life of the party, the comic relief in the classroom, the guy who'll pick you up if you sink too low, or cut you down if you rise too high above other people for your own good.

He's also a relatively rare specimen. Humor is a science. Like any other science, it affects the many, but is truly understood by the very few. True masters of wit such as Voltaire, Richard Pryor, and Ricky Gervais are nearly as rare as geniuses of other sorts, such as Mozart, Albert Einstein, and Harold Bloom. Aristotle, the world's first great scientist, is rumored to have written a treatise on the nature of humor that was stolen and destroyed by Christian Monks, who apparently thought that a dissertation on humor (and humility, humor's sidekick) might distract devotees from serious, important matters such as self-flagellation and the torture of heretics.

Throughout history, the masses have related to wit the same way they have related to any complex scientific discipline. Most people understand the basic rules in the same way they understand the basic rules of physics, and can apply this fundamental knowledge of humor in certain situations. People in this plane of comic understanding include your mom, your sixth grade math teacher, and Jay Leno.

Traditionally, it has taken a more refined sensibility to grasp and apply the more subtle aspects of humor. In order to be truly funny, a person must train his mind to process all information inputs through a "How can I turn this into a joke" filter, extract certain elements, and then use his intellect to turn those elements into a carefully arranged, impeccably timed, and patently original information output (i.e. a joke).

These days, it's not nearly that complicated.

Humor is changing. In accordance with the inexorable fate of any marketable product, a cheap, homogenized, prepackaged, and extremely user-friendly brand of humor has come to dominate the consumer market.

I'm talking about the widespread practice of quoting popular movies out of their original contexts?a practice that has established itself as the preferred form of humor for my generation.

Remember when "Napoleon Dynamite" came out? Remember how much easier it was to be funny once you had seen that movie? For about a year after the film's release, you could answer anybody who asked about your day's plans by rasping, "Whatever I feel like, GOSH!"...and you were an instant hit. It didn't matter if that person had heard that line 29 times in the last hour; you would still get a chuckle.

This caused a division between those who had seen the movie and those who hadn't. While this social cleft was relatively harmless, it created some extremely awkward situations that looked like this:

Student A: (Points to friend's dinner plate) What's that?

Student B: Jerk Chicken. It's in the hot food line.

Student A: (Chuckles) Does the Jerk Chicken have large talons?

Student B: (Confused) No...It's cooked. They take the talons off.

Student A: Haven't you seen "Napoleon Dynamite?"

Student B: No.

Student A: Oh. (Picks at food in silence, later removes Student B from Buddy List.)

The release of "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy" precipitated a similar phenomenon. So did "Old School." My cleverness-substitute of choice was the relatively obscure BBC series "The Office." For about nine months, my roommates and I would pathologically insert "Office" references into ordinary conversation, confusing and frustrating friends, family members, professors, and would-be employers. Eventually, reciting actual quotes from the show became unnecessary?we would just say things in British accents and then laugh like fools.

Why do we resort to such sophomoric forms of quasi-humor? Laziness is no doubt a part of it. Catch-phrase recitation is funny; but more importantly, it's easy. Easy is attractive even to the most patient and assiduous souls. I have friends who have the diligence to spend 12 hours on a physics problem set but still use the elevator to get to the second floor of Mac House.

But camaraderie is another draw. Movie-quoting is like an inside joke that you can share with someone you don't know very well. Let's say you're eating dinner with a group of strangers, and everybody's uncomfortable. One person need only say something along the lines of, "This burrito is delicious, but it's so filling!" Everybody will laugh. Then someone else will come in with "I have many leather-bound books." Everybody will laugh again. This will go on for approximately 20 minutes, at the end of which everybody at the table will be positively chummy.

To prove an earlier point regarding the social displacement caused by movie-quoting, let me draw attention to the fact that many people reading this column didn't understand that last paragraph.

Though some might read this proliferation of "humor lite" as a death knell for comic originality, this view is a bit extreme. Originality in humor is not endangered, just elusive. Just because generic humor is cheap doesn't make unique humor any less valuable. Just because Carlos Mencia is allowed to do stand-up doesn't make me think less of Jim Gaffigan.

This is not a diatribe against movie-quoting. If imitation-based humor were a crime, I would be serving consecutive life sentences. No, this is simply an expression of appreciation for those who refuse to settle for the generic brand, even if home-cooked comedy is less reliable. As Herman Melville said, "It is better to fail in originality than to succeed in imitation."

Sometimes, it can even be funnier.