Make It Quick: The Art of the One-liner
Some may dismiss the one-liner as an easy gag, but a good one requires real skill. Luckily, there are comedians out there who have mastered the art.
Take my wife... please.
Only four words, but one of the most famous jokes in American comedy. It was written by Henny Youngman who, in the '30s was considered the King of the One-Liners.
It's a dated joke, of course, but one-liners such as this remain with us. They're often the first jokes we both tell and 'get' -- that's why they appear on bubble gum wrappers and in Christmas crackers. On the surface, one-liners seem simple -- almost too simple -- yet even as we grow older and our sense of humour becomes more sophisticated, we still laugh at them.
Comedian Jimmy Carr, in The Naked Jape, the book he co-wrote with Lucy Greeves, examined some ideas about how and why jokes work. His explanation of the incongruity theory fits one-liners quite well:
The set-up of a joke creates a scenario with an assumed conclusion; the punchline proves a quite different conclusion, which subverts your previously held assumptions about the joke scenario. The way this is done often exploits some ambiguity in the language of the joke, as well as inverting certain conventions of social behaviour" (Carr and Greeves, 2006, p.93).
Youngman's classic illustrates this perfectly: "take my wife" leads us to expect he'll be using his wife as an example until we're hit with the "please" and we see he's actually begging for a break from the old ball-and-chain. The most important part of the joke perhaps is the ellipsis, the pause that seals our assumption so that the punchline is stronger. (Note: this is the one and only joke I will dissect. Everyone knows that explaining a joke risks killing it, and I wouldn't want to do that to any living comedian's one-liner.)
Obviously, with one-liners, incongruity must be paired with brevity. The punchline needs to come right on the set-up's tail; a classic one-liner does it in only one sentence (sometimes it takes two- to three short ones, grammatically speaking, but in the delivery, it feels like one). To add meaning without adding length, comedians rely on homonyms and words or phrases that have multiple meanings. There are often a lot of puns, which is why many one-liners elicit groans as well as laughs. Those who do it well make the wordplay clever or unusual enough to be memorable.
Like Youngman, Bob Hope was seen as a master of the one-liner. Rodney Dangerfield and Bob Monkhouse carried on the tradition. In the '80s Steven Wright perfected deadpan one-liner comedy, and in the '90s, the late Mitch Hedberg shared his observations in surreal, stoned one-liners.
In 2012, comedy writer David Quantick said that the one-liner is "an increasingly neglected aspect of comedy." Thanks to the rise of the 'reality model' (like The Office, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and stand-up gigs based on the comic's own life and emotions), he claimed that "as an art form [the one-liner's] brilliance is arguably dimmed" ("Comedians should stand up for the one-liner," The Telegraph, 21 August 2012).
He's right that comedy has changed. Many comedians now rely on a kind of storytelling -- some using carefully organised narratives and some via apparently random ramblings. Sharing the funny side of one's own life -- whether in a fictionalised version like Everyone Loves Raymond or a more brutally honest take (comedy's version of misery lit) -- is obviously popular. But not everyone goes to a comedy show to connect with a comedian's confessions or convictions. Many don't go to learn; they go to laugh. Currently, there are some great comics making audiences laugh by telling one-liners.
Carr is one of them. He's one of Britain's most popular stand-ups; his website reports his tours have been seen by over 1.5 million people. His style is often harsh -- his jokes are often the subject of newspaper articles about comedy 'going too far'. He’s been called up on jokes about the Iraq War, the death of Reeva Steenkamp, and children with Down’s syndrome (for which he made a public apology). Just this January, Ofcom busted him for a joke he told on The One Show, saying the programme “broke broadcasting rules” because of his joke about dwarfism, which was “capable of causing considerable offense” (Mark Sweney, “Jimmy Carr’s ‘offensive’ dwarf joke broke broadcasting rules, says watchdog”, The Guardian, 25 January 2016).
Perhaps as a result of this publicity, he has incorporated the analysis of controversial comedy into his work. On his 2009 Telling Jokes DVD, he has a long section about frequently being asked to name the most offensive joke. He argues that offense is not given but taken, so there’s no way for him to definitively answer the question. Instead, he tests the audience -- building up the offense to see at which point they stop laughing and just say, “Ah for fuck’s sake” as they turn away. He starts with Princess Diana’s death, moves to September 11th and abortion, before bringing out “the big guns” -- a Holocaust joke. He starts:
This next joke is just a simple piece of wordplay, a little turn on a very common phrase, yeah? Just a little bit of wordplay. The joke isn’t about what the joke is about, if you follow me, it’s about the wordplay -- yeah, you know it’s going to be offensive if it comes with a little warning beforehand.
They say there’s safety in numbers. Yeah? Tell that to six million Jews.
The joke gets a round of applause, which Carr questions as he explains that it should be the most offensive joke because it’s about the worst thing that’s ever happened in human history. However, he says it’s not; it’s really just in bad taste “because it’s taking lightly something very serious, and that’s like the definition of bad taste.”
While offensive jokes might be what he's most well-known for, Carr also works the less malignant one-liner quite well. Gags like "A friend of mine said, What rhymes with orange? No, it doesn't" and "A lot of people cry when they chop onions. The trick is not to form an emotional bond" are funny without crossing any lines of taste.
Gary Delaney is another comic who can take the one-liner to the darker side. His gags often appear on Funniest Jokes from the Edinburgh Fringe lists; in fact he's the only comedian to ever have two jokes in the same top ten. My personal favourite is his 2013 gem: "I can give you the cause of anaphylactic shock in a nutshell."
In contrast to Carr's slick persona, Delaney appears a quite laid back character. He'll often open with self-deprecating or silly jokes before moving on to the more risqué. This actually intensifies the response; there's more impact with a quick shift from a corny pun to a joke like "I was watching a really weird porno the other day that was just a fat man crying and wanking at the same time. Then I realised I hadn't turned the telly on."
Delaney also pushes the envelope with his one-liners, adding extra punchlines as the laugh from the first one dies: "I hate people who complain about breastfeeding in public -- I don't want to see it, that's disgusting, or you can't do that, you're not a woman... and that's not a baby... and that's definitely not milk."
On the opposite side of the dark-light spectrum is Tim Vine, who set a Guinness World Record for most jokes told in an hour (499) in 2004. Obviously, one key aspect of Vine's act is speed, which is part of what drew him to one-liners -- he's explained that he was uncomfortable with any silence between jokes, so he just kept bringing the gags.
Vine's comedy is quite silly with lots of puns, some occasionally tipping towards the so-bad-they're-good range. He sings a little and dances a little and often ends with a quirky trick of catching a pen behind his ear. He also uses props -- not as an organic part of a storyline, but purely to lead to a gag. For example, he pulls out a little bird statue, which he describes as "a small blue bird made out of mahogany" and then says, "It'd be great if I had a related joke, wouldn't it?"
Another family-friendly comic is Milton Jones, though he comes off as less flashy and more, well, weird. While his jokes often appear to be about his own life and family -- "One of my earliest memories is seeing my mother's face through the oven window as we played hide-and-seek and she said, 'You're getting warmer'", or "About a month before my grandfather died, we covered his back with lard, after that, he went downhill quite quickly" -- it's clear these characters are just set-ups. In fact, he has a series of jokes that all begin with "My other grandfather" until he's chronicled the deaths of almost a dozen different grandfathers.
He can be a bit surreal ("Tricky, isn't it, if you're both a moth and a sea captain in charge of a ship but up ahead, you see a lighthouse") and also plays with a naive persona. In a series of jokes about travel, he says "Italians... slanty little eyes." He looks around confusedly and then clarifies, "Sorry, italics."
Like Delaney, Jones frequently appears on the panel show Mock the Week, which pokes fun at recent news events, but Jones' jokes are rarely political. Instead, he squeezes in a odd one-liner about something seemingly unrelated, which can sometimes take the audience (and the other comedians on the panel) a second or two to catch on to.
Stewart Francis, in many ways, brings us round to where we started as his style is slightly deadpan with old school charm. He hurls zingers in quick succession as if they're all on the tip of his tongue in a rush to get out. He could give Vine a run for his money in jokes-per-minute, but his style is less frenetic and more carefully paced.
Francis's strength is in that precision, in his delivery as well as the jokes themselves. His one-liners are polished and tight: "People say I'm a plagiarist -- their word, not mine", or, "In court I was found guilty of being egotistical -- I am appealing." There are rarely connections between the gags, just hit after hit, and no filler whatsoever.
Although he's based in the UK, Francis is Canadian and perhaps his accent also helps with his debonair, simply-here-to-entertain-you vibe. He has mastered his delivery -- from the tone of his voice to the wobble of his head to his facial expression -- which means that literally every part of his set contributes to the audience's laughter.
Regardless of the comedian's style or persona, one could argue that the time has never been more ideal for the one-liner. We live in the age of the immediate; we want the funny now without having to wait a full two minutes of our valuable time for a joke's pay-off. Of course, Twitter is rife with funny people (professional or otherwise) who can make us laugh in just 140 characters. However, a short written joke is not the same as a one-liner delivered by a stand-up, because in stand-ups' one-liners, there are three key aspects: writing the joke, remembering the joke, and delivering the joke. At any one of those steps, the whole thing could trip up and come falling down.
In terms of writing a joke, most one-liners go back to that balance of incongruity and brevity: the set-up plays with an assumption and then the punchline comes as quickly as possible. In an interview with Stephen Fry, Tim Vine said he often starts with the punchline, a well-known phrase, and then works backwards (Fry's English Delight, 18 July 2011).
Milton Jones explained on the (highly recommended) The Comedian's Comedian podcast, that he often begins with an image to try to create a visual pun. He gives the example of seeing a handkerchief on the ground and wanting to come up with a different perspective that would surprise people. Eventually he lands on "I was walking along the other day and on the road I saw a small, dead baby ghost. Although thinking about it, it might have been a handkerchief."
In another episode of The Comedian's Comedian, Delaney describes the complex evolution of a joke from initial idea to final product. The process involves a careful combination of content, structure, and rhythm for it to work properly. It's clear that creating a good one-liner is not as simple as the one-liner itself appears.
I acknowledge that including any jokes in a written work about one-liners deprives them of their full humour (sorry, lads). Typing out a joke will never do it justice because, as we all know, it's all in how you deliver the line. Obviously the first step in successfully delivering a one-liner is simply being able to remember it, and when you're averaging about 40 jokes every ten minutes, that can be difficult. Many comics use trigger words (often loose themes) which they either memorise or keep on a crib sheet (Vine hides the paper on his prop table) to remind them of a series of jokes. Sometimes if you watch multiple performances of the same set, you'll see variety in the overall order, but notice clusters of jokes which are always told together.
The delivery needs to disguise that memorisation to work best. However, there's no one way to do it right; the style must fit the comedian. Jones has talked about the "family" of one-liner comics on the British circuit and notes that while they're each making similar types of jokes, they each do it in their own way, citing distinct differences between Carr's darkness and Vine's showmanship.
For his own style, Jones explained the purpose of the persona he takes on when he steps on the stage. His crazy hair and Hawaiian shirts work as a deflection, helping him create a "world other than the words" (Richard Herring's Leicester Square Theatre Podcast).
Being able to successfully do that -- create a world and pull audiences into it -- is ultimately what all creative people want to do. Comedians who tell one-liners just have to do it quickly. Whether the joke makes you roll your eyes or laugh out loud, no one can deny there's a real art to the one-liner, which is why it remains an integral part of stand-up comedy.