Jokes aren’t funny?

Here’s one idea I’ve been pondering when it comes to half-hour sitcoms: we (and I mean me) tend to fixate too much on jokes. A lot of the discussion is about the quality of individual jokes or how many jokes a show can cram in. But nobody really remembers jokes. What we remember is moments, or more broadly, scenes.

The most memorable moments in a comedy occur when a scene reaches a point where everything that happens in it is funny, because the scene is funny and the build-up has been properly done. That’s what we remember. The one-liners are almost irrelevant. They’re not totally irrelevant, but they’re really like punctuation; a comedy needs jokes because otherwise we won’t be in the mood to laugh. Jokes are like the warm-up.

I say this with respect to sitcoms because I think everyone understands this is true when it comes to, say, a film comedy or a play. A great comedy film does not need to have hilarious lines every five seconds, and it doesn’t provoke a lot of argument over the style of jokes (setup/punchline vs. conceptual or whatever). A great comedy film is hopefully going to be remembered for a few hilarious scenes. Even a stand-up comedy set really catches fire when it becomes something more than a series of observations or jokes and turns into a big, sweeping aria where we’re laughing at the whole thing, not the individual lines.

Instinctively, we understand that that’s true of a great half-hour comedy too, but discussion sometimes seems to get sidetracked by the focus on jokes or the frequency of jokes or the quality of the jokes — which often refers to the jokes in the early part of the episode, where not much is happening and therefore the writers need to put in a lot of “free” jokes just to break up what would otherwise be pure exposition. When we move from the discussion of jokes we often move directly to the discussion of story (it’s commonly noted, because it’s true, that a strong story is more important than jokes), but really, the story isn’t exactly what we watch a short comedy episode for; the story holds everything together and makes it go, but the scenes or moments within the story are often what make the show worth remembering.

I didn’t have enough video examples in this post the first time around, but here’s one I grabbed: The Honeymooners. The jokes on The Honeymooners were not always the freshest or the cleverest, and this is sometimes mistaken for a lack of quality in the writing. But the writing was terrific – the show always had great scenes, scenes that get laughs from the situation and the showcase they provide for the performers’ skills. It’s better to be funny than clever, as they say.

Another example I’ve used before is this exchange from the end of the All in the Family episode “Cousin Maude’s Visit.” There are a few jokes in it, some of them pretty old (“don’t sit down too hard, you’ll crush your brains”). What makes it great writing, and the most memorable part of the episode, is that it’s a deadly-serious conflict (from the point of view of both of the characters) played out in a comic way, with a physical component and subtext built into the scene: Maude is in Archie’s chair, invading his territory, and he starts the argument about FDR in order to get her mad enough to stand up. The quality of the writing, and the laughs, isn’t tied to the jokes. The best laugh in it is the opposite of a joke: Maude, trying to think of the worst thing she can say to Archie, just says “you’re fat.” That’s actually funnier than a clever joke would be, in context, because it feels real.

One reason I’ve been thinking about this is that I’ve started to re-examine my own attitude to jokes. I’ve sometimes evaluated a comedy based on the jokes, or how organic the jokes are to the story. I used to pick at Neil Simon and Larry Gelbart and even Woody Allen for the fact that their style of comedy was so one-liner dependent and that the one-liners could often fit into any context. I still think that’s true but I’m no longer sure how relevant it is.

Because, again, even in a lot of comedy that superficially looks like setup/punchline comedy, the one-liners are really just the warm-up to the big moments. They keep the rhythm going and they keep us in the mood to laugh, and so they are necessary to the comedy, but the one-liners don’t _define_ the quality of the comedy, and they’re not, ultimately, what we remember the most. What we remember in a good Larry Gelbart M*A*S*H is not his facility with one-liners but the bigger comic or dramatic moments. The one-liners are a form of comedy punctuation, keeping the comedy rhythm going. They don’t make the show, but they don’t break it either.

Here’s another example, going back to the last Depression. Groucho Marx’s first scene in Duck Soup. Some of the one-liners are great; some are less great; we all have our own ideas about which are the good ones. But I don’t think the one-liners themselves are what make the scene. If they were, any half-decent comedy writer could write a good scene for Groucho, and not all his scenes are of this calibre. What makes the scene funny is the situation. Groucho has been put in charge of a whole country by the patronage of this woman, and his first act in the film is to insult her, insult the whole idea of the rituals of power and privilege. The jokes aren’t completely irrelevant; a string of terrible jokes would ruin it. But it is memorable because it is a scene, about something, and not just a string of insults.

That doesn’t mean bad jokes or irrelevant jokes can’t hurt, or that great jokes can’t help. No one wants to sit and listen to bad jokes; if one or two jokes are lame, nobody cares, but if all the jokes are terrible, change the channel. And pile-up of bad jokes will kill the scenes they build up to, even assuming that the writers could come up with a good scene, and if they can’t write jokes, they probably can’t write a comedy scene either. (It’s also true that good jokes can hurt a show if they focus our attention on the cleverness of the writers, and that jokes that aren’t clever on paper can be better, in context, than clever ones. Sometimes the writer who writes “uh-huh” or “okay” is writing better than the one who puts an imaginatively-phrased joke in that same spot.) But if an episode has a few lame setup/punchline jokes early on, or a few brilliant conceptual jokes, it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference to the overall funniness of the episodes. It’s perfectly possible to have a few lame jokes lead up to a magnificent payoff or a scene full of great jokes to add up to not much.

A lot of the great shows, oddly enough, are at their weakest in the one-line jokes. (And a lot of not-so-great ones have had perfectly decent joke writing.) Murray’s one-liners are often lame punctuation to a scene on Mary Tyler Moore, ditto Buddy’s jokes on The Dick Van Dyke Show. Seinfeld, as so often, came up with an innovative solution to those slow moments early in the episode: they didn’t really bother to put jokes in there, but they had lines or exchanges with a comedic feel (plus the standup sequences, which did have jokes and established the comic mood from the beginning). Seinfeld did a lot of interesting things that surprisingly few comedies have tried to learn from. Just cutting the number of jokes down to the minimum – and focusing on scenes, exchanges, dialogues – is one of the best. The writers of Seinfeld basically realized that you don’t even need jokes in a comedy, you just need the characters to talk about funny things.

But even on a show that drops some obvious or corny jokes early on, those moments are just laying the pipe, anyway. If an audience is in the studio, the audience is not really there to laugh at those easy jokes; the audience is there for moments like the Phil Silvers Show “monkey” scene, where the crowd simply can’t stop laughing at the situation itself and the performers can’t stop feeding off the crowd energy. Again, it’s not really about whether the audience laughs at the little jokes — they should laugh a little, just because they’re in the mood. What kills a show is tepid reaction to the big scenes. Then it’s doing something wrong.

But the same idea applies to any type of show. Quoting lines and jokes is really for internet memes and comments sections. What keeps an episode alive is remembering stuff that happened — which may not be a physical moment exactly, it might just be something like the famous “lessons” gag from Arrested Development. The moments we remember can be from a long scene, a short scene, or an entire episode (the paintball extravaganza from Community had the minimum amount of setup followed by a very long, intensely funny scene that spun off funny moments inseparable from the basic situation). What’s the bit everybody remembers from that one season where The Big Bang Theory was a critical favourite? It’s the gift exchange scene from the second and best season. There are no jokes in the scene, which is how you know it’s working — the situation has taken on a life of its own at that point in the episode and that’s what the crowd is laughing and cheering about.

Update: I think some of the above was not very clear – then again, writing about stuff that’s not completely clear in your own mind is one of the things that blogging is about. To clarify, let me try and explain the kind of discussion I was referring to. A lot of times the discussion of a comedy, especially a TV comedy, will circle around the quality of the jokes, or the quantity of the jokes a show can fit in. Certain types of jokes are considered hacky and a sure sign of hacky comedy (“setup/punchline” being the ultimate sin). Other types of jokes are considered a sign of wit and sophistication. And shows are often criticized for not having witty writing or getting laughs with jokes that aren’t jokes. (All the “Big Bang Theory minus laugh track” clips are based on the fact that the show has a lot of jokes that aren’t really funny on paper.) I’ve done it myself, criticizing shows for having too many conceptual jokes or “writers’ room jokes.” But I got to wondering how important this is to how funny an episode is, or how funny we remember it being. Jokes of all kinds tend to be insubstantial; they’re here and they’re gone. At best they’re clever, at worst they’re groan-worthy. But there’s not a one/one relationship between the cleverness of the joke and the quality of the scene.

I don’t have a really good example of this, but here’s an episode of television with a scene that stuck with me for a long time – I think I saw it when I was 12 or so and never forgot it. But all I really remembered about it, apart from the basic plot and a couple of lines (Ted describing a bar that he doesn’t realize is a gay bar; Rhoda’s joke about Manischewitz wine), was the “block comedy” scene at the end of the second act, where Lou decides that in order to be a successful owner of a bar, he needs to be a lovable, avuncular guy who leads sing-alongs, tells, jokes, and knows the name of every person in the bar. The scene starts at about 18 minutes into the clip. Would the scene work as well as a stand-alone comedy sketch? No; it needs the buildup of the rest of the episode. But once all the buildup is accomplished and the climactic scene begins, there are basically no jokes any more; there are running gags – like the fact that there are only two guys in the bar whose name he always remembers, “Tim and Al” – but no punchlines. The early scenes needed some jokes; the memorable scenes don’t really depend on them.




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Jokes aren’t funny?

  1. Interesting piece. The mention of Buddy’s “lame” jokes on The Dick Van Dyke show reminds me of the “All About Eavesdropping” episode in which Rob and Laura ruin Jerry and Millie’s dinner party. At a particularly tense moment, Morey Amsterdam starts to read the line (as I remember it) “I haven’t had this much fun since the Valentine’s Day Massacre.” But he can’t get it out clearly because the audience laughter is too loud after “I haven’t had this much fun–.” It’s all about the build-up, and the comic relief of a generic “Buddy says something sarcastic” line in the midst of Rob and Laura being uncharacteristically impolite.

  2. Great piece, made me think of Cougar Town. On average I don’t think Cougar Town’s one-liners are terribly impressive but the way things deliberately build ends up being far more memorable for me than say 30 Rock. I like 30 Rock and appreciate their dense joke-joke-joke approach, and I laugh at it a lot when I watch, yet almost none of it stays with me the same way.

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