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”.
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”.
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). Ofcom busted him for a joke he told on The One Show, saying the programm “broke broadcasting rules” because of his joke about dwarfism, which was “capable of causing considerable offense”.
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.
Read more in ‘The Art of the One-Liner – Part 2‘ to be released soon…..