The Art of the One-Liner – Part 2

Humour, Jokes, Laughter, Theoretics

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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.

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