SHORTER IS USUALLY BETTER:  by Gene Perret

Shakespeare said it well:  “Brevity is the soul of wit.”  For those of you who don’t understand Shakespearian, the shorter and quicker the joke is, the better.  There was a TV show on a few years ago which did quite well.  It was called Laugh-In.  This show was loaded with quick one-liners, short sketches, sayings that flashed onto the screen in rapid succession.  In fact, it ended with what they called “the Joke Wall.”  That was many of the cast members opening doors on a psychedelically decorated wall, reciting a gag quickly, and closing the door again.  The show rose to the top of the ratings quickly and stayed there for some time.  Why?  Because it followed Shakespeare’s sage advice:  Brevity is the soul of wit.”

The gags came at you so fast that you hardly had time to think about them.  If you took too long to try to “get it,” you might miss the next gag coming up.  It overwhelmed the viewers with speed.

When Bob Hope was in his prime he was known as “Rapid Robert” because he jammed as many gags into his monologue as quickly as he could.  Phyllis Diller was relentless in her routines.  Before you finished laughing at one of her zany lines, she was already beginning the next one.  Shakespeare apparently was on to something.

However, there is a caution.  Your material should have a rhythm to it – preferably a quick rhythm – but there is also an economy to comedy.  Obviously, the more well-written jokes you can squeeze into a given amount of time, the more laughs-per-minute you will get.  And if people are laughing constantly at your routines, you’re a valuable commodity.  But again, be aware of the economy of comedy.

What do I mean by the economy of comedy?  Well, you want to get to the punch line quickly.  The punch line is the entire reason for doing a joke.  Whatever words you and your stage partner say should lead to that punch line.  If they don’t, or if they don’t produce added laughs along the way, they’re unnecessary.  They’re costing more than the punch line is worth.

You’ve heard of “shaggy dog” stories.  They’re designed to go on and on and usually deliver a disappointing punch line.  They’re more of a practical joke on the audience than they are a gag.  If you’re dialogue or setup goes on too long, you may convert a solid punch line into a “shaggy dog” gag.

The economy of humor means that you tell the audience only what they need to understand the joke.  You and your stage partner try, within reason, to get to the solid laugh line as quickly as possible.

Be careful, though.  Sometimes in an attempt to speed up your humor, you neglect to give the audience all the information they need to understand the joke.  Let me give an example:

VENT:  What do you do for fun?

DUMMY:  I play a little golf.

VENT:  You probably just enjoy riding around in the cart.

DUMMY:  I never use a cart when I play golf.

VENT:  Why is that?

DUMMY:  Where I hit the ball, it’s cheaper to take public transportation.

All the dialogue here is leading up to and supporting the punch line.  Let’s change it slightly to shorten it.  After all, brevity is the soul of wit.

VENT:  What do you do for fun?

DUMMY:  I play a little golf.

VENT:  You probably just enjoy riding around in the cart.

DUMMY:  No, public transportation is cheaper.

It is shorter, but is it stronger?  I would say no.  You’ve taken some vital information away from the listeners.  At the very least, the line “Where I hit the ball” should be included to reinforce the punch line.  That comment is required to let the listeners know WHY public transportation is cheaper.  In this instance, shortening the exchange weakened the effect.

Let’s take a look at a short, simple one-liner:

I have a friend with a big appetite.  He can eat an entire cake by himself – while it’s baking.

That’s a fairly compact joke.  You need the opening sentence to set up the premise.  You need the next phrase to show how big his appetite is.  The final phrase – “while it’s baking” – is the real punch line.  In this example, you give the audience all the information they need so they can laugh at the punch.

However, there are joke tellers – and you’ve run into them – who can offer more information than is necessary.  For example:

I have a friend with a big appetite.  Well, he’s not really a friend; he’s an acquaintance.  I see him maybe once or twice a week.  In fact, I’ve played golf with him a couple of times.  He even eats on the golf course.  He’ll have an apple or a sandwich or something like that with him.  He just has a giant appetite.  I’ll give you an idea how big his appetite is.  He can eat an entire cake by himself.  And he can eat it while it’s baking.

You can surely see how as the setup gets longer and longer, less and less applicable, the punch line grows weaker and weaker.  None of this banter is necessary for the punch line and none of it helps the laugh.

Economical humor usually produces the biggest response.  So the secrets are to:

  1.  Remember that the punch line is the reason for telling the joke and that all the other words should lead to and support that punch.
  2.  You must give the listeners enough information to fully appreciate the punch line.
  3. You should avoid extraneous information that doesn’t help the punch line (unless some of that information adds some humor along the way.  As an example of this, I used to tell an anecdote about going to my daughter’s kindergarten recital.  The story had a powerful, dependable punch line.  However, during the setup I would say, “My wife and I got to the auditorium and we sat there very patiently while the . . . uh . . . while the non-talented children performed.”  That addition always got a nice laugh and it didn’t get in the way of the stories true punch line).

In creating your routines, remember Shakespeare.  He was a pretty good writer in his own right.



Learn more from Gene Perret with his books, classes, and newsletter.  Information available at www.comedywritersroom.com/store.  Gene also has a free joke service,Perrets’ Humor Files, featuring original lines.  Take a look atwww.jokecrafters.com.  You can email Gene at RTComedy@cwo.com.

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