Sunday Morning: The Problem With Punchlines
A lot of humor relies rather heavily on established expectations and then having those expectations upended.
For example, there is a well-established format of a joke:
So this first thing happened.
Then this second thing happened and established a pattern.
Then this third thing happened that upended the pattern that was just established and that’s the punchline.
If you are relying on universal enough expectations, you can just go immediately to “let’s establish that we’re talking about the thing you’re familiar with… now let’s upend that.” The problem with doing it this way, however, is that it front-loads the punchline.
Monty Python’s Flying Circus (NOW ON NETFLIX!) is one of the most brilliant shows to explore the comic upending of expectations. The first few seconds of the first season’s first episode shows a bedraggled Robinson Crusoe type take several seconds to swim to shore, run up to the camera, and get out “It’s…” before the title changes to “MONTY PYTHON’S FLYING CIRCUS”.
I waited several seconds for that? That poor man!
Well, that was the joke.
The sketches go on with many different established familiar things and then the expectations are upended. My favorite sketch in the first season’s first episode is where they have a modern composer on an interview show and, instead of discussing the new symphony he’s composed, the interviewer keeps talking about his nickname “Two Sheds”. The composer wants to talk about his symphony. The interviewer won’t shut up about sheds.
How do you write a punchline to that? Well, you have the interviewer kick the guy off of the show and call him “Two Sheds” one last time.
That’s it. That’s the joke.
Season one’s episode two has a sketch that relies rather heavily on… well, I’ll just have you watch it:
Animal cruelty. That’s the joke. (The best part is him running back after having been dragged off once. I’ve seen that sketch three or four times in the last week (showed it to co-workers) and I lost it watching it again just now.) Trying to describe the joke is one of those things that doesn’t work. (You’ll notice that, above, I said that you just have to watch it and, in the sketch itself, Michael Palin said the same thing.)
It might be easiest to describe the sketch by talking about the millions of sketches that used it for inspiration. You know the Muppetphone where the guy hit muppets and made them sing Lady of Spain? Yeah, it’s like that, but with mice.
Well… what’s the punchline? How do you write a punchline to that? You can’t. It’ll just deflate the whole thing to that point. So you just end the sketch the moment the last big laugh fades.
The season three had a straightforward sketch that, yes, had a punchline.
Terry Gilliam didn’t really like this sketch. It had a punchline. How much more pedestrian was that punchline than the expectations that were upended before it? Michael Palin’s emotional speech. John Cleese’s terrifying screaming! And then… rimshot. The title card that precedes the punchline may as well have been a middle finger to the approval board. “You want a punchline? HERE’S YOUR FREAKIN’ PUNCHLINE!”
It’s almost a pity that it’s one of their funniest sketches.
So… what are you reading and/or watching?
(Image is a closeup of Cupid’s foot from Venus, Cupid, Folly, and Time by Agnolo Bronzino.)