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:

Monty Python's Flying Circus – Musical Mice

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.

the Original Restaurant Sketch (aka Dirty Fork Sketch)

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.)


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Jaybird is Birdmojo on Xbox Live and Jaybirdmojo on Playstation's network. He's been playing consoles since the Atari 2600 and it was Zork that taught him how to touch-type. If you've got a song for Wednesday, a commercial for Saturday, a recommendation for Tuesday, an essay for Monday, or, heck, just a handful a questions, fire off an email to AskJaybird-at-gmail.com

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7 thoughts on “Sunday Morning: The Problem With Punchlines

  1. Heh. I just watched the first three episodes of season 1 (on NetFlix!) last night. Right now I’m watching Arsenal shit the bed at home against Wolverhampton and trying to remind myself that I watch sports for entertainment.

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  2. Monty Python was all about defying expectations:

    Don’t have punchlines.
    Abandon situations with no warning at all.
    When you’ve beaten a joke into the ground, repeat it a lot more.

    The irony is that we show our appreciation by memorizing their stuff and repeating it verbatim. No one would have expected that.

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  3. Likely apocryphal, but the musical mice and the Muppophone both had a much earlier antecedent: the cat organ.

    And then there’s the Furby Organ (Youtube link)

    (I still have a vintage 1998 Furby. It still works. I wake it up some times. So I’m slightly horrified at the idea of this organ, but then I tend to imbue inanimate objects with “living” qualities)

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  4. The Flying Circus was never that funny to me, I much prefer the movies. Generally, because they had a bit of history to hang their hats on. The Circus just seem so much schoolboy sniggering. I guess it comes down to how you find something humorous, rather than what you find. I tend toward longer build-ups, callbacks after long absences, and just generally more clever applications than broad strokes.

    Reading an old Arturo Perez Reverte, The Nautical Chart.

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  5. In today’s absurdist meme-based world, I’m surprised that the Flying Circus hasn’t come ’round again.

    I guess in the future everyone will be part of Monty Python for fifteen minutes.

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