Why does the one-liner have such longevity, when other forms of humour slide in and out of fashion like so many feet on banana skins? They’re the purest kind of wordplay, requiring no shared political views or social values between joke-teller and audience. When Harry Hill says, ‘I had a quattro formaggi pizza the other day. Bit cheesy’, we don’t need to know what he thinks about anything else. Hearing Chris Addison note that ‘It’s easy to distract fat people. It’s a piece of cake,’ we don’t analyse, we just laugh.
Tim Vine has been awarded a prize for the funniest joke at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, with the gag, ‘I've just been on a once-in-a-lifetime holiday. I'll tell you what, never again’. Whether this makes you laugh or groan hardly matters: like all Vine’s jokes, it is pithy and beautifully constructed. And this was true of Dan Antopolski’s winning joke last year too, ‘Hedgehogs. Why can’t they just share the hedge?’
One-liners depend on an element of surprise, of our expectations being swiftly and comprehensively overturned. Emo Philips is the master of these: ‘I picked up a hitch hiker. You’ve got to, when you hit them.’ We understand the phrase ‘picked up’ to mean ‘gave a lift to’, in the first sentence. The second sentence shows us that we should have understood ‘picked up’ in a more literal sense. The laugh comes as we understand that we have been tricked.
This is why comedians lose their sense of humour when someone dumps their jokes on Twitter. Reading a joke online really isn’t the same thing as hearing a song: we tend to value songs more the second or third time we hear them. But not jokes: once the surprise is gone, often so is the laugh.
So the peril of writing one-liners is that they’re so easily remembered. But context is everything; what has an comedy audience crying with laughter the night before may fall on deaf ears at the pub the next day. Partly, that’s because telling jokes is harder than it looks. But it’s also to do with the expectations of your listeners.
When we buy a ticket for a comedy show, we are committing to the idea of laughing at jokes. Billy Connolly only has to walk on stage for people to start laughing, anticipating what they’re about to hear. When, conversely, someone sits next to you at lunch and says they’re going to tell you a joke, your heart probably sinks. Most of us have been on the receiving end of people who like jokes but simply can’t tell them. We have sat grimacing through, ‘There was this man and this woman and this dog. No, not a dog, a banana. And then they see a dog – did I say they were walking on a mountain? Well, they were. And they were nudists. Sorry, I forgot that’.
And that is surely why the one-liner remains king. Brevity really is the soul of wit.