Professional comedians, even moonlighting comedians (the majority of us), tend to cringe when asked to “tell a joke” in a casual setting. The 2016 dramedy Folk Hero & Funny Guy contains one such cringeworthy scene. Perennial mumblecore favorite Alex Karpovsky plays a floundering comedian on tour with his wildly successful musician friend. He’s prompted to “tell me a joke” at a party and takes the reasonable out, “I usually do that on stage.” When he inevitably succumbs to party pressure, the joke falls flat. Of course the crowd is to blame for asking. He gave them a caveat, after all.
There is a lot of work and craftsmanship that goes into writing a joke. Stand-up comedy is a different beast than your uncle’s knock-knock jokes or Reader’s Digest funnies, one hopes. Different skill sets are employed. The form evolved from interchangeable Catskills one liners, or “street jokes,” to personally crafted material in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Much of modern comedy falls roughly into the “observational” category, an evolution beyond the traditional set-up-and-punchline formula.
Patton Oswalt is one of the most linguistically gifted practitioners of modern stand-up, conjuring up detailed imagery and metaphors out of some of the darkest subject matter. He was recently asked on the Vulture podcast Good One to name some jokes he wishes he’d written.
Oswalt’s number one pick was a Gary Gulman joke that he performed on Conan, the album version of which is “Abbreviating The States (Live)” off 2016’s It’s About Time (his number two pick is the excellent Shane Torres bit, “A Man Named Fieri Filled With Fury”). He calls it, “A gorgeous piece of comedy writing,” and says he wishes he’d written it himself. Gulman mines his observational premise – the absurdity of our post code abbreviations – for all it’s worth, punctuated with side riffs and callbacks about “holiday sauce.” You don’t have to love wordplay to enjoy this, but you can’t hate it either. At another level, it’s mocking the self-seriousness of documentaries and the minutiae that can become documentary fodder.
The joke as a genre has evolved into “the bit.” If you analyze the recording (hey, that’s what I do for a living) there are mini-punchlines embedded all the way through, and it’s the circuitous language and tangents that make it stand out.
If you ask an off-duty comic to tell you a joke, they will think you want something pre-fabricated, like this Groucho Marx quote; “to our wives and girlfriends…may they never meet!” (if you tried telling that on stage, you might get this response. They will not be able to hand you something that took labor and spit-shining at endless hours of open mics. Save yourself the embarrassment on both sides and just open up a Bazooka Joe wrapper. That’s quality joke writing right there.