February 19, 2016


How to write the shortest joke in the world : The one-liner is a comedy staple, but how about a one-worder? (James Gingell, 19 February 2016, The Guardian)

One of my favourite jokes is a Jimmy Carr line: "Venison's dear, isn't it?" OK, it's not the most profound or provocative. It might be more Christmas cracker-craic than arena-filling dynamite. It might not discomfit the wicked or give succour to the vulnerable. It doesn't, perhaps, lead to hysterical, explosive, incontinent laughter. But the verbal thrift is a marvel. Just four tom-tom-tight words and a wink to elicit a titter. That's magic. [...]

All of this got me thinking - how far can the exformation principle be pushed in writing a joke? How few words can we use? Is four words the universal limit for a joke? Surely not. If a powerful short story can be produced from just six words (one of the saddest stories ever told, sometimes wrongly credited to Ernest Hemingway, is: For Sale, Baby Shoes, Never Worn), then couldn't a simple joke could be compressed down towards the event horizon of a single word?

In the Fawlty Towers episode The Psychiatrist, an exchange between Sybil and a guest ends with a two-word joke: "Pretentious? Moi?" (I'm bending the rules slightly here. Technically "Pretentious? Moi?" is the punchline to a joke with a longer set-up. But part of the majesty of John Cleese and Connie Booth's writing is that the punchline works just as well on its own.) "Pretentious? Moi?" contains just four syllables, but a world of densely packed, hyperlinked exformation, which completes the scene and yields the giggle. On hearing the line, we immediately picture two people, probably acquaintances, and imagine that one of them has just accused the other of a certain la-di-da affectation. The accused responds to the charge in the negative, but in such a way as to confirm the suspicion of the interrogator. All that detail and colour condensed into just two words. And because the joke invites participation; because the completed narrative requires collaborative effort; because there's some harmonic synergy between flirty brains on the same upstroke of a thoughtwave, two words are enough for a joke.

Tough to beat : "Simplify, simplify."  

Posted by at February 19, 2016 9:36 AM