The Perfect Joke
Entertainment with Daniel Neman.
Ellen DeGeneres’ career and all that attends it – the TV shows, the public discussion of her sexuality, the Oscar hosting – stems from a single joke. But it was a perfect joke.
When she was just starting out in the business and was beginning to be featured on the plethora of brick-wall comedy shows that rumbled like kudzu over the television landscape in the early 1980s, one joke she told stood out above all the others. I must have heard it three times on three different shows, and it was even featured on advertisements for one of the shows:
“My grandmother started walking five miles a day when she was 60. She’s 97 now, and we don’t know where the hell she is.”
It’s perfection. It’s short, it’s punchy and the gag line is completely unexpected. Just as we think it is taking us in one direction, it zooms off another way altogether.
SUCCINCT AND WITH A SNEAKY SETUP
Perfect jokes are hard to come by, but they are not impossible. They must be succinct – Shakespeare taught us that brevity is the soul of wit – and every word must be the best possible choice. Any other word in any other order will only detract from the humor. It’s a matter of timing and the rhythm of the words. And yet, even the most exquisitely chosen words will not make a joke perfect unless it also has that most important aspect. It also has to be uncommonly, hilariously funny.
Henny Youngman’s chestnut, “Take my wife – please!” is a perfect joke, though it has been tempered by familiarity. It is also a masterpiece of concision. It takes just three words to set it up, and before you even realize it is a setup, the one-word punch line hits you like an unseen right hook.
Sounds easy, right? But think about this: One of the most successful comedians of all time, Jerry Seinfeld, has yet to write a perfect joke, a line that stands on its own and is not part of a larger whole, such as a story or a sitcom.
Richard Pryor, who is cited as an inspiration by more comedians than any other, has only one or two perfect jokes to his name. “I’m not addicted to cocaine; I just like the way it smells,” I think definitely qualifies as perfect.
My favorite Richard Pryor joke is one he told about visiting a prison and meeting some inmates. “I said, ‘Why did you kill everyone in the house?’ He said, ‘They was home.’ ”
Hilarious, yes, especially the way he told it, with a touch of innocence in his voice as if the killer did not understand what the fuss was about. But I’m not certain it is a perfect joke. It does not stand on its own, it has to be told in context. And it wouldn’t be quite as funny if anyone but Pryor told it.
AN EMBARRASSMENT OF PERFECTION
With great jokes, when you hear them you say to yourself, “I want to remember this so I can tell it to my friends.”
And that is what makes Steven Wright the king of perfect jokes. At one of his shows, you spend so much time trying to remember his best jokes that you forget them all. Their rhythm, their succinctness, their unexpected humor and their overall hilarity are what make them perfect.
“I went into a place to eat. It said, ‘breakfast anytime.’ So I ordered French toast during the Renaissance.” It is his classic joke and it is perfect, but there are many, many others.
“I spilled spot remover on my dog. Now he’s gone.”
“I went to a general store. They wouldn’t let me buy anything specific.”
“I used to work at a fire hydrant factory. You couldn’t park anywhere near the place.” These Steven Wright gags all have a similar rhythm, a certain cadence. It works for him, it is a style he has perfected and uses with spectacular effect. And it doesn’t hurt that he is a comic genius.Good jokes are easy; good jokes are everywhere. Great jokes are harder to find, though they are still abundant.
But Groucho’s “One morning, I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas, I don’t know” is perfection.