Do jokes matter?

Maclean’s Jaime Weinman examines the importance of jokes to the patter of sit-coms:

One reason I’ve been thinking about this is that I’ve started to re-examine my own attitude to jokes. I’ve sometimes evaluated a comedy based on the jokes, or how organic the jokes are to the story. I used to pick at Neil Simon and Larry Gelbart and even Woody Allen for the fact that their style of comedy was so one-liner dependent and that the one-liners could often fit into any context. I still think that’s true but I’m no longer sure how relevant it is.

Because, again, even in a lot of comedy that superficially looks like setup/punchline comedy, the one-liners are really just the warm-up to the big moments. They keep the rhythm going and they keep us in the mood to laugh, and so they are necessary to the comedy, but the one-liners don’t _define_ the quality of the comedy, and they’re not, ultimately, what we remember the most. What we remember in a good Larry Gelbart M*A*S*H is not his facility with one-liners but the bigger comic or dramatic moments. The one-liners are a form of comedy punctuation, keeping the comedy rhythm going. They don’t make the show, but they don’t break it either.

Read the whole thing. It’s an interesting take on something that isn’t actually important.

Jonathan McLeod

Jonathan McLeod is a writer living in Ottawa, Ontario. (That means Canada.) He spends too much time following local politics and writing about zoning issues. Follow him on Twitter.


  1. Nice article. Totally disagree that humor and TV are not important.

    • I guess the fact that I read the whole article (and go searching for Jaime’s posts) indicates that I think it’s a little important. It just seems trivial compared to a lot of other things we write about here.

      • Depends how you define “important.” Will it feed starving children? No. But humor is a major way we have of socializing, of coping with terrible situations, of non-offensively expressing anger, of teaching. It’s a large part of our psychology. And the mere fact that Americans spend 1/6 of their lives watching television makes it important to consider. (I had to check this – for Canadians, it’s 2/15).

        • I’m in complete agreement. Humour, entertainment and common cultural experiences are quite valuable.

          I guess that after days of discussing dead mothers and babies, analysing why Seinfeld is funny seems less important.

  2. The most memorable line in all of Cheers is at 1:52 here, which isn’t a joke or intended as one. But it only works if you’ve watched enough of Coach being clueless to know him well.

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