What I Learned About Comedy After Six Months of Telling Only One-Liners
This is what happened when i ditched my entire routine to tell jokes one line at a time.
I fidget in the darkness of a tiny room above Toronto's Black Swan Pub. It's September 22, 2015. The space boasts 35 seats, half of which are empty. In the seven years since my first stand-up set I have performed on countless stages just like this one. And yet, I am terrified. Tonight is my debut as a one-liner comic.
I try not to pick at my lip, a habit from my childhood that re-appears when I am deeply rattled.
The host calls my name. I trudge to the stage, like a child called in from the yard for supper. My mouth is dry. The 14 jokes on the page seem impossibly stupid in the bright light. I clear my throat.
"My favorite actor is Gary Oldman because I think his name gets more legit by the day."
They laugh. Not hard, but a little. For the first, and certainly not last time in the next six months, I ask myself, "Why am I doing this?"
It's a question I imagine my parents wanted to ask when I walked away from a steady career as a high school teacher to pursue comedy. It's a question I often pondered when confronted with my abysmal bank balance in those early days of abject poverty.
I like a challenge. And believe me when I say that very little is more challenging than stand-up comedy. And within that art form there is no purer joke than the one-liner. So why not turn the difficulty to 11 for a bit? Wouldn't that be fun?
I took a month to prepare. Immersed myself in one-liner comedy from modern acts like Anthony Jeselnik and Demetri Martin, to classics like Rodney Dangerfield and Henny Youngman. Transcribed the best jokes, those perfect little jewels, and tried to figure out what made them tick.
I settled on some rules:
1. Keep it short
Despite the name, one-liners are often two or three sentences. For my purposes I used a definition from The Psychology of Humor: "A joke is a context-free and self-contained unit of humor that carries within itself all the information for it to be understood and enjoyed."
2. No safety net
No story-telling, riffing, or old material. This rule was important because I had very good reason to believe that this would be a painful process, like learning to walk again. I knew I would be tempted to cut myself slack.
3. No selling
Since the point was to write solid jokes, minimize charm. Deliver them deadpan. In hindsight this policy would prove extremely masochistic.
4. Only the strong survive
No matter how much I liked a joke, if it failed three times onstage, it was gone.
Sadly, this last rule killed off one of my favorites:
"It's confusing that they call it a 'hero sandwich' but also a 'submarine sandwich.' Why not just call it an 'Alec Baldwin in The Hunt for Red October Sandwich?'"
It also rescued jokes that I would have otherwise abandoned, such as this odd duck:
"I was taking a cab and the driver said, 'Do you mind if I talk on the phone?' And I said, 'Sure, it's after six... I'll call you.'"
Trial by One-Liner Fire
During the experiment I wrote about 400 one-liners. By far the most despised type of joke was puns. Which is a shame because I love wordplay. One of the few puns that made it past rule #4 was: "I had a rough childhood. The other kids used to call me 'Boner Boy.' It was so hard."
The most effective but difficult type was misdirect, also known as a Paraprosdokian. They are jokes that lead you in one direction but upend your assumption at the eleventh hour. For example:
"Growing up I was always closest to my stepmom... In terms of age."
I experimented with darker material, and was surprised that I had to drop the following joke because apparently it's still "too soon."
"I call my ex-girlfriend Challenger Shuttle because she broke up unexpectedly."
And yet no one seemed to mind what I considered a much harsher joke:
"I like my hip-hop like I like my step-dad: underground."
So go figure.
People enjoyed a little naughty humor:
"My grandfather is very old-fashioned. The other day he said to me, "What's the world coming to?" I said, "Pornhub.com."
And they even tolerated a bit of Hedberg-esque whimsy:
I'm pretty sure I'm going to hell, so when somebody ticks me off I say, 'Screw you buddy, I'll see you in heaven!' And then when he dies, he gets to heaven, looks around and goes, 'Aw, that bald guy ditched me.'"
It was an interesting time. Some nights I felt invincible. Others I felt low indeed, like the time I was heckled at a show I host and produce in Toronto called Chuckle Co. It's a bummer when you can't pull out a win on the home court.
I performed at The Rivoli in Toronto (where The Kids in the Hall famously got their start), for the AltDot Lounge, which records sets for play on Sirius XM radio. I was torn. Should I potentially waste the recording or go with tested material? (I did the one-liners... YOLO.)
There was a weekend where I opened for my pal Monty Scott who was headlining Showtime Comedy in St. Catharines. It was there I realized that a little riffing might be necessary to properly test jokes. I soon dropped Rule #3.
My personality slowly re-emerged. During a writing stint at This Hour Has 22 Minutes, my friend Andrew Johnston offered me a guest spot at Yuk Yuk's Halifax, and I unabashedly sold the hell out of my jokes.
I indulged in a cheat night when Shaun Majumder kindly invited me on his new material show. There simply wasn't enough time to generate a whole set of new one-liners.
There was never a specific end date for the experiment, but I knew it had arrived when I was invited to perform on a Just for Laughs showcase. I did some soul-searching and decided to go with the one-liners. After months of immersion in the format it was foolish to try anything else.
Some of my favorite comics in the city were there to perform on the showcase. I sat very still as they paced nervously around me. And yet, I felt no urge to pick my lip.
Each of my 15 jokes had survived a baptism of fire—they were the best of four hundred. I took the stage, not at a trudge, but with bounding steps, eager to share my handful of perfect little jewels..
I took a deep breath and said: "My father always treated me like he treated God: he didn't believe in me."
They laughed. Pretty hard this time.
After six months of knowing exactly what to say, I decided to go up with nothing. Back on my home turf at Chuckle Co. during a busy night, I clutch a point-form list of bare-bone premises. Returning to regular material felt amazing. Like slipping into a well-worn pair of jeans after months of khaki.
I wandered through a set, exploring, laughing, and engaging with the audience. I forgot how in the moment time falls away.
So why did I spend six months as a one-liner comic? Why are comedians driven to perform at all? Maybe acceptance, approval, a sense of belonging. Or maybe we just like a good gag:
"I think if I was going to kill my diabetic cousin it would be a piece of cake."
Don't worry, my cousin's fine.
It's just a joke.
Follow Joel Buxton on Twitter.