Mastering the Comedy One-Liner Could Change Your Life

Trying to be funny, yet succinct, is an artform: an incredible ice-breaker if delivered correctly and surefire stinker if not. We had a chat with one-line guru Chris Turner to see how it’s done.

22 writing funny lines

What’s so great about comedy one-liners?
The best ones stick in your brain and change how you see the world. Mitch Hedburg (an undisputed master of the form) said that escalators could never be out of order, they could only be ‘temporarily stairs’. I think of that each time I see a static escalator, and it makes me laugh.
They’re great value as well – a great one-liner comic (Gary Delaney, Milton Jones, Tim Vine) can crank out hundreds of jokes in a show, so you get a lot for your money. Plus, they’re the easiest jokes to share with friends – comedy tapas, if you will.

Where do you start when writing a good one?
A lot of these gags are reverse-engineered – you come across a familiar phrase, eg. ‘fits the bill’ and then look at how else that could be interpreted. What fits the bill? A duck muzzle? A primetime slot on ITV in the 00s? An epileptic waiter?
You can reinterpret words, too — can’t a laminator also be a robot that kills baby sheep? A lot of the work is figuring out how to word the set-up so you get a laugh, not a groan, when you’re dealing with puns, like the above.

Where do your ideas come from?
Personally, whenever I think of, or come across anything that I think could be funny (and believe me, the bar is very low), I put it in my phone’s notes section, and come back to it a few weeks later. If it’s still funny, then I’ll try it on stage. I find that the best ideas arrive unbidden, say at the gym, on a walk, or in that annoying moment just before sleep, and I have to wake myself up to write them down lest they disappear into dreams – and I’ve never had a joke in a dream that worked in the real world.

Are there any hard and fast rules? What’s yer top tips?
Brevity: The set up should be as short as it can be, whilst containing all the information that’s needed to understand the punchline. More often than not, a joke that doesn’t work is down to an audience not fully knowing what you’re talking about.
Effort: The best one-liner acts write a lot. The more jokes you write, the more good jokes you’re going to find. I’ve seen top comics come on stage with 30 new jokes, try them all out, and only 3 will make the cut.
Surprise: Most jokes, whether one-liners or longer stories, work because they wrong-foot the audience. We think the comic will say one thing, and they say another. We don’t know what they’ll say, and they somehow say the thing we least expected. If in doubt, throw a curveball.

What’s your favourite few one-line gags? (Do they work as well when you write them down?)
I like my women like my money. Legal, tender.
“Never Apologise! Never Explain!” – Sorry, that’s my motto.
A lot of people think the Romans invented vaseline, but that was ancient grease.
I called my cat Socks. We had two but lost one in the washing machine.
The first time we stayed at my girlfriend’s parents’ house, her dad wouldn’t let us sleep together, which was a shame, as he’s very sexy.

What’s the secret to delivering one-line gags?
The range of delivery styles between comics is so varied, from the deadpan drawl of Stephen Wright to the prim giggling of Jimmy Carr; it’s all about finding your own way of doing it. I started out deadpan to the point of robotic, and that worked for shorter sets, but gradually loosened up and had more fun with it. The main tip for delivery is not to let them know when the punchline’s coming. Vary the rhythm, mix up the pace, and the punchlines will hit harder.

Have you ever had one gag you love that’s gone down badly and you don’t know why?
Usually you know why. Either the subject is too esoteric/controversial/dated, or another comic has covered that topic earlier in the show, and so the impact is muted.
I had a joke years ago that I’d sometimes close the show with – “As a kid, I used to think all black people looked the same. Then I stopped watching Eddie Murphy films”. It always built this tense silence in the room, but would then make the laughs hit harder when it was punctured. One night, the laughter never came, and I was puzzled, wondering if a whole room of people had somehow never seen Dr Doolittle, or The KlumpsTurns out I’d forgotten to say the punchline, and from the audience’s perspective, had just admitted that I was a youthful bigot, and then left the stage.

Most of us have got dead boring jobs. How can we make even the most mundane days a bit funnier?
Twitter is your friend. If you follow the right people, it can be a goldmine of humour (get it wrong and it’s an infuriating political shit-slinging contest) – some of the best joke writers in comedy honed their skills with the 140 character limit, and are still pumping out great gags, cartoons, and memes. As wonderful as one-liners are, don’t forget that stories are a great joke format too – just follow the same rules of ‘include the relevant information’, ‘trim out extraneous details’ and ‘surprise them with a twist’, and you’ll be able to spin a yarn out of that morning’s commute, or the weekend’s eventful family BBQ, that’ll brighten up your colleagues’ days.