Has Comedy Reached Its Speed Limit?
Welcome to ComedyNerd, Cracked's daily comedy superstore. For more ComedyNerd content, and ongoing coverage of that rapid-fire-joke-machine, the Iran/Contra Affair, please sign up for the ComedyNerd newsletter below.
If it feels like jokes are flying in your face faster than ever, you’re right. And it’s not because networks like Comedy Central are speeding up episodes of Seinfeld so they can cram in more commercials -- although they are.
Over the past few decades, comedy producers have raised the joke-speed limit so high that you couldn’t get a ticket if you tried. This isn’t simply perception -- it’s stone-cold math. Ken Jennings (yes, nerdy Jeopardy champ Ken Jennings) did the calculus in his book Planet Funny: How Comedy Ruined Everything.
Jennings tracked the laughs in a typical sitcom from each decade starting in the 1950s to the fastest contemporary comedy he could think of (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt). He wasn’t counting his own laughs or even where chuckles were inserted via laugh track, but every point “where an actor or writer might reasonably amuse.”
The jokes-per-minute (JPM) for a sleepy 1950s sitcom like Father Knows Best was about 2.5. The number increased to almost four JPM by the 1970s (M*A*S*H), cleared five JPM with The Office in the 2000s, and rose to nearly seven JPM with Kimmy.
The JPM creeps up or down depending on which sitcom you choose, but the general trendline is clear: We’re getting two to three times more jokes than our grandparents did and by God, you kids don’t know how good you have it.
This might be the first time you’re hearing about JPM, but you can believe that the comedy Illuminati is counting the chuckles. Like every other industry, Big Comedy trusts the data. Stand-up comics shoot for 4-6 JPM -- and know if they can’t consistently hit that mark, they aren’t making headliner status anytime soon. Sitcom showrunners are def counting punchlines per page.
But who was responsible for first hitting fast-forward on comedy?
There are a number of candidates. Screwball comedies delivered dialogue at whirlwind speeds. On television, Laugh-In and Monty Python picked up the pace with quick black-out sketches and bits that might not even end before moving on to more funny business.
Comedians like Robin Williams, with his quicksilver ability to improvise dozens of asides and impressions, and Steven Wright, armed with an infinite arsenal of one-line absurdities, packed so many jokes into their routines that it was hard for audiences to catch their breath.
But today, we’ll focus on two comedies that changed the JPM game: the movie Airplane and animated masterpiece The Simpsons.
Surely You Can’t Be Serious
Airplane stands out, especially in 1980, for throwing more jokes at the screen than audiences had ever seen. (One obsessive-compulsive fan even went so far as to catalogue 223 separate gags.)
The laughs still hold up. Lovefilm (a UK Netflix-wannabe that Amazon acquired a few years back) did a study similar to Jennings’ sitcom survey, pitting its users’ all-time top ten comedies against one another. In this case, Lovefilm didn’t calculate the number of intended jokes but rather the number of times the movie actually generated a laugh.
Airplane came out on top by a good margin, beating out more contemporary comedies like The Hangover, Superbad, and Borat. The movie’s not-so-secret secret was to throw spaghetti at the wall - all the spaghetti.
“Instead of drawing distinctions between traditional binaries like serious and funny—or, more crucially, smart and stupid—the filmmakers just unload everything at once and trust the viewer to sort it out.” wrote The Ringer’s Adam Nayman. The movie influenced much of the comedy that came after, from the Farrelly brothers to the Scary Movie spoofs to, of course, The Simpsons.
TV can do better
But when it comes to speed, says Jennings, The Simpsons was the game-changer. And when it debuted in 1989, the show “felt like a lightning bolt.”
From the get-go, the show let loose with a scattershot barrage of jokes, parodies, puns, and visual gags -- then picked up the pace from there.
One key to pulling off the speed of The Simpsons was animation, as dispensing with the time-wasting physical business of the real world made way for more jokes.
Now actors didn’t have to cross a room to deliver a line. Props appeared in their hands. Rather than explaining offstage action, a quick cutaway showed it at no additional expense.
“It was just culturally dense and firing in so many brand-new directions,” said writer Matt Selman. “Every week you had to turn it on and see what they were going to do. And it said to a generation, ‘Oh, TV can be better,’ more than any other show.”
Besides animation, there was one other factor that sped up the snickers: No studio audience and no laugh track. Laughs take time, and those precious seconds could be used for more gags. Simpsons writers were more than happy to be relieved of the burden of real-time reactions. As writer George Meyer says, “the audience imposes their own lame pace on stuff.”
Jennings argues that while The Simpsons had an obvious influence on animated descendents like South Park and Family Guy, its bigger impact was on live-action TV comedy. Think about the flashbacks and quick cutaways in Arrested Development and How I Met Your Mother, the breakneck speed of 30 Rock, or the sprawling, Springfield-esque community in Parks and Rec. Jennings suggests that The Simpsons is responsible for the cartoonified speed of the sitcom.
Is faster funnier?
There are plenty of mechanisms to measure jokes-per-minute, and the subject is surprisingly popular among fans. Some websites advocate watching certain comedy shows based on their JPM: 30 Rock is a Classic at 7.44 jokes per minute! Den of Geek has a JPM archive, cataloging joke velocity for shows like Bojack Horseman, Rick and Morty, and Veep.
Crunching the numbers is complicated -- dialogue jokes are easy to count, but what about visual gags? An uncomfortable reaction that elicits a laugh? Conceptual bits? Suffice it to say, Den of Geek’s analysis ranks Veep high on JPM, with Season Four delivering jokes about every 12 seconds.
But if it’s difficult to calculate what is a “joke,” it’s infinitely more tricky to measure “funny.” Just because a show has a high JPM rate, does that make it … good?
Turns out it does not, at least if we use audience as a measure. A 2014 breakdown in The Atlantic figured out JPM for a dozen U.S. comedies -- then compared that number to the show’s popularity as measured by ratings.
Turns out that the shows in the middle of the JPM pack -- at the time, Big Bang Theory and Modern Family -- scored the highest in terms of viewership. Shows with higher JPM like Parks and Rec and New Girl didn’t finish among the top 100 highest-rated shows. Going back in time ten years earlier, the similarly paced Friends was the highest-rated sitcom, despite having a lower JPM than some of its competitors.
So having the most jokes doesn’t necessarily mean having the best jokes. And there are plenty of other factors that make a comedy great -- compelling characters, plots with something real at stake, talented actors at the height of their funny powers -- besides the sheer number of wisecracks.
But The Atlantic’s breakdown does reveal something that should be obvious: Pacing matters. And just like with sex, speed shouldn’t always be the goal.
JPM is reminiscent of the (sometimes) overuse of analytics in sports. Once someone had the idea to quantify the joke count, comedy producers had a new metric by which to measure funniness. While information is good, numbers themselves don’t tell us everything we need to know about what makes comedy work.
And maybe, we’ve reached the limit of just how fast comedy can go. Simpsons writer Selman thinks we might be close. “There have been shows on Adult Swim that are so dense with comedic chaos that for anyone over the age of thirty, it’s almost hard to watch.”
“Too many jokes” feels like a valid complaint against Family Guy, a show that fires gags like a t-shirt cannon at halftime. But the laughs can feel unsatisfying because they often aren’t intrinsic to the story. Even if each joke is funny, the lack of cohesion makes the whole less gratifying.
That’s Jennings’ problem with shows like Kimmy Schmidt. “It’s as sharply written as anything on television, but you almost can’t laugh at it—there’s no time. No joke can be savored because it’s probably just a setup for a new joke. Emotional beats tend to feel a little tacked-on and even unwelcome because they cause a jarring lull in the joke barrage. Most importantly, the audience knows that no one in real life tells a joke every nine seconds, so it’s very hard for a show this fast to feel real.”
But something tells us new comic minds will have the need for speed. If history is any indication, comedy is a little like the Olympic 100 meters -- just when you think we’ve reached the limits of velocity, someone comes flying past on the inside lane.
Are we testing for HCH, human-comedy-hormone, yet?
Come to think of it, maybe we didn't need that last joke.
Top image: Netflix