Jesse David Fox assembled a list of 100 jokes that shaped modern comedy.
I don’t necessarily agree with many of his choices, but it’s a good excuse to look at a few jokes and appreciate why they work.
“What’s the difference between a pickpocket and peeping tom? A pickpocket snatches watches.” – Redd Foxx
It begins with a classic joke setup, but instead of a punchline, it relies on the audience doing the work of parsing “watching snatches.” It’s naughty rather than dirty, and better for it. This kind of joke would be difficult to fit into a movie, because it relies on that pause while the audience figures out the second part.
“Turn right here? [Pause.] Well, now that was my fault again. You see I meant the next street. Not this man’s lawn.” – Bob Newhart
Newhart’s comedy goes hand-in-hand with his too-obliging persona, but the setup here is solid: he creates the expectation of a car turning right at an intersection, and then defeats it with a surprise visual gag.
In the movie version of this joke, the punchline would happen before the car turned. (“Turn right here. (beat) No, not this man’s lawn.”) Alternately, the car drives onto the lawn, likely during the initial pause.
“I was raped by a doctor…which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl.” – Sarah Silverman
I was in the audience for the taping of Silverman’s Jesus is Magic special, and laughed so much it hurt the next day. Like many of her best jokes, it relies on a premise of “I’m a terrible person for saying this but…”
As dialogue, this kind of joke is easy to give to the right character. The same hold true for this one:
“The other kid we have, she’s a girl, and she’s 4, and she’s also a fucking asshole.” – Louis C.K.
This line from the Girls pilot also walks that line of knowing you’re saying something insufferable:
“I think I may be the voice of my generation. Or at least a voice. Of a generation.” – Hannah (Lena Dunham)
I don’t have reason to write many jokes. Most of the projects I work on are either dramas or premise-funny rather than punchline-funny. But I always admire well-crafted jokes. They’re tiny works of magic.