Willie (Billy Bob Thornton) Bad Santa
Wikipedia - A punch line (or punchline) is the final part of a joke, comedy sketch, or profound statement, usually the word, sentence or exchange of sentences which is intended to be funny or to provoke laughter or thought from listeners. Few punchlines are inherently funny out of context, but when a comedian sets up the premise and builds up the audience’s expectations, the punch line can function as the climactic part of the act.
I have noticed a current trend in comedy for eschewing punchlines, for some reason they seem to be considered old hat, or maybe just not necessary in this day and age. I’d like to stand up for the punchline and this is for why…
Any sketch, or joke for that matter, that is longer than a one-liner tends to fall into the three act structure.
Act One - The Set Up
PERSON A: “Knock Knock”
PERSON B: “Who’s there”
Person B wishes to know the identity to the person behind the door.
Act Two - Development
PERSON A: “Luke”
PERSON B: “Luke Who?”
We have the developed the idea of Person B questioning the person A’s identity.
Act Three - Conclusion (or the punchline)
PERSON A: “Luke though the keyhole and you’ll find out”
Person B was expecting to hear a surname but instead he got a play on words. The situation has been subverted. This is where the laughter would come if this joke wasn’t terrible.
Lets look at another example.
This is a sketch by internet comedy king ‘Limmy’ essentially its a monologue but it still follows the same structure.
Limmy observes a boy on a swing and becomes nostalgic for his childhood.
Limmy muses on why it would be wrong for seeing a grown man doing something as childish as playing on a swing by himself.
Limmy wrecks the swings therefore ruining everyone’s day and behaving more childish than if he’s just had a swing.
Okay so lets listen to a sketch here without a punchline:
That sketch was taken from a BBC radio show called Cowards. Its a great show, with a top notch cast, but often at the end of a sketch you are left with that “oh” feeling. That’s because there is no real conclusion to it.
This is sketch from the TV show Big Train with Simon Pegg. Its sets up its premise nicely, then the cat and mouse scrap for ages, then it just sort of stops.
Where is the 3rd act?
Its a bit like me saying
And then starting the next joke.
At this point you might be saying: “Monty Python where famous for not using punch lines. And they where brilliant”. And I agree, they are brilliant. And Often one sketch would drift into the next there for giving you a continual stream rather than coming to any conclusion, so not using a three act structure. But they did use punchlines too and probably more often than you remember.
Monty Python just had their own take on it what a punchline is. Often they would end a sketch with someone getting shot, or a 16 tonne weight falling on someone.
And ending a sketch like this is also fine. It IS a punchline. It may not get the biggest laugh ever. But its a third act.
The sketch above seems to have the punch line from a totally different sketch tacked on. But its funny. And it draws the scene to a close.
The League of Gentlemen often use drama or even horror to end a sketch. And as long as it brings the scene to a close it seems fine with me. Its better to end without a laugh and make the sketch feel finished than it is leave things feeling open.
So there we go. That’s why I like punchlines. Whether dramatic, comedic or off the wall. I just like sketches to feel complete, as no one likes it when things are left unfi—