One-liner comedians on the Fringe: ‘17 jokes in five minutes of material’

Quickfire comics like Tim Vine, Will Mars and Richard Pulsford have endured their one-liner humour being scorned as ‘low-status’. Isn’t it time, asks Kate Copstick, we gave the creators of these haikus of hilarity the respect they deserve?

It takes someone not afraid of working hard for their funny to offer up an hour of carefully crafted one-liners.

Richard Pulsford, UK Pun Champion 2022, reckons: “I need about 17 really good jokes for just five minutes of material.” Who could fail to be impressed by that?

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So why would you pour your energy into writing “a joke – which is over and done with in ten seconds”, as Tim Vine describes the classic one-liner, when you could be Stewart Lee? “He is a genius at what he does,” says Vine, as we remember his comedic antithesis taking 20 minutes of build-up involving Jesus and quite a lot of vomiting to get to a punchline. “I don’t even remember what the punchline was,” Vine admits, which in itself is hilarious, “but we are after the same target – a laugh.”

Vine is unsure that I am correct in my contention that one-liner comics work harder than any others, but says: “Jokes are the thing when you go on stage… you must have jokes. Otherwise you are like a brickie going to build a wall with no bricks.”

One thing that unites great one-liner comics is their absolute respect for their audience. I have never heard a one-liner comedian blame their audience for a bad gig. Milton Jones says he does not know how to write a funny joke – he just knows how to write jokes, and then the audience tells him if they are funny. When, many years ago, I interviewed Jimmy Carr, at peak cruelty, about knowing what is funny enough to carry the weight of nasty in his jokes, he replied: “The audience lets you know.” It is an impressively humble work ethic.

“It is a joy to write a joke and then take it to an audience, especially if you have an inkling that it is a good one,” says Vine, who reckons he keeps two (“maybe say three… it sounds better”) jokes out of every ten he writes. Which is a terrifying attrition rate.

“Any good comedian can think up a premise and add a few punchlines to it,” says Will Mars. “Only the bravest of us decide on the best punchline – and use only that best punchline – before moving on to write the next joke.” And the hard work pays comic dividends. “When you work hard like that, you’ll eventually have an armoury of premises with the best possible laughs attached to them. Weaponry like that makes it extremely hard to die on stage. It’s the nearest a comedian can get to immortality.”

Will MarsWill Mars
Will Mars

Having said that, it is not exactly “now”, is it? All art forms go through fashions and, glancing through the 2022 Fringe comedy section, the current fashion seems to be for replacing laughing for an hour with sharing and revealing. That which used to be the stuff of a messy but cathartic Pals, Pints ’n’ Personal Problems night out is now your Edinburgh show. But is it comedy?

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Vine recalls a review that read “it is refreshing to go to a show and come out knowing only as much about the performer as you did when you went in”. I ask him about the likelihood of the now classic Dead Dad Show, Vine-style. “It would never have occurred to me to do a show about my Dad’s death four years ago,” he says. “It is enough that I got my sense of humour from him. He was naturally funny… he was joyful.”

Ask Will Mars what drew him to this most demanding of comic formats and he says: “My life! When you have a troubled upbringing and come from a poor working-class household, then you need humour to protect yourself. One-liners are very quick-to-use protection. They’re the airbags of life. If observational comedy was an airbag, it would come with a foot pump and you’d still be blowing the thing up as you exited through the windscreen.”

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Now Mars has developed a joined-up approach to one-liners, in part because of the unhelpful attitude of the industry to creators of the beautifully crafted haiku of hilarity.

“Reviewers and agents and people in TV give it very little respect,” he says. “That makes it wise to avoid if you really want to progress in the industry. So I decided to carve out a new form of one-liner comedy. I’ve taken the autobiographical style of comedy that the industry seems to like the most, and I perform it in a one-liner style.”

Richard Pulsford has a theory that the lack of respect for one-liner comedy could be because “it’s not usually a style that is wanting to ‘have a go’ but to just ‘have a laugh’. Maybe some people don’t like the childlike simplicity of one-liners, being silly or surreal, instead of having a well-worn pop at the government or religion.” Maybe.

When “alternative” comedy was born, it turned laughter into a powerful political conduit. And, in many ways, a conduit it has remained. But comedy is more than that. It exists in and of itself. It irritates me, on a regular basis, to hear some foetal comic with five minutes on gender politics and eating disorders use the phrase “just funny” as the ultimate insult.

Tim Vine actually likes being what he calls a “low-status” comic. “Political and observational comics are seen as high-status, but I was always very comfortable being lower-status. There was an element, when I was an open spot, lacking any confidence, of just wanting to get to the next laugh quickly, so the jokes got shorter each time.” And he found his funny, happy place. “I am happy to make a fool of myself. I sometimes worry that I am no longer quite as silly. I want to remain silly.” Please do, Tim.

Tim Vine: Breeeep!, Pleasance Courtyard, 6pm, until 28 August

Will Mars: My Life in One-Liners, Gilded Balloon Patter Hoose, 2.20pm, until 28 August

Richard Pulsford: A Bit More Rich, theSpace @ Surgeons Hall, 8.10pm, until 27 August