Armed with a couch, TV, Netflix subscription, extra-large bag of popcorn, and a worrying amount time on my hands, I recently decided to take a deep look into the structure of various television comedies. The project essentially consisted of sitting around and binging on numerous shows, all under the guise of “work”. My objective was to take a handful of primetime TV comedies and compare them in terms of jokes per minute—the total number of jokes divided by the number of minutes in the show.
Striking the ideal balance, of course, is essential to all comedies, but it seemed that different shows, from 30 Rock to South Park, and Frasier to New Girl, appeared to have very distinct pacing that had less to do with how funny a show was, and more to do with factors such as the subgenre of comedy, the types of jokes, and the popularity of the show. I took a dozen U.S. comedies—chosen to reflect some variety, but otherwise an arbitrary selection—and calculated the average jokes per minute of three episodes of each. (By “jokes”, I mean intended jokes, whether or not I, as a viewer, found them funny.) In order of highest to lowest average jokes per minute, here are the results:
30 Rock 7.44
New Girl 7.11
Parks and Recreation 6.97
The Office 6.65
Brooklyn Nine-Nine 6.59
The Big Bang Theory 5.80
Modern Family 5.68
Family Guy 5.20
South Park 5.03
Curb Your Enthusiasm 3.41
The traditional multi-camera sitcom, based around a group of family or friends—in this sample, Friends and The Big Bang Theory—sits right in the middle in terms of the joke count. You could call these shows the Baby Bear of comedy: The pacing is not too fast and not too slow.
But TV comedy of late has evolved to a more film-evocative, single-camera system, without a laughing track, and the shows in this category produced a very high joke count, from the zany 30 Rock in first place to the budding Brooklyn Nine-Nine in fifth. Modern Family is a single-camera show and so is arguably an anomaly here, but it also sits comfortably with the family sitcom, even if not in the traditional sense. On the other end of the scale, we have animated series in the form of Family Guy and South Park—and with the slowest pace of all, the only 30-minute HBO comedy in our sample group, the heavily improvised Curb Your Enthusiasm.
If we delve even deeper into the concept of genre, we find that there are certainly patterns between the jokes per minute and the types of jokes that each comedy favors. The new, single-camera comedy, with generally high laugh counts, is very dialogue-driven, and doesn’t shy away from repeating a single joke several times (perhaps the best example of this, not mentioned here, is Arrested Development). At its best, New Girl’s dialogue is off-the-cuff, often overlapping, and incites reactions from different members of the group, so it’s not uncommon to count five or six jokes from a single line. Parks and Recreation works in much the same way, sprouting multiple jokes in one, such as when Andy is suggesting code names for the group.
The wacky 30 Rock takes it to a whole new level still: Every line warrants—and gets—a reaction, whether verbal (muttered under Liz Lemon’s breath) or visual (the melodramatic expressions of Tracy, Kenneth or really any other character). And we can’t forget the show that helped pave the way for all these aforementioned comedies. The Office relied on never-ending, cringe-worthy speeches courtesy of Michael Scott (often including several jokes in one chunk of dialogue), followed by tell-all visual responses from other office members, and verbal summations in front of the documentary film crew.
On the other end of the scale, shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm and Frasier keep the audience waiting for the joke that they know is coming. Curb dwells on points for long periods (Larry certainly doesn’t swiftly move on when he should), and often introduces a somewhat irrelevant piece of information that will come full circle only at the very end, when the joke is finally played out. Frasier’s strength was always farce, especially in its most popular episodes such as “The Ski Lodge”, where mistaken identities and confusion form the basis of most of the comedy. The show was sophisticated and subtle, and hence rarely wasted laughs on “lazy” jokes like Friends unfortunately did during its weaker seasons. Friends often felt it had to do this to keep the pacing steady—crucial for an ensemble comedy with a laughing track, like today’s The Big Bang Theory—whereas Frasier seemed more concerned with the complexity of the episode as a whole.
Animated shows like Family Guy and South Park rely heavily on satirical jokes. South Park, especially, dedicates each episode to skewering at least one current topic, in such intelligent and inventive ways that the audience is more inclined to marvel at the satire rather than laugh out loud, which is why the joke count stays relatively low. Most of the joke count is actually filled up with the boys’ profanity (still rife as ever), and also from some repetition. Family Guy’s count is a tad higher: It’s purposely less subtle, openly mocking not only everything in the world around it, but also calling out itself as an absurd cartoon with a talking British baby who wants to kill his mother, and a talking dog who’d rather bed her. Family Guy probably proved the toughest in terms of keeping count of laughs: how many times should you hit the joke counter during Peter’s two-minute fight with a chicken, or during 30 seconds of Stewie mispronouncing “Cool Whip”?
Pacing, then, is crucial to comedy and, more specifically, to the type of comedy and the kinds of jokes used. It appears that the traditional sitcom, though rebottled and sold hundreds of times since I Love Lucy, will continue to reign as most popular, and this probably has something to do with the measured pacing. In terms of my experiment, the most popular shows are those where the jokes per minute sit somewhere around the middle. So, Modern Family was still the second-highest-rated comedy for the 2013-14 season according to the all-knowing Nielsen ratings, and The Big Bang Theory was not only the highest-rated comedy on TV during the same period, but was also the second-highest-rated show overall, trailing only NBC’s Sunday Night Football. Similarly, skip to a decade ago, and Friends was the highest-rated show on TV for the 2001-02 season. Though new genres of comedy have appeared in the last 10 years, trends have clearly remained the same. If Goldilocks were a producer, she’d strike it pretty rich with Baby Bear’s sitcom.
There have been a few clever comedies along the way to skew this trend and bring the laugh count down, treating viewers more like intelligent beings rather than half-concentrating, half-chowing-down-on-frozen-TV-meals creatures. Yet the “new” genres of comedy, with their high or low joke counts, consistently don’t perform as well in the Nielsen ratings. In the same 2013-14 season, Parks and Recreation came in at 115th place, New Girl in 103rd, and Family Guy at 78th; during 2010-11, 30 Rock came in the 53rd spot. In 2001-02, Frasier, with its incredibly low joke count for a multi-camera sitcom, performed worse than Friends, Everybody Loves Raymond, Will and Grace and Becker, all of which would have presumably had higher (but not too high) joke counts.
But the way that comedy is pointing these days as a whole shows that jokes-per-minute will likely keep increasing, in the shape of The Office and now Brooklyn Nine-Nine. And these shows are versatile and moldable, in that they can be self-referential and quirky like 30 Rock, use a constant barrage of inside jokes and catchphrases like Parks and Recreation, or redefine the ensemble “friends” comedy like New Girl—all the while keeping the jokes flowing and the pacing fast. But if producers want to keep racking up Emmys, critical acclaim and widespread popularity as well as using the contemporary single-camera format, they might want to follow in the footsteps of the show that checks all the boxes—like that overachieving kid who’s on the football team, debate team and in the band, and who still gets straight As—Modern Family.