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.