What is a One Liner?

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  • Written By: Michael Pollick
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 08 October 2019
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Many traditional jokes begin with a premise, move on to a set-up, and end with a humorous punchline: "A panda walks into a bar. He eats a hamburger, then pulls out a pistol and fires into the air. He then runs out of the bar screaming 'I'm a panda, look it up!' The bartender gets out an encyclopedia and finds this entry: Panda — Eats shoots and leaves." Some jokes, however, do not need an elaborate premise or set-up to be funny. Such a short joke or witty observation is known as a one liner.

A one liner sets up a humorous situation or makes an ironic observation all within a sentence or two. "I once invested in toilet paper and turnstiles, but I was wiped out before I could turn around." would be a classic example of a one liner from the days of vaudeville or burlesque. Many Jewish comedians of the early 20th century honed their comedic skills by performing one liners and broad sight gags in resorts located in the Catskills mountains of New York, a region known in the comedy world as the "Borscht Belt."


One Borscht Belt comedian named Henny Youngman became known as the "King of the One Liner" because of his vast repertoire of short jokes and his impeccable comedic timing. His most memorable one liner, "Take my wife ... please," relied heavily on the audience's expectation of a much longer joke. Other comedians such as Jack Benny, Mort Sahl, Jackie Berman and Rodney Dangerfield also became famous because of their memorable one liners and self-deprecating humor. Dangerfield's one liner "I was so ugly as a kid, my mother used to tie a pork chop around my neck so the dogs would play with me" epitomizes the economy of thought involved in an effective one liner.

A number of modern comedians, including Steven Wright and the late Mitch Hedberg and George Carlin, turned the traditional one liner joke into wry observational comedy. Wright once observed "It's a small world, but I wouldn't want to paint it," while Hedberg routinely pointed out to audiences that his shirt was "dry-clean only, which means it's dirty." The modern one liner may not resemble its Borscht Belt ancestor, but audiences still respond well to short zingers such as Yo' Mama jokes and wry observations about the world around them.


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Post 3

Dangerfield’s death in 2004 was a tragedy for those of us who appreciated his good humor. To the others who posted on Rodney’s one-liners, thanks for reminding us that laughter is the essence of life. I would like to add my favorites to the list.

“I haven’t spoken to my wife in years. I didn’t want to interrupt her”.

“Once, somebody stole our car. I asked my wife if she saw who it was. She said she didn’t but that she took down the license number”.

“My psychiatrist told me I was crazy. I told him I wanted a second opinion. He said okay, you’re ugly too”.

“At first I was ashamed, but I finally told my wife that I was seeing a psychiatrist. She said that it was okay because she was seeing a psychiatrist, two plumbers, and a bartender.”

Post 2

Rodney Dangerfield is my all-time favorite performer of one-liners. Whenever I can find a clean version, I love to share them. Here are some of my favorites:

Regarding age: Last year my birthday cake looked like a prairie fire

Regarding life: I was so depressed that I decided to jump from the tenth floor. They sent up a priest. He said “On your mark…”

“When I was a kid my parents moved a lot, but I always found them”.

Regarding his wife: One day I came home early from work and I saw a guy jogging naked. I said to the guy “Hey buddy, why are you doing that?” They guy says “Because you came home early”.

Post 1

I love a good funny one liner. Many comedians made a living off of their “one-liners”. Here are a few that I found:

Stewart Francis said “I quit my job at the helium factory because I refuse to be spoken to in that tone”.

“My mom bought me a memory pillow for my birthday. I don’t tell secrets in my bedroom anymore”. Unknown Author

Rodney Dangerfield said “If it wasn’t for pickpockets, I’d have no sex life at all”.

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