When I analyzed episodes of 30 Rock and S#*! My Dad Says for their relative joke tallies, many readers pointed out it’s unfair to compare two different comedy formats –- 30 Rock is a single camera, ensemble comedy, whereas S#*! My Dad Says is a more traditional, multi-camera, laugh-track comedy focusing on one main character. Furthermore, some argued, many comedies are light on jokes but nonetheless hilarious, such as Louie.
Again, I agree that it’s more important to look at the kind of jokes a show makes, and how funny those jokes are, in addition to their frequency. However, even if the results aren’t scientifically valid, I think statistical analysis allows us to see our favorite comedy programs in a new, quantitative light. The numbers don’t end the debate, but they contribute to it in a substantial way where ratings and reviews fall short.
So this time I compared two similar shows, both very funny (at least according to most sources), yet both with low joke counts: Curb Your Enthusiasm and Louie.
The similarities between the two shows are striking. Both are day-in-the-life portraits of antisocial writer-comedians (Larry David and Louis C.K., respectively) who play their on-screen egos as straight, reasonable men navigating through uncomfortable interactions and complaining about absurd social norms that have taken over our daily routines. Both characters are shitty people who at least strive to be decent and generous, which typically backfires in some way.
Most importantly, both shows forego the conventional setup-punchline pacing for a slower, anecdotal realism in which humor is stored in comedic beats, or specific moments that are devoted to single comedic ideas.
Beat: Larry gets scolded by Jeff’s elderly Jewish parents for making a casual joke about Hitler.
Beat: Louis compares trying to date after divorce to trying to get excited about a new dog that you know will have to be put down someday.
Both shows are structured as strung together moments such as these, and both resist the temptation to fill the silence between the beats with references to pop culture or jokey cutaways. So while I still kept track of the standard “joke” categories (verbal jokes, visual gags, callbacks, reveals, and cultural references), for these shows I focused more on the comedic beats.
Also, I decided to look at the pilots of each series. Although a series’ overall tone often isn’t firmly established during a pilot, we have at least controlled the variable of running jokes and self-references, which come as a benefit of multiple episodes and seasons.
Curb Your Enthusiasm: “The Pants Tent”
Original Airdate: Oct. 15, 2000
Story A: Larry’s pants bunch up in a way that appears like he has an erection, which leads to a big misunderstanding between him, Cheryl and one of Cheryl’s friends.
Story B: Larry jokingly calls Cheryl “Hitler” to Jeff over speakerphone, which is overheard by Jeff’s elderly Jewish parents, who are offended. Larry keeps offending the parents and must apologize to them.
Story C: When Cheryl suspects Larry did something, he and Jeff lie to Cheryl about a project involving Kathy Griffin, which later gets exposed to Cheryl over dinner.
Story D: Larry fights with a woman at the movies, who turns out to be the girlfriend of a close friend. He has to cancel dinner plans with the friend to avoid the awkwardness.
Storyline Overlaps: 5
Verbal Jokes: 25
Visual Gags: 5
Cultural References: 3
Comedic Beats: 21
Run Time: 28:50
Original Airdate: June 29, 2010
Story A: Louis volunteers to chaperone his daughter’s school field trip, but the inept bus driver causes the bus to get a flat and abandons the group, forcing Louis to take charge.
Story B: Louis tries to take a woman out on a date, but his awkwardness ruins it every step of the way.
Storyline Overlaps: 0
Verbal Jokes: 48
Visual Gags: 10
Cultural References: 0
Comedic Beats: 24
Run Time: 23:44
Curb Your Enthusiasm pilot
43 total jokes. 28:50 total minutes. 1.49 jokes per minute.
21 comedic beats. 0.73 beats per minute.
66 total jokes. 23:44 total minutes. 2.78 jokes per minute.
24 comedic beats. 1.01 beats per minute.
As expected, the joke-to-minute ratio for both of these shows is incredibly low. (You may remember 30 Rock averages 10 jokes per minute, and even the s#*!ty S#*! My Dad Says clocks in around 4.) It’s likely that Louie has a slightly higher joke count because of the joke-filled stand-up routines that frame each episode.
Curb Your Enthusiasm, meanwhile, is far more sophisticated in the dimension of storytelling. It features twice as many story arcs, all of which overlap and extend from a central theme (Larry has to apologize for everything). Louie, on the other hand, offers a binary story structure, with two simple story arcs that often have nothing to do with each other (Louis chaperones his daughter’s field trip; Louis goes on a date).
So while both shows are structured around comedic beats rather than jokes, Louie explores several beats within two separate storylines, while Curb uses fewer beats to heighten and ultimately fuse several storylines.
Ultimately, it’s unfair to declare either show as “better” as a sole result of this analysis, but it’s nonetheless interesting to look at the rare style of humor shared by two different, personality-driven comedies, and the diverging ways that humor is organized within the structure of an episode.
Furthermore, the data forces us to think about the requirements for a satisfying, engaging comedy. It seems that fewer shows these days are using laugh tracks to tell us when to laugh, preferring to let the jokes speak for themselves. But do we even need the jokes at all?
Curb Your Enthusiasm and Louie may have answered that question.
Erik Voss isn’t a real scientist, but he plays one on the internet.