I don’t think there’s ever been a better joke writer than Jack Handey. He is the Michael Jordan of joke writers. But who is the LeBron James? In other words, who is the best joke writer right now?
I’d vote for Dan Guterman.
In Poking a Dead Frog: Interviews with Today’s Top Comedy Writers, Mike Sacks says Guterman “may be the funniest writer you’ve never heard of.” Let’s take care of that problem immediately. Guterman has written for The Colbert Report, Community, and The Onion, where he wrote hundreds of tightly worded horoscopes, such as “Your tryst with a married woman will come to an end this week when she finally asks for a divorce.” His Twitter feed makes me jealous and angry: it’s a consistent, endless, polished collection of immaculately worded jokes. Guterman is a true joke craftsman.
Taking statements literally is a common feature of Guterman’s jokes, like in this vow of vengeance: “They all laughed when I said I was going to be rich. But they weren’t laughing anymore when they started wheezing from all the laughing.” Some jokes play on overused journalese to make a joke at his own expense: “Every 30 seconds in this country, a person who is me thinks about waffles.” This might be the cleverest sex joke I’ve ever read: “Had my sexual awakening when I was 12 and the Oscar Mayer Weinermobile crashed into that curtain store.” His jokes are not usually as overtly shocking as those of Anthony Jeselnik or Sarah Silverman, but get ready to wince at this one: “Ouija board spirit just spelled out a bunch of gibberish. Stupid dead 2 year old.”
Guterman is a master of brevity, often using much fewer than Twitter’s allotted 140 characters to craft airtight jokes that quickly plant, then uproot, an idea, like here: “Going to look up what Carpe Diem means tomorrow.” Another short joke is a clever spin on depression/agoraphobia: “Don’t feel like going out tonight for the next 15 years.” Sometimes the change of a single letter can be the punchline: “Let’s just say I’ve slept with a number of woman.” Guterman’s mix of vividness and simplicity is impressive: “Just crashed into a bloodmobile. Hard to tell if anyone’s hurt.”
I picked a slightly lengthier ha-ha as Guterman’s Best Joke Ever: “You can see God in everything. The trees. Those birds. That homeless man with the long beard holding a scepter.”
This joke starts with a common sentiment, the kind of bland, vague, borderline meaningless platitude that’s not so much religious as it is dopey. “You can see God in everything” is the kind of cliché that’s more at home on Facebook than in church.
Then, Guterman uses the tried and true rule of three to set up his punchline, but he sets it up with punctuation precision. This joke could have been punctuated like this: “You can see God in everything: the trees, those birds, that homeless man with the long beard holding a scepter.” But by making each chunk of the joke its own sentence, readers have to slow down a bit more, heightening the punchline.
The punchline—“That homeless man with the long beard holding a scepter”—is a thing of beauty, painting a clear picture and, once again, making a trite tidbit of twaddle into something literal and ridiculous. Also, scepter is a funny word. It’s almost a punchline within the punchline.
Guterman might be the most precise, skilled joke writer I’ve ever read, so I’m not surprised that, in an interview with Sacks, Guterman questions whether his approach is too mechanical. He seems to fear becoming the Yngwie Malmsteen of comedy writers:
“The danger, when you do it for long enough, is that comedy can become a series of variables in a mathematical equation. I know that if I balance the equation correctly, that if I manipulate x and y in just the right way, the end result will be laughter. Maybe some of that has to do with me being a left-brain guy, but the whole thing bums me out. You never want to generate material that feels soulless. It’d be nice to be the kind of writer who drew purely from a place of inspiration. I wish my process was more of a mystery. I wish every joke was a surprise to me as I was writing it.”
Guterman should rest easy, though no doubt he can’t, since the perfectionism that makes him a joke craftsman with an immaculate process is also the perfectionism that makes him question that process. Let’s just say I’d love to possess Guterman’s soulless, mechanical process—and I’ll sell my soul to any comedy demon who can make it happen.