The Exit Strategy of Sitcoms


Finding the perfect formula for humor can be difficult. Most of us screw jokes up so often that it can be embarrassing. Some of us mess the stresses up when it comes to punctuating a punch line in a proper manner. Some of us have horrible joke-telling rhythm. Some of us provide our audience the exact same material as the best comic in the world, but for some reason we just don’t hit the mark in the exact same manner they do. What happens? Why didn’t they fall over laughing the way they did when that comedian told the joke?

The first thing we all need to do is relax for just a second and realize that we’re not as funny as Jerry Seinfeld is, and we never will be, and no one else is either. The next thing to focus on is that Jerry Seinfeld is not as funny as Jerry Seinfeld is. We’ve all seen interviews with the man, and we have seen that he is a humorous man, but he’s not as funny in everyday life, as he is on stage, or on TV. He works his tail off to perfect these routines, and those skits, and he fails more often than he succeeds. The difference is, we only see the successful portions of his ability to make people laugh. That standup routine we witnessed is a result of constant practice, and the honing and refining of his material. He places emphasis on a punchline, finds out if that works or not, and tries it another way when it doesn’t. This is what he does for a living, and he has stated that most of his concerts are a testing ground for that pursuit of the perfect tone, emphasis, and rhythm for telling the perfect joke. The basis of our frustration regarding our inability to execute our joke lies in the idea that we couldn’t execute it in the manner of an expert comedian after spending one impulsive minute (sometimes less) thinking about it.

One of the easiest ways we’ve found to evoke laughter among our friends at the water cooler is to mimic the patterns, and rhythms, of these comedians and their situation comedies (sitcoms). People already know those patterns. They’re tried and tested rhythmic structures that focus group tones and exit strategies. People are more comfortable with these patterns and rhythms, so it’s just easier, and less taxing, to copy them. We all do it in one form or another. Some of us wish we didn’t have to resort to that, but we can’t help it. We want the laugh.

A friend of mine believed the finer points of joke telling came down to his exit. I don’t know if he sat around and thought about it, or if he picked it up over the years, but he appeared to believe that the perfect exit would cover for any deficiencies he may have otherwise had telling jokes. He was a nervous guy. He doesn’t speak well in public, and we never broke the barrier between acquaintance and friendship to a point where he would’ve been at ease telling me a joke. Long story short, he was nervous around me.

Through the years we worked together, I had somehow attained some sort of upper-echelon status in his joke-telling world. If he ever came across a fantastic joke, in other words, he felt compelled to bring it to me. Regardless how nervous I made him, he had to tell me the joke, but he couldn’t look at me when he did it.

Before attempting his exit, the guy would lean down, and put his hands on the desk before him. This was, I’m guessing, his joke-telling stance. I can’t remember any of the actual jokes he told me. Most of them weren’t as great as he thought they were, but they weren’t that bad either. The actual jokes don’t matter though. What mattered to me were his exits. He had this whole routine down. He would lean down, tell the joke, and deliver the punch line. In the immediate aftermath of the punch line, he would pull his hands away from the desk in a swift manner and exit in an erratic fashion. This erratic exit was supposed to punctuate the joke. It was supposed to add to the comedic rhythm. “Get in, get out” was his strategy. Don’t stick around for the laughter. If you execute the perfect exit, the laughter will follow as a matter of course. It will arise in appreciation for the exit, as punctuation for the rhythm the audience feels compelled to conclude with you. “Get in, GET OUT!”

It’s a compulsion that diehard TV watchers feel compelled to add to the tail end of sitcom jokes after watching them for so many decades. This compulsion is so strong that it feels instinctual. The one “don’t try this at home” lesson that my friend illustrated is the comedic exit. His attempt at the maneuver carried with it a warning asterisk: Make sure you have somewhere to go in your exit. There is no “exit stage left” in real life. In real life, there is no curtain concealing the actor’s exit backstage. In real life, even trained TV watchers watch you leave, and some of the times, they see the real life actor trapped in the reality of having nowhere to go.

There have been times when my friend has attempted an exit stage left, after executing the perfect punchline tone and pitch, and ended up in another row of desks with nothing to do there. It’s embarrassing. The sitcoms don’t cover this, for their characters always have a predetermined destination. No one offered my friend, this luxury, and anyone watching him could see that he didn’t plan his exits well.

The pained question I see on his face, when I ask him to return is, “Why do you need jokes explained to you. Most jokes don’t survive explanations.” True, but some do. The presentation of some jokes requires explanation, whether that be due to a flawed presentation, or the inability of the listener to follow it well. Call all of those that require explanation stupid if you want, but if you’re going to come to us with a joke, be prepared to stick around for some of the questions.

On those occasions when the nature of the joke forced me to call my friend back, we would both look at each other with pained expressions. “I’m sorry,” my expression would say, “I just don’t get it.” Some of the times, he would come back and explain his joke to me, and we would be so uncomfortable that I felt compelled to laugh harder than I otherwise would have as an act of contrition for forcing him to provide follow-up. I had ruined his exit, and we both knew it, so I felt the need to cover for this sense of violation.

On other occasions, he would exit to a location so far away that it would be inconceivable for me to call him back. I would still call him back, but he often pretends that he can no longer hear me. We would then share an uncomfortable look when he established the fact that he was not returning. You’re not ruining what I consider the perfect exit, his gait stated, to explain things to you in the manner I have far too many times before. You’re just going to have to figure this one out yourself.

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