Whenever one hears a very long joke with it’s requisite long setup, one thinks – this had better be good.  Many comics, faced with long sets to fill, opt instead for the shotgun approach – tell a million short jokes; if one bombs, you’re already on to the next one.

Henny Youngman leaps to my mind:

Youngman made a living out of telling very short jokes in a rapid fire fashion, truly earning the title “The king of the one liners”.  In a pre-internet age (1974 – the dark ages kids) , the New York Telephone Company started a Dial-a-Joke line and over three million people called in one month to hear 30 seconds of Youngman’s one-liners, which was the most ever for a comedian.

This begs the question of course, what’s the shortest joke?

British comedian Jimmy Carr, who has an answer for everything, has this four-word joke:

Let’s try three words:

Stationery store moves.

Or two:

Dwarf shortage

Now we’re smack up against the definition of a joke.  My take is that a joke must be free-standing – that is, it shouldn’t require another joke.  A good example would be a catch phrase: ‘More cowbell” which requires knowledge of the television sketch from which the phrase was used:

So you’ve got to hear the five-minute sketch to get the two-word punch line.

Let’s also set aside jokes that are added to non-joke content, for example:

“That’s what she said!”

Usually painfully applied to almost any comment, and has been called “the most versatile joke” turning any innocent phrase into a harassment lawsuit.  One example:

“Make sure it’s long enough.”
“That’s what she said!”

In the end, I think the interaction of two words are the absolute minimum requirements for a joke to actually still be called a joke.  Let’s end with my favorite two word gem:

Pretentious?  Moi?

Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: That music…
Frau Blücher: Yes. It’s in your blood – it’s in the blood of ALL Frankensteins. It reaches the soul when words are useless. Your grandfather used to play it to the creature HE vas making.
Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: Then it was you all the time.
Frau Blücher: Yes.
Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: You played that music in the middle of the night…
Frau Blücher: Yes.
Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: …to get us to the laboratory.
Frau Blücher: Yes.
Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: That was YOUR cigar smoldering in the ashtray.
Frau Blücher: Yes.
Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: And it was you… who left my grandfather’s book out for me to find.
Frau Blücher: Yes.
Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: So that I would…
Frau Blücher: Yes.
Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: Then you and Victor were…
Frau Blücher: YES. YES. Say it. He vas my… BOYFRIEND.

(Young Frankenstein, 1974)

What of course makes Frau Blücher’s gushing admission so humorous is our expectation that she will use the term “lover” or “man” instead of “boyfriend”.  It points out however, our disease with terms that describe a relationship that is more than a friendship, but for a number of reasons is not marriage.  A century or more ago, one had a friend, possibly some kind of ‘courtship”, and then a rapid proposal of marriage, if we’ve learned nothing from Jane Austen.   And if we’ve learned nothing from P.G. Woodhouse, it’s not only rapid, but out of control:

“Broke off your engagement? How long were you engaged?”

“About two minutes. It may have been less. I hadn’t a stop-watch. I
proposed to her at ten last night in the saloon. She accepted me. I was
just going to kiss her when we heard someone coming. I went out. Coming
along the corridor was that infernal what’s-her-name–Mrs. Vanderley’s
maid–Pilbeam. Have you ever been accepted by the girl you love,

“Never. I’ve been refused dozens—-

So, exactly when did this whole “boyfriend” business start? I’m glad you asked!  Thanks to a wonderful tool from google, one is able to see the frequency of the occurrence of a given word or phrase over time.  Let’s look at when “boyfriend” shows up:

Much to my surprise, it’s was a very recent invention, largely 1960 forward, essentially a fifty year old word.  I did a quick scan of the 20th century classic “The Tower Treasure” (1927) in which I was sure that Joe Hardy’s girlfriend appeared.  She’s there all right, but she’s never introduced as “girlfriend”, “lover”, or “friend with benefits” – she just appears as Iola Morton and we are left fill in the blanks.

Let’s move to the real world.  In the actual world people actually lived together without the benefit of marriage for years.  The term “Boston marriage” was used by Henry James in The Bostonians (1886), to describe a long-term co-habiting relationship between two unmarried women.  However, this relationship may have been a non-sexual one, but afforded the parties the only way for women to have a career.

When, in the 1970’s,  the United States Census Bureau needed a phrase to describe an unmarried man and woman living together, they invented the term “POSSLQ”, “Persons of Opposite Sex Sharing Living Quarters”.  A somewhat earthier term, “shacking up”, had been in use since the 40’s:

While “POSSLQ”, “shacking up”, and “in a relationship” may describe the union, unholy or not, but don’t describe the parties involved.  One newcomer to the game is “Significant other”.  The term’s first reference is in 1953 by the psychiatrist, Harry Stack Sullivan, in “The Interpersonal Theory of Psychiatry.”  It’s since been widely adopted since it can refer to persons of any gender.  A case example might be, you think John is gay, but rather than make an awkward assumption, you can add “Please bring your significant other.”  A similar protocol shows up in the wedding invitation to a single person and a “Plus one” guest.  No muss, no fuss.  Perhaps not surprising, “SO” only really got traction in the late sixties:

Now that we’ve looked at individual terms over time lets do some comparing:

We can see that ‘lover” is the big winner here, although it may refer to a non-sexual relationship (Alex is a lover of Gothic churches), the phrase “they were lovers” holds largely steady over time:

We’ll leave it at that – maybe our wedding invitations should just say “Susan and lover”.


My Man Jeeves, by P. G. Wodehouse –

How Does POSSLQ Measure Up? Historical Estimates of Cohabitation –,M1

If you were one of the hundreds of millions who watched the royal wedding between Prince William and Kate Middleton, you got to hear a largely unchanged version of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer wedding vows, ending with:

Those whom God hath joined together let no man put

Oddly enough, it feels like most of the movie weddings use, at least, this phrase, usually then cutting to a shot of the ne’er-do-well ex boy friend or the femme fatale bridesmaid, foreshadowing the upcoming asunderness.

Odd also was the use of very traditional vows after all the talk about the new royal couple being a modern example of monarchy for a new generation.

Lets think about this whole vow businesses for a second – why do we have vows in the  first place? (and by “we” I’m talking about western wedding ceremonies).  Several years ago I was involved in a wedding performed as a secular event by a “Certificate of Solemnization” presider.  Here’s what legally is supposed to be said:

  • Ask if they’re currently married or if they are a little “too” related
  • Ask if they are aware of what they are getting into (Are you sober?  How many fingers am I holding up?)
  • Ask if they want to marry each other (Are you sure?  Really?)
  • Announce that the couple is now married

So the whole shebang could be as short as:

  • Is there anything that would legally prevent you from being married today?
  • Do you understand what you’re doing?
  • Do you want to marry each other?
  • Mary Smith and John Jones are now married to each other.

Now let’s flash back to one summer, around 1970, where my parents are reading our local paper at the kitchen table:

Mom:    Look at this – that ne’er-do-well neighbor of ours was married in a sunrise service on the beach.
Dad:    Those hippies – I bet they wrote their own vows

At the time, I was a little more struck by the sunrise aspect of the wedding than the writing your own vows part, but back  in 1970, people actually wondered if the marriage was legal or at least “real” if folks were writing their own hippie dippy vows.  While the roman church has held that the marriage liturgy may not be messed with, today, it’s considered normal to either write your own ceremony or at least a supplemental vow section, and in fact, it’s expected:

“Don’t go by the book! Add a personal touch to your ceremony by declaring your love in your own words.   No doubt you’ve worked hard to stage a wedding reception with tons of individual style, so why should your wedding ceremony be any different?”

The vows still suggest a legal-like (or legal-sounding) set of promises (“I promise to be faithful to you”) or (“I promise to have the courage to let you be yourself”), but there is also an interest in “making the vows reflect your life together”.   Your mileage may vary here; reportedly, Jennifer Aniston vowed to always make Brad Pitt’s favorite banana milkshake.

But now you have to write the damn things. The common movie version of this modern dilemma usually revolves around the groom, struggling stereotypically with his inability to express any kind of emotions in a non-sporting related event, wrestling until the last possibly second to write something on a cocktail napkin.

Recent pop culture perfectly expressed this gender divide on the real meaning of vows in fine American televisual feast,  “Bridalplasty”, where 12 women competed to win both plastic surgery procedures and a dream wedding.

In one episode, the sequestered women were asked to write vows that they thought would match the vows that their fiancés back home would have written.  The women’s guesses were largely centered around vows for undying love and romance and the men’s vows, to a man, centered on listing all tasks they wished their brides would perform after they had tied the knot.  The “winning” bride guessed correctly that her husband to be would write a vow that centered around her vacuuming duties.

Maybe William and Kate had it right.


The Book of Common Prayer (1662)

One Day Marriage Designation Instructions

Write Your Own Wedding Vows – Don’t go by the book! Add a personal touch to your ceremony by declaring your love in your own words.


‘Bridalplasty’ Recap: Vows Of Obedience