Fifth Degree Jokes

The best and most effective jokes reveal some inner truth about the joke’s target. In the context of a story, the wonderful part is that they also advance the story, and the audience hardly has a reason to notice it is a “joke” except that they are laughing. These are fifth degree jokes.

Fifth degree jokes are almost always also fourth degree jokes in that they make things worse for the target, and it happens accidentally. Of course, it is by accident because otherwise it would seem like the character is bragging or being cruel, but is certainly not funny.

It becomes easy later in a story to set up and unleash those jokes once the characters are established. A great comedic character does not understand their own nature, even if the audience does. Revealing that nature in the form of jokes defines the character, advances the story, and entertains the audience. Assuming, of course, that the joke is funny.

The master of this form is 30 Rock. Each of the characters takes turns revealing things about themselves and the writers, God bless them, ensure it’s relevant to the story they happen to be telling. They are absurd, they use puns and reverse double entendre, and they make use of every bizarre element at their disposal, but, above all, their jokes advance the story they are telling.

To quote Eric Cartman from South Park, “When I make jokes, they are inherent to a story! Deep, situational and emotional jokes based on what is relevant and has a POINT!”

30 Rock is also good at satirizing our culture, our beliefs, and our American way of life, which every decent joke must somehow do.

But this article is more about Fifth Degree jokes rather than 30 Rock. What makes the jokes work is the commitment to developing the characters in the story. Because 30 Rock invests time in establishing the limits of a character’s personality, it makes it easier to go over those limits and, thereby, make a joke. We know how Liz feels about sex, and how Jack feels about Democrats, so the jokes need little set up, and they can deliver them as part of the story, rather than as a joke sequence. It all adds up to a brilliant experience for the audience.

The other shows I regularly watch that do this so well are Modern Family, Community, and The Office. The common formula in each has strong character development, elaborate plots that are carefully constructed, and, finally, jokes that reveal character as they drive the story.