Only fools and sitcoms

Can you help discover why some sitcoms are funnier than others?

In a previous post I wrote about my reasons why some sitcoms are funnier than others and developed a theory to test – that the best comedies have more laughs per page and more reversals overall.

Every theory needs a test and I’m testing it on the top five British Sitcoms as voted for in 2004, not to find ‘the best’ comedy but to find which episodes are the greatest.

Yet to test it I need your help. I need you to read the scripts, count the funnies and reversals and enter them into the database below. I’ll let you know the results when they’re in – subscribe and follow me on Twitter to do so.


Being a better liar

Scientists say that if you want to write fiction you need to be a good liar.

According to Matthew Newman and James Pennebaker of the University of Texas, liars speak and choose their words differently from those telling the truth, and this affects how we write.

Professional Writing

The Science of Writing

Writing is not an art; it’s better than that.

Or, more correctly, does it matter if writing’s an art, a science or even a humanity and does it have to be just one of them?

My belief is that it’s the attitude of how you treat the subject and the attitude to writing as an art, science or humanity makes a world of difference.

Word Science
Word Science

Arts and crafts

Arts are seen as crafts, each artist unique, their work imitable but not reproducible as it’s the sum of all previous, unique, experience.

I generalise hugely, but I see the central belief of writing as an art is the attitude that you either have it or you don’t, it’s your calling, and if you want to become better all you can do is practice and self-reflect – it’s down to you and you alone.

Arts and eras

Yet we, people, like art. Art defines eras more than science (has anyone outside of physics heard of 1905 described as annus mirabilis?) yet artistic eras come easily to mind – the Renaissance, Gothic, Art Deco.

While writing isn’t the sole definition of an artistic period, it is part of the wider cultural movement. John Donne, The Great Gatsby, Brett Easton Ellis are linked very much as shaping and being shaped by the times.


“The humanities” – a malleable definition if there ever was and I’m not going to hammer out a new one. At my school humanities was the study of history – and its relatives including my chosen child, archaeology – geography and religion.

They are about people, even geography, which focused on humans and the land.

Stories too are about people. Even tales with few ‘real people’ like Watership Down or TRON ending up being about people, they anthropomorphised their subjects and presented in a way to engage their human audience.

Data and people

Unlike art, humanities also collect data – data on people, on use and on things that affect lives. It also makes judgments and evaluations.

However the most judgmental of disciplines is science. Science is man’s measure, evaluator, tool, critic. It pokes and studies, alters and remeasures and publishes.

It is cold and exact, uncaring and indifferent if its work harms or helps humans.

That’s its image based on pop-culture, but how much of this has been produced by science itself.

Robert Millikan

Robert Millikan
Artistic licence

Robert Millikan helped devise the oil drop experiment that helped determine the charge of the electron and throw an electric light on the new world of sub-atomic physics.

However, Millikan may have discovered more than this, or not even the proper charge of the electron – he had to judge and interpret his results. We know now his results were slightly yet he won the Nobel Prize – his experiment, it seems, was flawed yet he chose which results to publish and went ahead anyway.

Messy science

This example reminds me of my days of scientific study – results are not neat, they never match the neat graphs and charts, even when following an expected test.

Science is as much about the scientist and their skill, judgment – and following their instinct.

Just like an artist. So how can I argue that one is better than the other?

Greater than the parts

What makes science greater than art to me is not the discipline. Artists work hard, like scientists the greatest have had training and spend years on their topic. They come together in movements but it seems to me to be more coincidental than through shared development.

The advantage to me of science is not the hard work of the individual, or even the study of data. It’s the attitude to others – science is about replicable, shared ideas.

The whole point of Considered Words is not just to study writing and produce data, it’s about sharing it freely and openly for others to reproduce, debate and share.

Science can artistic, but sharing is the beauty of science. And that’s what makes it the greatest.


The second joke

A fart joke that makes you think.

The concept

It’s not often I say those words but 5 Second Films, the high concept comedy troupe who came up with 5sf Joke Pitch #734, did so with this sketch.

For those of you who can’t watch the video, the first joke is that someone pitches a sketch in which he shoots himself dead… and does this. Asked “where’s the second joke?”, he farts.

Not exactly highbrow, but two jokes in five seconds is a good rate and a lot more than some comedies and sketches I’ve seen of late.

Laugh by numbers

YouTube states it has nearly a million clips classed as comedy but there is a reason why the 5 Second Film clip made me think.

After I watched it, I started my own little test and, like the sketch, asked “where’s the second joke?” whenever I listened to or watched a comedy sketch.

I stopped laughing.

Not completely, but enough to make me notice that sketches that featured only joke came across as one note.

Cowards and the test

Case in point – Cowards. Having been told how wonderful they were, I thought I’d put my theory to a rather shaky test (I made it up on the spot) and listen to their radio show.

“Decidedly monotone” was my feeling, or, if I were Judge Kritic (more on him another day) “boring with intent”, each joke in the sketch stretched to beyond the tension point.


Yet it’s not just sketches that the second joke applies to. Sitcoms and comedy films too can find a need for a second joke, not just per scene, but for the whole work.

For example from Only Fools and Horses – A Losing Streak, courtesy of


                                          Leave it out will you Del,
                                          you've only got two pairs.

                                          No, no, Trigger. It's alright,
                                          let Del have his little
                                          moment, come on Del let's see
                                          your two pairs.

                                                  (Laying two cards
                                                   onto the table)
                                          I've got one pair of aces.


                                          And I've got...
                                                  (Laying another two
                                                   cards onto the table)
                                          ...another pair of aces.

                               Boycie is stunned as he realizes he has been beaten. His
                               cigar falls from his open mouth. Del smiles sweetly at
                               him. Rodney, Grandad and Trigger stare disbelievingly
                               at the four aces on the table.

                                          That's four aces!!

                                          I didn't know that you were
                                          good at Maths either Boycie.

                                          Four aces! I ain't never seen
                                          it before!

                                          Four aces! Four bloody aces!

                               Rodney turns to shout Grandad in from the kitchen, not
                               realizing he is stood beside him.

                                                       Rodney (cont'd)
                                          Grandad! Sorry! He's got four
                                          aces, SEE!

                                          I thought Del Boy might have
                                          something up his sleeve!

                               Del reacts to Grandad's comment, indicating that is exactly
                               where the other two aces came from.

                                          Oh look at all that lovely

                                          I told you I could do it,
                                          didn't I, eh?

                                          Well done.

                               There is general celebration, back-slapping, etc.

                                          Oi Rodney now careful what is
                                          your game?

                                          Well done Del.


                                          Nicely played.
                                          Where d'you get those our
                                          bloody aces from?

                                          Same place you got them Kings!
                                          I knew you were cheating

                                          Oh yeah, how?

                                          'Cos that wasn't the hand I
                                          dealt you!

The first joke – Del has won despite it seeming like he hadn’t. The second, that he has cheated. The third, so had Boycie. And he still lost.


A Losing Streak has some other good comedy examples, such as the recurring joke (again, a subject for another day) but I think it’s the weaving of more than one joke per scene (as indeed does other Only Fools and Horses episodes) that helps make it better.

The second joke makes me think of reversals, something else to be written about, and the how reversals coupled with jokes is what makes a good comedy. But this post is already long enough as it is.

So let’s leave with a question for you – does the second joke count or is it a nice addition, but not essential, to comedy?