Main content

Are these the greatest comedy one-liners ever told?

As The Tim Vine Chat Show returns to Radio 4 for a Christmas special, we celebrate the history of the one-liner.

The noble art of the one-line joke is almost as ancient as civilisation itself. Academics at the University of Wolverhampton traced the oldest known joke back to the Sumerians of Southern Iraq in 1900BC (to be honest, it wasn’t great but did involve a reference to farting) and history is full of humorous quips from the likes of Shakespeare, Napoleon, Winston Churchill and Homer (that’s Simpson, not the Greek poet).

I never forget a face, but in your case, I’ll be glad to make an exception.
Groucho Marx

The perfect one-liner is a holy grail for comedians – their chance for immortality. Nobody will memorise your lovingly crafted half hour routine fifty years from now, but we are still quoting those perfect lines from Tommy Cooper, Dorothy Parker or Groucho Marx. Though of course, Groucho – one of the all-time masters of this art-form – would refuse to join any one-liner club that’d have him as a member…

Some of the greatest one-liners have come in response to a specific situation or person, like Winston Churchill’s famous (though possibly apocryphal) riposte to Nancy Astor’s line “If I were your wife, I’d put poison in your tea.” – “Madame, if I were your husband, I’d drink it.” Many historical figures have met death bravely with a witty line. Sir Thomas More, condemned by Henry VIII, mounted the scaffold telling his executioner, “I pray you Mr Lieutenant, see me safe up; and for my coming down, let me shift for myself.” I’m not saying it’s a bad gag, but contemporary reports say he died on stage…

The great British passion for the joke really took off in the music halls of the 19th Century. Not all Victorian jokes stand the test of time, though: “Pawnbrokers prefer customers without any redeeming qualities” is one of the better ones. Not sure Tim Vine would include it in his set…

15 jokes in 97 seconds from Tim Vine

Everything from pixies and priests to Wembley Stadium.

Tastes in comedy change and, by the 1980s and ’90s as alternative comedy replaced the working men’s club humour of the ’70s, jokes went out of fashion, sneered upon as “too easy” or the preserve of gruff, un-PC Northern comics. Stand up became about “material” rather than a stream of gags.

These days, though, the one-liner is having something of a renaissance thanks to unashamedly old-fashioned joke-tellers like Milton Jones and the rather edgier boundary-pusher, Jimmy Carr. But perhaps the gag boom is mostly due to Twitter, a medium perfectly suited to one-liners.

Comedians who might once have sneered at the idea of “telling jokes” are falling over themselves to get retweets for their gags of 140 characters or less. Twitter is a boot-camp for one-liners – the format forcing you to hone your joke to its leanest, meanest shape. While these jokes may seem deceptively simple or throwaway, they are sometimes the product of hours of work. A comedian can tie themselves in knots honing and refining a funny idea.

The best one-liners are infectious; forcing you to laugh. They have the power to take big subjects – politics, love, marriage, sex, death – and cut through them with the precision of a surgeon’s scalpel. They can be cruel, withering put-downs of the kind Joan Rivers was famous for, or deliciously silly like those of Tommy Cooper, but they all have one thing in common – the magical union of set-up and punch-line streamlined into one simple memorable line of comedy perfection.

11 Great One Liners

Here are eleven classic one-liners from some masters of the craft. Are they the best ever told?

Tim Vine – “ – that’s a site for sore eyes”

Joan Rivers – “All my mother told me about sex was that the man goes on top and the woman on the bottom. For three years my husband and I slept in bunk beds.”

Ken Dodd – “I have kleptomania, but when it gets bad, I take something for it.”

Bob Monkhouse – “I want to die like my father, peacefully in his sleep, not screaming and terrified, like his passengers.”

Jo Brand – "The way to a man's heart is through his hanky pocket with a breadknife."

Milton Jones – “I was mugged by a man on crutches, wearing camouflage. Ha ha, I thought, you can hide but you can’t run.”

Ross Noble – “How come Miss Universe is only ever won by people from Earth?”

Jimmy Carr – “A lady with a clipboard stopped me in the street the other day. She said, ‘Can you spare a few minutes for cancer research?’ I said, ‘Alright, but we won’t get much done.”

Sarah Millican – "I saw a pair of knickers today – on the front it said, 'I would do anything for love' and on the back it said 'but I won't do that.'"

Tommy Cooper – "Police arrested two kids yesterday. One was drinking battery acid, the other was eating fireworks. They charged one and let the other one off."

Jack Whitehall – “I'm sure wherever my father is, he's looking down on us. He's not dead, just very condescending."

This article was updated on 19th December 2018