Opinion: Spoiler Alert – How Much Does Knowing The Punchline Ruin The Gag?

Do you want to hear a new Michael McIntyre joke? Then you will have to wait until his next BBC show goes out. Unless you saw him on Graham Norton’s chat show last night or are planning to catch it on iPlayer. 

McIntyre was persuaded to tell one of his new gags while sitting with Rosamund Pike and Chris Martin. He didn’t want to, saying that it was in his new show, ie he didn’t want to spoil it for viewers. Chris Martin raised a familiar point, replying that he about to do a song from the new Coldplay album, so why can’t McIntyre do a new joke?*

It’s an old argument, comparing comedy to music. When we go to see a band we invariably want them to do their greatest hits. The worst thing a lead singer can say at a gig is “here’s a new number I’ve just written…”.

With comedy the recipe for success is more complicated. Audiences want new stories and new punchlines although they also like to hear old winning routines. That’s why Micky Flanagan was doing “Out Out” for years and Lee Evans was doing his Bohemian Rhapsody mime as an encore until he hung up his sweaty suit.

But getting the balance right is almost impossible. I remember going to see John Bishop when he did a run at McEwan Hall during the Edinburgh Fringe a few years ago. It was a show he was planning to take on tour after the Festival and mixed old routines with new routines. 

As I was leaving I heard someone alongside me say “I wish he had done more old stuff”. Fair enough I thought. A few yards on I found myself alongside some different people and heard one of them say: “I wish he had done more new stuff.” Fair enough too. 

Which just goes to demonstrate how hard it is to get a mix that pleases everyone. But back to the McIntyre gag. Knowing the punchline is not going to spoil it too much. It is funny in the telling as much as in the reveal. In fact I could almost see the reveal coming as he set the joke up so it really doesn't matter if people know it. 

The same can be said of most comedians. They might be diametrically different in various ways but it is essentially the same with Stewart Lee. Knowing where Lee’s joke is heading does not impinge on the enjoyment of the journey there. 

But there is something fundamentally different about a band doing a song you know and a comedian doing a joke you know. Maybe the enjoyment of a song is connected to familiarity. The enjoyment on a joke is more connected to surprise. 

The true test of a skilled comedian is the way that they can get just as big a laugh when the audience knows what is coming next as when they don't. John Bishop can do it. Stewart Lee can do it. And I think Michael McIntyre can do it too - so I’m not sure why he was getting so worried about spilling the beans in advance on Graham Norton's sofa.


* The joke is about “hanky panky”. If you can't wait you can watch him tell it here.

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