I saw a funny and somewhat obscure joke on House the other night. This was the exchange:
Wilson: “I didn’t come here for an argument.”
House: “No, that’s in room 12a.”
Dr. House, played by Englishman Hugh Laurie, was making a reference to Monty Python’s Argument Clinic sketch:
The nice thing about the House joke is that it kind of stands on its own; even if you don’t get the reference, it’s still a clever little back-and-forth between the two characters. But if you do get the reference, it’s extra funny.
Because the reference is fairly obscure, a joke like this is called a two-percenter. As screenwriter Jane Espenson explains:
A two-percenter… is a joke that the writers estimate will be understood and enjoyed by two percent of the audience. Sometimes the number cited varies, but the idea is the same, it means you’re dealing with a fairly obscure reference. As an audience member, when you’re part of the two percent that gets it, there’s nothing better than this kind of joke because it feels like the writer is reaching into your own personal brain. In a good way.
By the way, the perfect joke is one that feels to an audience like a two-percenter when in fact it’s reaching far more of them. That’s why observational stand-up is so good when it’s done well, because Ellen or Jerry or whoever is describing events and reactions that you thought were specific to you, but which are surprisingly universal.
Screenwriter Alex Epstein adds:
Writers are often fighting with network execs over two-percenters. Writers often think the audience is at least as smart as they are; execs often seem to think that the audience is much stupider than they are.
Two-percenters are far, far more common in TV than in stand-up comedy, for the simple reason that the TV audience is vastly larger. Two percent of ten million people (roughly the audience for an episode of a hit show like House) is 200,000 people. Two percent of a small stand-up audience of 50 is… one person.1
My favorite two-percenter in television history was on an episode of 30 Rock. The Liz Lemon character has a father named Richard—Dick Lemon—and while haggling over the check he says this:
That right there is very possibly the filthiest joke in the history of network television. If you don’t get it, you should probably just be thankful and leave it at that. Otherwise you can go and get in on the very NSFW joke here (WARNING: DO NOT FOLLOW THAT LINK. SERIOUSLY.)
(Note: Example audience figures edited when a commenter pointed out that I suck at math.)
- And since nobody likes to be the only person laughing, they’ll just chuckle to themselves, and everyone else will be sitting there, confused, in a silent room. [↩]