The Chandler-Joey Paradox

I’m taking a break from being pissed off so I can wax about writing and characters and stuff.

Given the popularity of Friends, I am about 99.9% certain that some one, some where, has written about what I’m about to write about, but a Google search of “Chandler Joey Paradox” comes up with nothing, which means that at the very least, I’m probably the first person to have given it a cool name. First rule of writing, kids: give your shit awesome names. Second rule: awesome names should have an X or Z somewhere in there. Third rule: deliberately misspelling words to jam an X or a Z in there is basically the opposite of good writing. These tips are white-hot, I hope you’re writing these down.

So, Friends. Everybody who watched sitcoms in the late 90s probably knew all about Friends, as many consider it to have been the flagship of the Young Adult Sitcom era that persists to this day, heralding the end of the Family Sitcom era before it. It was a pretty big deal. If you never watched it, and can stomach the casual racism, homophobia, transphobia, and misogyny emblematic of the period (some day, SOME DAY I’ll be able to recommend a thing without making that disclaimer), you can check it out on Netflix and probably a few other legitimate streaming services. All that you need for what I’m talking about today is a basic understanding of two characters, and how they relate to the rest of the cast: Chandler and Joey.

Chandler is the resident funnyman. The jokester. The witty one. Every single episode, Chandler is guaranteed to have several one-liners or puns for an expertly-timed laugh, useful for breaking tension or if it’s been too long since the previous joke. Joey, on the other hand, is the resident dimwit. The lummox. The dopey one. Not often given one-liners or punchlines, the humor from his character typically stems from his lack of awareness and/or intelligence in the situation at hand.

And yet, if you ask fans of the show which character they thought had the funniest moments, most, if not all, would say Joey. Even though Chandler is The Funny One, Joey, The Slow One, usually gets much bigger laughs.

Ladies, Gentlemen, Everyone in Between, the Chandler-Joey Paradox.

While I’m not certain if this phenomenon has hit Trope status, it can also be seen in other works as well. In Firefly, for instance, while just about everything that Wash SAYS is funny, just about everything that Jayne DOES is funny, and fans of that show are more likely to quote lines like “I’ll be in my bunk” or “This is my very favourite gun” over lines like “Were I unwed, I would take you in a manly fashion. Because you’re pretty” (though I will concede that “Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal!” likely gets quoted more than anything from that show, but I digress).

The dichotomy in how the humor of these characters is delivered affects the audience’s response to it. Chandler TELLS jokes, while Joey ENACTS or sometimes even EMBODIES jokes. Typically, the setup for each of these styles of humor differs greatly as well; Chandler needs only a single setup line of dialogue or two, whereas Joey requires an entire situation to be constructed around the eventual payoff. As a result, the humor of Joey’s character resonates with audiences to a much greater degree, as it necessitates some investment into the situation as a whole rather than just a punchy one-liner. It’s the difference between slapstick and standup, in terms of comedy. In standup, the focus is almost always on the punchline, whereas slapstick depends on constructed situational humor.

In a comedy series, both styles of humor have their role in keeping the audience engaged. As stated before, one-liners and punchlines are useful for breaking emotional tension and keeping a humorous pace. Because situational humor has a significantly higher demand for investment on the part of both the writers and the audience, “telling jokes” keeps the audience laughing while building up to the much more significant payoff that comes from “embodying jokes”.

The principle of a funny situation’s inherent superiority to a funny single line is exactly why most people consider Calvin & Hobbes to be vastly, VASTLY superior to the sweeping majority of newspaper comics, both at the time and at present.

Now, go forth and write funnier jokes!