Many traditional jokes begin with a premise, move on to a set-up, and end with a humorous punchline: "A panda walks into a bar. He eats a hamburger, then pulls out a pistol and fires into the air. He then runs out of the bar screaming 'I'm a panda, look it up!' The bartender gets out an encyclopedia and finds this entry: Panda — Eats shoots and leaves." Some jokes, however, do not need an elaborate premise or set-up to be funny. Such a short joke or witty observation is known as a one liner.
A one liner sets up a humorous situation or makes an ironic observation all within a sentence or two. "I once invested in toilet paper and turnstiles, but I was wiped out before I could turn around." would be a classic example of a one liner from the days of vaudeville or burlesque. Many Jewish comedians of the early 20th century honed their comedic skills by performing one liners and broad sight gags in resorts located in the Catskills mountains of New York, a region known in the comedy world as the "Borscht Belt."
One Borscht Belt comedian named Henny Youngman became known as the "King of the One Liner" because of his vast repertoire of short jokes and his impeccable comedic timing. His most memorable one liner, "Take my wife ... please," relied heavily on the audience's expectation of a much longer joke. Other comedians such as Jack Benny, Mort Sahl, Jackie Berman and Rodney Dangerfield also became famous because of their memorable one liners and self-deprecating humor. Dangerfield's one liner "I was so ugly as a kid, my mother used to tie a pork chop around my neck so the dogs would play with me" epitomizes the economy of thought involved in an effective one liner.
A number of modern comedians, including Steven Wright and the late Mitch Hedberg and George Carlin, turned the traditional one liner joke into wry observational comedy. Wright once observed "It's a small world, but I wouldn't want to paint it," while Hedberg routinely pointed out to audiences that his shirt was "dry-clean only, which means it's dirty." The modern one liner may not resemble its Borscht Belt ancestor, but audiences still respond well to short zingers such as Yo' Mama jokes and wry observations about the world around them.