What the vicar’s joke taught me about storytelling
Every night I listen to the same seven jokes. My favourite of them is about a sweary golfer called John.
I’m appearing in our local am-dram production of The Vicar of Dibley in the important role of scene-shifter and chorister.
In the TV show the vicar told a joke to her clueless verger Alice at the end of every episode. In our stage version, we have three acts that are each topped and tailed with a joke, plus a bonus one after the curtain call.
My favourite joke
“There’s a vicar playing golf with his friend John. John misses a three-foot putt, and he says: ‘Damn it, I missed the bugger’.
“The vicar tuts and says ‘John, if you say that once more then God will open up the heavens and send a thunderbolt to strike you dead’.
“But then John misses a two-foot putt, and he says: ‘Damn it, I missed the bugger.’
“So, the heavens open, a great big thunderbolt comes down and strikes the vicar dead, and God says, ‘Damn it, I missed the bugger’.”
Why is this joke my favourite?
Number one reason is the context fits so neatly. It is a joke told by a vicar, about a vicar, and the vicar’s the loser. The other jokes are funny but don’t relate to the vicar in the same way.
Unlike some of the other shorter jokes, this one is a full scene.
First we have the setting and introduction of our two characters:
There is a vicar playing golf with his friend John.
Then we have action and dialogue that characterises John:
John misses a three-foot putt, and he says: ‘Damn it, I missed the bugger’.
Then we have a reaction from the vicar, mention of a third character, foreshadowing of the ending, and dialogue that characterises the vicar:
The vicar tuts and says ‘John, if you say that once more then God will open up the heavens and send a thunderbolt to strike you dead’.
Then more action and dialogue from John and a lovely repetition that sets up a pattern of expectation:
But then John misses a two-foot putt, and he says: ‘Damn it, I missed the bugger.’
And finally the new character appears (a deus ex machina?) that fulfils the series expectation with its third repetition, but with a beautiful twist:
So, the heavens open, a great big thunderbolt comes down and strikes the vicar dead, and God says, ‘Damn it, I missed the bugger’.
There is an amazing economy in how much story is squeezed in to 5 sentences.
A surprising but inevitable ending
The beauty of the ending is that you see it coming.
The pattern is set up with the two putts that John makes, and so we expect a third miss. We are told the expected ending by the vicar, and then we have the twist that both fulfils the pattern and thwarts expectation.
An ambiguous ending
How is it ambiguous?
Well, God is expected to be perfect and yet misses his shot at the end. So there is ambiguity in his motivation — did he miss by accident or on purpose?
John’s failure and profanity makes him a relatable protagonist.
The vicar tells John off for swearing, sets herself up as holier-than-thou, and therefore becomes the villain.
We feel a sense of closure when the villain is killed at the end.
How to kill a joke
The best way to kill a joke is to over-analyse it.
It’s what Alice does to every joke the vicar tells, and in itself it becomes funny as the vicar gets more exasperated with her.
So I apologise for overanalysing this one, but I found it helpful to remind myself of some important ideas of storytelling.
If you made it this far, here’s the joke from the TV show that was voted the funniest:
Two nuns are driving through Transylvania when a great big vampire jumps on the bonnet.
One nun says to the other ‘Show him your cross’.
So, the nun opens the window and yells, ‘Get off my bonnet you toothy git’.