Monday, November 8th, 2010

Proving Scientifically That '30 Rock' Is Better Than '$#*! My Dad Says'

After noticing CBS’ S#*! My Dad Says has been destroying NBC’s 30 Rock in the ratings from week to week, I decided to take a closer look at each of the shows. While I agree with most critics that 30 Rock is far superior (despite the lower ratings), I have to admit that such comparisons are subjective, based on personal tastes in humor and biases against shows inspired by Twitter feeds. Therefore, I set out to prove quantitatively which show deserves the better ratings. The fairest way to do that, I concluded, was by counting the number of jokes per episode.

I will use pure, unbiased science to prove once and for all which is a superior show.


I watched two episodes of each show: the Oct. 21 episodes (SMDS’ “Not Without My Jacket” and 30 Rock’s “Reaganing”) and the Nov. 4 episodes (SMDS’ “Dog-Ed Pursuit” and 30 Rock’s “Gentlemen’s Intermission”). There was no 30 Rock episode on Oct. 28, and I only wanted to compare episodes that were aired the same date and time, on rival networks. I watched all four sample episodes a total of 3 times each, measuring the following data:

Storylines: The number of separate story arcs per episode and what happens in each.

Story Overlaps: The number of instances the events of one story arc directly influence (or are the direct consequence of) events from another story arc.

Verbal Jokes: Total number of humorous verbal instances, lines the writers of the show intended on being funny. (Example: “We have never had an adult conversation about boning.”)

Visual Gags: Humorous instances that rely on what the audience sees on screen, such as costumes, graphics, props, specific physical gestures, etc. (Example: Henry waddles and spits out a tooth after his rough sex with Katie.)

Callbacks: An instance in which the show intentionally repeats or cashes in on a specific joke that was set up previously, either within the episode or across the entire series. (Example: When Jenna hits Kenneth over the head with the fire extinguisher, the hero cat dials 9-1-1 with its paw.)

Reveals: Instances in which the story takes a surprising, humorous twist. (Example: Ed realizes the family thinks he is the dead man’s AA sponsor, not his gay partner.)

Cultural References: Instances in which the show specifically alludes to the reality of the viewer, outside of the show. These include references to pop culture, current events, history, literature, sports, etc. References require the audience to know information about the world prior to watching the show. (Example: A clip of Tracy running naked through the street with a lightsaber, screaming: “I am a Jedi!” ala Martin Lawrence.)

Run Time: The length of the episode, without commercial breaks.

Laugh Track Time: The total amount of time the episode runs a laugh track after jokes. (Note: I only measured the time when the laugh track covered no action on screen. I did not include, for example, laugh track time over dialogue or during scene transitions. Only moments that would be awkward, dead air without the sound of studio audience laughter.) Obviously this only pertains to one of the shows, so it won’t be used in any of the comparative. I just think it’s worth knowing.


1. If a specific line or image worked on multiple levels, I counted it in multiple ways. Consider, for example, the following line at the end of 30 Rock’s “Gentlemen’s Intermission” episode in which Liz Lemon shoots down all of Jack’s ideas for names of his future daughter:

LIZ: “Every Tina I know is a judgmental bitch.”

The line works on two levels. Firstly, as a JOKE, in the irony that by calling every person named Tina a “judgmental bitch,” Liz is being a “judgmental bitch” herself. Secondly, it works as a REFERENCE, in that Liz Lemon is played by Tina Fey. Two points! Follow?

2. The laugh track of SMDS made it difficult to count actual jokes in the episodes. Often, the laugh track was used as “filler” after lines that weren’t even attempts at humor (not just after lines I personally didn’t find funny… I still counted those). I was, in my opinion, very lenient in the instances I tallied for SMDS. However, I applied the same low humor standard to the 30 Rock episodes. So while you may not remember laughing hundreds of times at last week’s 30 Rock, think of it instead as “30 Rock presented hundreds of things for me to laugh at during this episode.”

3. In general it’s probably more appropriate to measure a show by WHAT KIND of jokes it makes, and HOW FUNNY they are. I figured it would be a nasty bit of work to subcategorize jokes into “puns,” “character jokes,” “silly sounding words,” etc. Also, I would rather leave it up to you to decide which show has “funnier” jokes. In the meantime, I’ll let the numbers speak for themselves.


October 21, 2010

S#*! My Dad Says – “Not Without My Jacket”

Story A: Ed punishes Henry for borrowing his shirt without permission by forcing him to remove it in public, embarrassing his son in front of a girl. Ed then accidentally loses Henry’s favorite jacket and tries to retrieve it, and Henry exploits the situation to get revenge on his father.
Story B: Vince is angry with Bonnie when he finds out she once hooked up with an attractive paramedic.

Story Overlaps: 1

Verbal Jokes: 56
Visual Gags: 8
Callbacks: 6
Reveals: 4
Cultural References: 2

Run Time: 21:02
Laugh Track Time: 4:02

Comments: The series takes a farcical turn in this episode, featuring Shatner having to fake his way through a funeral to peel his son’s jacket off a dead man. A solid 60 seconds of laugh track goes by during that scene alone.

30 Rock – “Reaganing”

Story A: Liz considers breaking up with Carol after she experiences “performance issues.” She tries to delve into her past to the root of her discomfort with sex.
Story B: Jack attempts to “pitch a no-hitter” by going a full day making the perfect decisions and solving everyone’s problems – a feat he calls “Reaganing.” He struggles when Liz comes to him with her intimacy issues.
Story C: Jenna and Kenneth develop a scheme to rip off Carvel ice cream, which Kenneth does to raise money for his poor family back in Georgia and Jenna does for the thrill. Eventually they get Kelsey Grammer to help them.
Story D: Tracy is supposed to be in a commercial for “The Boys and Girls Club of America,” but his antics keep delaying the complicated shoot.

Story Overlaps: 4

Verbal Jokes: 136
Visual Gags: 41
Callbacks: 25
Reveals: 14
Cultural References: 36

Run Time: 21:39
Laugh Track Time: 0:00

Comments: One of the more sophisticated episodes of the series, the episode cashed in on dozens of callback clips featuring Liz’s negative attitude toward sex, while hitting us with an brilliant multi-episode callback from the first line of the season (Liz saying “No Tom Jones, no!” as she woke up in Episode 501 was later justified by the fact that the crooner is the cause of her intimacy issues).

November 4, 2010

S#*! My Dad Says – “Dog-Ed Pursuit”

Story A: When Ed and Henry look after Vince and Bonnie’s dog, Ed develops an affection for the dog that makes Vince jealous. Vince attempts to reconcile his feeling of neglect from his father.
Story B: Henry, looking for a more “wild” sex partner, goes on a date with Vince and Bonnie’s sexually aggressive boss so she will give the two a valuable real estate listing. Henry gets more than he bargained for.

Story Overlaps: 1

Verbal Jokes: 67
Visual Gags: 17
Callbacks: 5
Reveals: 2
Cultural References: 4

Run Time: 21:11
Laugh Track Time: 3:25

Comments: The episode won points with strong performances by Will Sasso (Vince) and Nicole Sullivan (Bonnie), and we had some adorable images of Shatner cuddling with Sasso and the dog (it seemed like they could have squeezed more physical humor out of how similar Shatner and the animal looked). Also, the script’s call-out of the “All dogs do is sleep and sniff their junk” callback felt both smug and clunky.

30 Rock – “Gentlemen’s Intermission”

Story A: Avery pressures Jack to set up boundaries with Liz, who she feels is coming to Jack with her personal problems too often. Jack seeks a new mentor.
Story B: Liz discovers that her elderly father is taking a “gentlemen’s intermission” from her mother and trying to party with younger women. Liz tries to get him to stop.
Story C: After Kenneth shows him his “obituary” pre-recorded by NBC, Tracy realizes his career is a joke and tries to improve his legacy.
Story D: Jenna discovers that she isn’t famous enough to have a pre-taped obituary, so she creates one herself.

Story Overlaps: 6

Verbal Jokes: 122
Visual Gags: 36
Callbacks: 17
Reveals: 7
Cultural References: 22

Run Time: 21:18
Laugh Track Time: 0:00

Comments: The episode benefited greatly from the visual gags from Tracy’s storyline, and featured a strong callback in the “cat dialing 9-1-1” gag towards the end of the episode. Jenna’s “Killing cats is wrong… unless it’s to make hats!” stands out as the episode’s best line, and it was interesting to see Avery finally put the heat on Jack for his awkward closeness to Liz.


October 21, 2010

SMDS: 76 total jokes. 21:02 total minutes. 3.62 jokes per minute.

30 Rock: 252 total jokes. 21.39 total minutes. 11.64 jokes per minute.

November 4, 2010

SMDS: 95 total jokes. 21:11 total minutes. 4.48 jokes per minute.

30 Rock: 204 total jokes. 21:18 total minutes. 9.57 jokes per minute.


It’s clear that the joke count of a standard 30 Rock episode is much higher than that of a standard SMDS episode. Not only that, SMDS relies primarily on verbal jokes, whereas 30 Rock uses a variety of types of humor. Sure, 30 Rock has the benefit of characters and relationships developed over 5 seasons to pull from, but SMDS has no excuse for its almost complete lack of references to broader culture. SMDS, it seems, is a show that asks nothing from its audience intellectually.

What I also find interesting is that 30 Rock fits twice as much storytelling in a single episode. SMDS strictly follows a binary story structure, while 30 Rock typically features 3-4 arcs. And while the two storylines of SMDS rarely have anything to do with each other, the storylines of a typical 30 Rock often affect and influence each other, such as Tracy’s on-set antics causing the traffic jam that forces Liz to open up to Jack on the ride to the airport. Perhaps SMDS would be able to accomplish more if it didn’t waste 3 to 4 minutes an episode requiring us to listen to a laugh track.

Both shows rely on jokes made at the expense of the characters (such is the nature of an ensemble comedy). However, on 30 Rock, the majority of these “character jokes” are admitted –- obliviously — by the targets themselves. In SMDS, meanwhile, jokes take the form of insults that characters throw at each other. So in addition to being dumber and lazier, SMDS is also meaner. It’s clear CBS hoped the “shit his dad says” would be charming in that grouchy-sassy way popularized in recent years by Doris Roberts, Betty White, and, on occasion, Chevy Chase. Maybe Shatner doesn’t look old enough. He doesn’t project “loveable old timer” as much as “asshole P.E. teacher.”

Yet, somehow, SMDS routinely doubles the ratings of 30 Rock. Perhaps that says something about our culture. My guess is it’s connected to the Center for Media and Public Affairs’ study of the viewership and the political jokes of late-night comedians.

Below, I made a nifty infographic that sums up the data from last week’s episodes:

I'm no political commentator, but I feel like you can draw some lines between these numbers and last week's midterm election results, no?

Erik Voss still enjoys comedy despite thinking so hard about it.

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  • Harpo

    This is epic. Awesome awesome awesome.

  • ari_nyc

    I just registered for Splitsider so I could say this:

    THIS IS INCREDIBLE. Well done.

    (Also, this site is great!)

  • http://www.twitter.com/becca_oneal Rebecca O'Neal

    Wow! Tedious!

    Even if S#*! My Dad Says had had more jokes, that wouldn't have made it the better of the two shows. A well-written joke trumps hackiness any day.

    But quantitatively, if that's the only way comedy can be objectively measured, the numbers don't lie!
    Now to send this out to a lab to be independently verified…

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Eddie-Kirsch/1177411073 Eddie Kirsch

    Very interesting data. 30 Rock is supremely better; however, I would argue that your premise of 'quantity of jokes' does not necessarily conclude your conclusion that 30 Rock "deserves better ratings". Sheer quantity doesn't prove superiority. For example, I could tell 100 knock-knock jokes that are incredibly lame in the amount of time it takes me to tell a long narrative with a hilarious conclusion. Do 30 Rock's jokes connect to more viewers? Do they make the viewers laugh louder and for a longer period of time? To what extent would viewers in a independent study find 30 Rock more or less funny than SMDS? These are the questions which must be answered for a true scientific analysis

  • shalegac

    I've had people I work with tell me they couldn't watch "30 Rock" because the jokes were to fast and to sophisticated for them and they didn't understand what was going on.

    Maybe there in lays to secret to CBS' comedy success. The jokes are simplistic, deliberate and they even tell you when to laugh. I personally find it lazy; but I suppose it's what the masses want when trying to escape the hectic day.

  • Arthur Bath

    Can I just say that I loved the America's Funniest Home Videos reference in the infographic?

  • Steve Hoban

    We prefer wide open spaces between our jokes

  • miseducation

    Twitter-famous Kelly Oxford pointed out that the majority of this difference comes from SMDS being a multi-camera sitcom and 30 rock being a single-camera. This in no way means that SMDB is anywhere near as funny as 'Reaganing' but it is probably worth comparing SMDS numbers with something in a similar format to get a control number.

    I'd also love to see this done for SNL or something with a totally different style of comedy writing. I know you guys set out to write an article with a grander meaning then just dissecting comedy writing but hey, it looks like we all really like it when you dissect comedy writing.

  • http://sorryyourheinous.tumblr.com/ sorry your heinous

    There is a difference between being scientific under a peer-reviewed, academic standard and being scientific and applying a methodology, collecting data, and drawing some conclusions. People are reacting like none of this article is a little bit tongue-in-cheek. I think Mr. Voss knows this isn't discovering some underlying universal truth about comedy. It is funny, the numbers are funny, the graphic is funny, and it puts a new spin on the commonly espoused opinion that the CBS show is shit and doesn't deserve the ratings it gets. Relax.

  • lukaskaiser

    I think the lack of jokes and references in SMDS ties directly into its success as a first-run broadcast TV sitcom. The people who still watch TV live, on a show's first airing are, by and large, old people.

    Old people love CBS. They love slow paced "goofy" comedies starring "bad boys" and they hate cultural references that they don't understand.

    30 Rock does far better than SMDS in Tivo and online views because people who like the show want to watch it but are often busy doing things on Thursday nights as they are not retired postal workers.

    As advertising rates for first run broadcasts continue to fall and (hopefully) online ad rates rise, nightly ratings won't really matter any more. We're about 10 years from that happening, so there's going to be a lot more annoying, terribly unfunny shows cleaning our favorite shows' clocks in the ratings.

    The CBS model is not sustainable in the long term, however. Something like 30 Rock can live on multiple viewings and is built for shorter (or, let's say QUICKER) attention spans, which mirrors how people watch content online. Stuff like 30 Rock will get progressively more valuable.

  • Cobalt

    People have said that the reason for the success of a show like Two and Half Men, and clearly, SMDS, is that you can watch without really paying attention, walk away in the middle, come back, and not lose track of the story. So SMDS is a perfect show to have on in the background while playing Bingo or giving your grandfather a sponge bath–something the whole family can enjoy.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Tar-Marble/1438760365 Tar Marble

    I think the explanation much simpler is not the jokes, it's in the story and the characters. I find 30 Rock absolutely incoherent, boring, charmless. I can't sit through 10 minutes of it. However, as plain SMDS is, it's lovable recession related character based story. It always works. And I hate two and a half men.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Austin-Poff/562558616 Austin Poff

    You didn't factor Trekkers into it.

  • Zakaboom

    I think SMDS gets alot of extra viewers because it follows Big Bang Theory! My two favorite shows are Big Bang Theory and 30 Rock, but after watching BBT I sometimes forget to change over to 30 Rock. Thank goodness for ON DEMAND & DVR!

  • http://www.itsabrianstorm.com Brian

    This is really great. I'd love to see a regular "Sitcoms by the Numbers" feature on Splitsider.

    I was watching Seinfeld last night and I was wondering how the numbers on that show would stack up against 30 Rock and/or SMDS. It would be interesting to see if there are trends in sitcoms throughout the years. The Andy Griffith Show vs Taxi vs Cheers vs Friends vs The Office, etc.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Adriano-Pasquale-Trapani/505866659 Adriano Pasquale Trapani

    Now do Community vs. Big Bang Theory. I can guarantee that mathematically Community is the better written show and contains significantly less "cute" humor.

    • MichaelR@twitter

      YesYesYes! Community v BBT NEEDS to be done.
      No one with a respectable sense of humor thinks SMDS is funny…but a few of them do defend BBT on occasion. I'm just curious to see if the competition will be a little closer or if it'll be just as big a blow out.

  • Louie Bitsko

    This is interesting research. There are some very compelling numbers here but it's purely quantitative research.

    I think some weight needs to be put on the quality of jokes. From an objective standpoint, it's possible that one joke can be funnier than thirty jokes. Ergo, just because it has more jokes does not mean it is funnier or better.

    So essentially your research is a waste because your numbers really prove nothing. I would suggest a study on the sense of humor of all human beings so you are able to measure the quality of each individual joke then I think you can derive a solid conclusion.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Wellington-Worthington/100000203783729 Wellington Worthington

    With comedy logic like this Jerry Seifeld would be broke and Henny Youngman would have died filthy rich.

  • dsm1232

    While I think this is a great way to compare the two shows you do have to remember how much funnier the fifth season of 30 rock is than the first. Im sure on your scoring chart the 5th and 6th episode of 30 rock would score worse than the the current ones but I am not sure if it would score worse than SMDS. The mark of a great show is maturity and most major sitcoms have their best season between the 4th and 7th year, we will see if SMDS can pull this off since it is obvious they will be back.

  • http://in-my-head.co.de/ CJ Holden?!?

    204 total jokes and 199 of them aren't really jokes, but just celebrity cameos.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Emma-Blake-Handler/1699717284 Emma Blake Handler
  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Emma-Blake-Handler/1699717284 Emma Blake Handler

    AMERICA, THIS IS YOU, AND YOU SUCK for picking shi**y whatever show over 30 Rock