“The perfect type of walk is a loop — it starts where it ends,” Australian comedian Aaron Chen says while setting up a joke during his first comedy special, If Weren’t Filmed, Nobody Would Believe, released September 23 on YouTube. “Around my house, [censored address], there’s no loops. There’s only a straight line. The problem with a straight line is that, at one point, you’ve just got to decide to stop and turn around, which looks crazy.”
Chen’s take on the perfect walk applies to jokes too. As Norm Macdonald once put it, “the perfect joke would be where the setup and punch line were identical.” The best jokes feel like a complete thought; they take audiences on a journey with a clear end point that can be reached by a punch line but frequently isn’t. Absent thematic or narrative resolution, even the funniest punch lines can feel like unsatisfying excuses to pivot jaggedly into other jokes — the loose equivalent of stopping a walk and turning around. Chen, a rising star in Melbourne’s and Sydney’s stand-up scenes who has filmed person-on-the-street segments for Adult Swim and appeared on a number of Australian panel shows, has a knack for writing punch lines that close the loop.
“I was talking to my sister about work,” Chen says in a bit from the special contrasting the oppressive time commitment of her 9-to-5 job relative to his own as a comedian. “She knew that this is what I do for work, but I think it was the first time she realized that this is all I do. She had this realization. She was like, ‘Hold on. People just come see you do your job in their spare time.’ And that really sunk in for her. She was like, ‘I could watch you do your entire job in my spare time.’ And when she said that, it hit me. I was like, ‘I could watch you do your job in my spare time.’”
While the symmetry present in this particular joke isn’t visible in all of Chen’s material, the remainder of his special is a great introduction to his wider comedic toolkit: his talent for clever misdirection, whimsical perspective, and cheeky delivery. In one of his sillier jokes, he talks about declining to join a guided tour of a botanical garden, deeming the guide’s help unnecessary. “I’m not trying to be arrogant or anything,” he says. “I just think that it is an easy thing to do. Because the universal benchmark for something not being hard is ‘a walk in the park.’”
Still, Chen’s best and most distinct jokes are those that come full circle. “I went to the doctor’s,” he said during a set at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival in 2017. “I was like, ‘I’ve got a twitch in my face. What’s the cause?’ And then, she was like, ‘It’s stress-related. What’s your main source of stress?’ And I was like, ‘My twitch.’ So she had to give me all these, like, deep-breathing and relaxation exercises to help me get rid of the twitch. And one of them was that I had to breathe in and out but, at the same time, say to myself that I liked my twitch and that the twitch was a big part of me. These exercises worked so well. Real effective. Got rid of the twitch, but I also couldn’t help but feel like I’d lost a big part of my identity. I was so stressed I got my twitch back.”
Chen’s ability to take audiences on round-trip journeys applies not just to his jokes but to the way he structures entire performances. If Weren’t Filmed, Nobody Would Believe‘s closing joke — which we won’t spoil — could work equally well as its opener. By the time the special is over, Chen has brought the crowd right back to where he started, having completed the perfect walk.