Carson: "It was so X";

Audience: "How X was it?"

Is there a name for this class of humor or standup routine or trope, or whatever this is called? Are there references specifically to Carson's use of it? Was it "a thing" before Carson, or is this where it all started?

This was a regular thing that Johny Carson would do on the Tonight Show but I don't know how to refer to it.

Carson's "How X was it?"isms were recently "homaged" by a CNN news anchor.

  • 2
    call and reply but not as comedy routine. It's something that came from slavery songs and is very USA-centric. Sep 18, 2020 at 8:31
  • @SZCZERZOKŁY Wow! Yes I understand the reference and see what you mean. That might put military cadence somewhere in-between the two?
    – uhoh
    Sep 18, 2020 at 13:26
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    Military candence IS a "call-and-response work song". Something in beetwen would be Johnny Cash - Five Feet High And Rising. Sep 18, 2020 at 13:31

2 Answers 2


Based on this paper, I think that kind of joke best falls under the category of "conversational humor." It has a strong audience-participatory element (much like a knock-knock joke does). On stage, added humor can be derived from the audience's failure or hesitation to participate in such jokes, the comic acting desperate because he's been "left hanging."

While I cannot tell you the precise origins of this specific form of audience-participatory conversational joke, I do know that it was extremely common in the Catskill region of upstate New York during the 1930s-1950s with comics like Don Rickel, Henry Youngman, Charlie Callas, and their contemporaries. That group of comics developed a lot of conventions of modern standup, and given that they often played to repeat audiences vacationing in the Catskills year after year, it wouldn’t surprise me if this form of prompting for a punchline started there.

  • I finally got around to reading this paper and it's fascinating! I also wouldn't be at all surprised if there was a direct evolutionary path from the Catskills to Burbank.
    – uhoh
    Dec 4, 2020 at 2:15
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    Me neither. A lot of those guys have written books about the comedy circuit in the 40s, 50s, and 60s, and there are some amazing and hilarious stories. George Carlin's books are highly recommended--especially because they show the transition from stage to TV talk shows like Carson. One thing that really comes across is how comics got to really know audiences and play around with them. That really must have been the environment in which "How ___ is it?!" evolved--venues with familiar audiences.
    – ruffdove
    Dec 4, 2020 at 5:07

This very much reminds me of British pantomime theatre, or at least a key trait featured in it. It incentivizes the audience to communicate with the actors, often by having them repeat (and slightly alter) statements.


Audience participation is probably the most important part of British Pantomime tradition. Even the most serious and mature members of the audience, suddenly become uninhibited in their enthusiasm to join in. The audience is actively encouraged to cheer and clap for the Hero, and to boo the Villain whenever he or she enters. Heckling is also encouraged and can lead to some hilarious ad-libs from the cast. Here’s a typical example of involving the audience:

Ugly sister: “I’m much prettier than Cinderella”
Audience: “Oh no you’re not!”
Ugly sister: “Oh yes I am!”
Audience: “Oh no you’re not!”

If anything, this back and forth is formulaic, and your description of Carson's crowd interaction is too. The actor (or in Carson's case, host) makes a statement that's clearly intended to evoke a simple and straightforward response from the audience.

  • Or the classic: "IT'S BEHIND YOU!" "Oh no it isn't!" "OH YES IT IS!"
    – F1Krazy
    Sep 18, 2020 at 18:58

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