Jokes are great, especially when you’re not the butt of them (and sometimes they’re great when you are. If you’re a weirdo masochist, we won’t judge you). If you’ve always wanted to be able to write a great joke, or even if you just don’t get this whole thing humans call “humour”, then you’ve come to the right place.
Sometimes explaining a joke ruins it but we are more than willing to fly in the face of that sage advice because we want to explain how to write a joke. It’s important stuff what you should know! Also, we like talking about comedy, so it’s a win-win situation. Let’s get to it!
5. Less Is More
Jokes need to use a few words as possible, otherwise you’ll lose the audience. If your listener is thinking “how did this start?” or “what was the point of this again?” then they aren’t laughing. Keep it as short, and as simple, as you can.
A man walks into a bar. “Ouch!”Anonymous
That’s a simple joke and it gets right to the point. There’s nothing in there about why the man is walking into the bar, that’s superfluous information. Why is the bar there? We don’t need to know that for the joke to be funny. Why didn’t the man see the bar in time to get out of the way of it? That’s irrelevant to the punchline.
You only need to tell the audience enough that they know enough about what’s going on to make the rest of the joke work. If you change the opening line to “A thirsty man walks into a bar”, your audience’s reaction could change from laughing to wondering “was he still thirsty?” and that ruins it for you.
“I had a hand in the puppet show.”Anonymous
Keep it simple, keep it funny.
4. Use Subversion and Misdirection
Some of the best jokes come from subverting the listener’s expectations. If you set up the audience to expect X but you give them Y, you’ve got the basis of a joke. In business, this is seen as scamming the customer because they expect to get what you’re promising but when you go to a comedy show or you’re listening to someone tell a joke, the opposite is true – you’re expecting your expectations to be subverted. Give the audience what they want.
“I never forget a face. But in your case I’ll make an exception.”Groucho Marx
Here, comedy genius Groucho Marx is setting you up to expect that he’ll recognise someone -he doesn’t forget a face, after all – but what he’s actually giving you is an insult, albeit a playful one. It’s the quick bait-and-switch that forms the basis of the joke, and that’s why it works so well. Sir Terry Pratchett did a similar thing with a lot of his jokes, like this one from a post he sent to the alt.fan.pratchett newsgroup:
“I’d miss the BBC but my aim is getting better.”Sir Terry Pratchett
The set-up is that you’re expecting him to say he would miss the BBC if it was gone; only for him to actually reveal that he’s talking about shooting at it. This is not only a subversion of what you expect the word “miss” to mean but also misdirection, because he’s actually insulting the broadcaster rather than expressing fondness for it.
Both of these quotes also bring us on to our next basis for humor: the playful insult.
3. Keep It Playful
Jokes that insult people are part of comedy, always have been and always will be. “Your mother” is a theme in jokes that is so old, it’s written in stones discovered through archaeology. That’s not a joke, by the way; it’s fact. The ancient Babylonians left us some very strange jokes, one of which is:
“…of your mother is by the one who has intercourse with her. What/who is it?”Unknown Babylonian
Now insulting someone’s mother is a great way to get your teeth kicked in. The same can be said about a lot of what comedian Frankie Boyle says on stage. Take his standard joke put-downs when he first steps on the stage: he’ll spend a good five-to-ten minutes insulting the audience’s appearance before he gets into his act. Why? Because his audience expect him to do that, they know he’s not meaning what he says, and that’s why they go along with it.
“Look at you, … you look like a moderately powerful Pokémon.”Frankie Boyle
That’s the difference between a joke and an insult: the meaning behind it. The moment your audience thinks “wow, he means that” is the moment the joke fails. You need to keep your put-downs playful, at least in part, otherwise it stops being comedy and just starts being insulting. Keep the audience on your side and you’ll keep them laughing.
2. Twist the Tale
If your style of joke is a story, you need a twist in the tale to make it really funny. This goes hand-in-hand with the subversion and misdirection rule to some extent but there are significant differences. Take this joke, for example:
“Billy used to be a lot of fun when he hung out on the farm.”All Over the House
“Is this an ex-tractor-fan joke?”
“No, I think he really has a problem.”
Here, the audience is set up to expect that the joke will end in the classic “extractor fan” joke, i.e. “he sucks” but the twist is that Tesrin is genuinely concerned for her friend’s mental health now he’s stopped pursuing something he used to love doing. Writers use the twist ending in all kinds of ways but with comedy, we use it to make a joke because veering wildly off course at the end of a story can be really, really funny. Take this joke from Jasper Carrot, for example:
It’s the final sentences that clinch the joke in each of the “insurance claims”. You’re set up to think the story is going one way but the twist is that it’s actually going in a completely different direction. The early bus (as if that’s an excuse for hitting it?), the fact that the guy doesn’t own a tree (was he even parking on a driveway?) and so on. They are all out-of-the-blue statements that turn the whole story completely on its head; and that’s why they’re so funny.
If you watch the clip, you’ll see the audience’s laughter keeps growing as he piles ridiculous statement on top of ridiculous statement. Why does that help? Well, this brings us to our final point:
1. Layering Jokes On Top of Other Jokes
This is top-tier joke telling and when it’s done right, it’s the absolute best way to keep an audience laughing. Telling one joke is good but if you can insert a joke inside another joke and string them together to tell a story, you’ve got the perfect comedy routine.
You can do this in several ways but one that I personally recommend is the opening joke that sets the scene; then gets reinforced by the second joke that fleshes the story out; before utterly subverting the audience’s expectations with the punchline final joke.
Many alternate comedians use this technique today because it’s so incredibly effective but the absolute master of it is Sir Billy Connolly. Take his routine on bravery for example:
He starts out by making “brave” seem like something everyone wants to be, then reinforces the joke by explaining how we all might picture “being brave”. That second joke’s humour comes mostly from the absurdity of being able to get an entire monologue out before the bus hits the brave person (i.e. they had plenty of time to actually get out of the way of the bus and are therefore sacrificing themselves for nothing). Then he seems to reinforce this again with a story about his grandmother, before delivering the punchline with that twist ending. It’s masterful.
Sir Billy demonstrates that good joke writing is like making a trifle. Each layer of a trifle is delicious in its own right – who doesn’t like jelly, or custard, or cream, or sprinkles (if you said “me”, you’re a monster. Sort your life out and get fat on unhealthy foods like the rest of us) but when you layer them together, you get something that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Trifles are delicious. Write your jokes like a trifle.
We should probably stop writing these articles just before lunch, to be honest.
Zoë Kirk-Robinson is a cartoonist and comedian who writes every day because she thinks it keeps her sane. Her latest book, All Over the House: Book Three, is out now.
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