Creating a Comic

Bombing, killing, and other occupational hazards of stand-up comedy

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I'm your host, CJ Alexander.
This is my blog about breaking into stand-up comedy.


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Writing a joke is a lot different than just making people laugh.

Think of a time when you’ve made your friends laugh while just hanging out. Those laughs came from your specific shared context, which you used to make a clever observation, a cutting put-down, or something else that was funny. In this case, the premise—the setup—is woven into the fabric of ordinary life. Your hilarious quip (or whatever) was the punchline.

Joke Structure

Every joke has a setup and punchline. Here’s a clean street joke1 to illustrate the structure:

A priest, a minister and a rabbi walk into a bar and the bartender says:
“What is this, some kind of a joke?”

(rimshot)

Don’t worry, this isn’t like sentence diagramming. It’s really quite simple:

  1. The Setup — Establishes the premise of the joke by providing the audience with the necessary background info. The setup should be as tight as possible (new open mic comics tend to ramble on with unnecessary details).
  2. The Punchline — Wham! The laugh line. The setup led the audience in one direction, and you surprised them by suddenly going off in a different direction. That twist, that element of surprise, is a punchline’s chief ingredient.
  3. Tags (optional) — Also known as toppers, tags are additional punchlines. Sometimes they build on the original, sometimes they twist and snap back and forth in surprising new directions. Think of a skiier slaloming back and forth, twist, twist, twist…

Since comedians are performing for a crowd of strangers, they have to supply the premise themselves.2

Examples from the professionals

Now let’s see how professional stand-up comedians do it with their original material. Here’s a gem from the great Jimmy Carr:

It shouldn’t be called the “Make A Wish Foundation,” should it?
It should really be called the “Make Another Wish—We Can’t Do Anything About THAT Foundation.”

Beautiful. Setup, punchline… laugh.

Even so-called “one-liners” contain a setup and punchline. Here’s one from B.J. Novak (of NBC’s The Office fame):

Battered women: sounds delicious.

The first two words are the setup, the second two words are the punchline. It might be tasteless—pardon the pun—but it’s also a brilliantly concise joke.

Now let’s take a look at one of my favorite bits from the late great Mitch Hedberg.

The setup is about twenty seconds long, which is longer than average but not so much as to lose the audience—plus, Mitch’s laconic delivery is pretty amusing in and of itself. More importantly, it paves the way for not just the punchline, but more than half a dozen tags, for a total of 9+ laughs in under a minute.

To get the full effect, I strongly recommend pressing “play” and then following along below (language NSFW):

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

We’re going to the restaurant on the weekends, it’s busy, so they start a waiting list. They start calling out names, they say ‘DuFrene, party of two. Table ready for DuFrene, party of two.’ And if no one answers they’ll say the name again… ‘DuFrene, party of two.’ But then if no one answers, they’ll just go right on to the next name. ‘Bush, party of three.’

Yeah, but what happened to the DuFrenes? No one seems to give a shit!

Who can eat at a time like this?

People are missing!

You fuckers are selfish.

The DuFrenes are in someone’s trunk right now…

…with duct tape over their mouths, and they’re hungry.

That’s a double-whammy.

We need help. ‘Bush, search party of three.’

You can eat once you find the DuFrenes.

Look at all those tags and laugh breaks! On the page it’s pretty funny, but Mitch’s brilliant delivery are what catapult it into Hall of Fame territory. (“The Dufrenes” is just one of the many hilarious tracks on Mitch Hedberg’s Strategic Grill Locations – available as MP3s from Amazon.)

Practice, practice, practice

In an earlier entry I talked about the Top 10 Jokes in America according to Reader’s Digest. (Incidentally, the jokes were so terrible that RD immediately went bankrupt.)

As those jokes demonstrate, simply writing jokes is easy, if you don’t care how funny they are. If you’d like to write funny jokes, start with the structure. The funny will eventually come with time and experience.


Related entries on this site:


  1. A joke you’d hear on the street, or read on the Internet, with an unknown author. See the Stand-up Comedy Glossary for more definitions. []
  2. While the comic can riff with the audience—discussed previously, and called crowd work—the bulk of the work in traditional stand-up is done by the comedian supplying the material. There are also many comics who have built successful careers on gimmicks, props, and story act-outs, all of which have a long tradition in the performing arts and can be extremely funny. But for the vast majority of stand-up comedians, telling jokes is their bread and butter. []
Share! Because your friends are bored at work, too:

    13 Responses to “Joke Structure: Setup, Punchline, Tag”

    1. [...] basic structure of a joke is simple: setup, punchline, laugh. Tags, or additional punchlines, may follow. Jokes are short, [...]

      What is a bit vs a joke? | Creating a Comic

    2. [...] How to write a joke: Joke Structure [...]

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    3. [...] jokes is no different. If you follow simple joke structure, then writing a joke is easy. Writing a funny joke is much harder, but the path to a good joke lies [...]

      What joke brainstorming looks like | Creating a Comic

    4. [...] joke’s structure consists of a setup and a punchline, with the punchline using the element of surprise to pack its [...]

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    5. I really need help, im really funny and im preparing for open mic nights at the comedy club but i cant get a good structure to my jokes or indicate the punchline as well as i should.

      Brandon Kaiser

    6. Do you have any examples, Brandon? Like, what joke are you planning to open with?

      CJ

    7. Just found your website. This article, and everything I’ve read so far has been really really helpful. Thanks for doing this!

      Josh Meyer

    8. I’ve just written an original joke, which I believe conforms to the structure you talk about.

      Knock knock
      Come in
      Who’s there?

      It won’t appeal to everyone but it subverts an established shared experience and twists expectations round.

      Andy Trigg

    9. l will love to learn more about jokes

      bhebhe ndabezinhle richard

    10. Im a comic from Zimbabwe and if u a looking 4 tips tok 2 me on facebook:Learnmore jonas Long john

      Long john

    11. Hi CJ, came across your blog and got inspired. It’s just great! I love comedy, spoof, parody and write about many funny stories in English even though I am not a native speaker of English myself. If you pay back a visit, maybe my contents are weird, but that’s what jokes are like, right?

      man2sting

    12. IT IS GOOD PLEASE .TEACH ME MORE BY MY EMAIL

      ELIAS

    13. [...] Telling stories is one thing. Inventing jokes, one-liners, and the stuff of comedy routines is an entirely different matter. That’s a mystery to me. So I’ll let the pros explain it. According to CJ Alexander, here are the three elements of the anatomy of a joke: [...]

      How to Write Funny Stuff | YourWebWriter.com

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