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.
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?”
Don’t worry, this isn’t like sentence diagramming. It’s really quite simple:
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
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):
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
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:
- Two percenter jokes
- How to tell if new material is any good
- Working new material into a stand-up set
- Stuff I Like: Mitch Hedberg
- Reader’s Digest’s 10 Funniest Jokes
- Funny stories are not jokes
- Stand-up Comedy Glossary
- 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. [↩]
- 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. [↩]