How to write a joke.
Why blog about this?
Because I’m answering the 2 most common questions I’m asked:
1) How do you write your jokes?
2) Can you help me write a joke?
I remember my first joke (Side note: I did not write this joke). I was little, maybe 1st grade, and my parents were having a party. I walked around every small group of people asking, “Is your refrigerator running?” In retrospect I’m sure they all knew this joke, but looking down and seeing this kid in his pajamas what jerk is going to heckle me and spoil my gag? So, they say, “Yes.” With perfect timing I hit ‘em with the punch! “Well, you better go catch it!” Cue the perfunctory laughter. Hundreds of hours of therapy have shown me this positive reinforcement set the path I am still on. Oh yeah, how to write a joke.
Now, both the questions above are very simple with not so simple answers. I pretty much write on the fly: aka improvise. I stay in the moment, listen, then put my twist on the reality of the situation, be it to go in the other direction or state the obvious. I think that’s the way most laughs are garnered at parties, in speeches, at dinner tables, etc.
But, if you want to know how to write a joke, here goes.
First you must decide if you want to write a funny joke or funny story (Side note: A joke IS a story). Many people maintain that formula and structure have no place in today’s comedy. Wrong! Because to be able to write a joke, you must understand why people laugh at them. I believe it’s surprise. (There’s also discomfort and recognition, but I think they both boil down to surprise) The punch line of a joke must surprise the listener. So, how do we create surprise? The easiest way is to direct the audience to assume one thing then shock them with something different. Here’s an example;
“I woke up in the hotel this morning and the housekeeper was banging on the door, just banging: Finally, I had to get up and let her out.”
This joke works because we set up the listener to believe the maid was knocking to get in, and then unexpectedly switch the scenario to her trying to get out. In comedy it’s called a “reverse” but it’s really just a surprise for the listener. And No surprise = No laugh.
Here’s a joke I wrote recently that came out of what’s happening in my personal life:
“We just dropped both our kids off at college and friends have been asking, “Now that your empty-nesters, what are you going to do?” Well, we’re thinking about having another baby.” (Laugh #1). “What? At my age I’m up three times a night anyways!” (Laugh 32)
Both jokes in the “story” use the formula of leading the audience one way (assuming I’m going to say travel, volunteer, etc.) and then surprising that guess with something different. A secret is to mask the joke into a story, they’ll be less likely to see the surprise coming.
Comedy legend Steve Allen says there are only 8 jokes, meaning that eight patterns which all jokes could fit into no matter where you come from in the world.
- Positive repetition: repeating a funny line over and over
- Qualification: where a familiar word is said in an unfamiliar way.
- Qualitative re-contextualization: when something you know well is changed.
- Application: words having a double meaning.
- Completion: where the audience must guess at, imagine or complete a phrase or scenario.
- Division: a joke is broken up and told by different people
- Opposition: which covers irony and sarcasm.
Remember, the subject you’re talking about must be interesting or the listener will be bored….and you probably will be too.
So, I hope the above helped. If not, I’ll leave you with two sources I found during my research:
This Jerry Seinfeld video interview on “How to Write a Joke” from the The New York Times:
And “How to write a Joke” on wikihow:
Finally, if you need help with a joke, let me know, I’d love to help.
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