The Perfect Story: How To Tell A Joke

advice, comedy writing, drama, jokes, screenwriting, T.V. writing

A joke is the simplest, most perfect kind of story. It has a subject, a protagonist (sometimes me, sometimes you, sometimes society, etc.) a moment of drama (surprise), a theme. Jokes trace entire journeys in the most direct possible routes.

Learn how to tell a joke, and you’ll know how to tell a story.

Here are some tips I found on a Taco Bell napkin in my handwriting:

1. Leave something to the imagination. Jokes are like sex — if you give it all away, it won’t be fun anymore. But if you leave something implied — leave part of the story of the joke incomplete and give enough detail so the listener makes natural assumptions and finishes it in their mind — they get that little jolt of surprise we call comedy. No matter what kind of story you’re telling, it’s always a good idea to let your audience put two and two together.

2. Most good jokes have a victim. Not all comedy has to be mean. But even the most benign jokes — if funny — are going to target some person, group or entity. Without this there’s no traction, no bite. No feeling of us versus them, with us winning. That feeling of us winning is what makes jokes fun. Most stories need that feeling.

3. Shorter/tighter/better. Cut as many words as you possibly can while still preserving a clear meaning. Rearrange and rearrange words so that you get away with less words but clearer meaning. More direct with less words = funnier. I highly recommend all writers use twitter regularly: it forces you to write short and pithy, and you get instant feedback. There’s nothing like writing to an audience to quickly sharpen your skills. It’s why TV writing and blogging are so good for writers.

4. Always place the funny word or idea at the very end of the joke. Rearrange the syntax however you must so the funniest word falls last. This same principle holds true in all kinds of storytelling — whether going out on the funny word or the dramatic look or the fire that’s destroying all the evidence, we need to end on the idea that will have maximum impact, that we want to LAND with the audience, SURPRISE them and stick around in their heads as long as possible afterwards. Often, you’ll be tempted to tag the joke with an extra little kicker — top yourself with another phrase or idea to make it even funnier. It doesn’t help. If the tag were funnier, you would have just said the tag. All the tag does is dilute the surprise of the first joke. Leave it out. Also, tags make your audience think just heard the joke — and they mistakenly laughed at the setup. They stop laughing so they can hear your real thought. Don’t talk past the close. This holds for dramatic storytelling as well. Go out on the most dramatic moment.

The only time you would consider not landing the joke on the funniest word is if you’re deliberately playing against the traditional expectation of the audience to hear it that way, in which case you’re making yourself the butt of the joke, by choosing to make a conventionally bad joke, knowing the audience knows that you know it’s a bad joke.

5. Hard consonants are funnier. K and CH sounds. D/P/T. Also odd numbers. There are funny numbers — no one knows why. Sometimes trading out a word for an equivalent but funnier-sounding word can make the joke much funnier, but it’s hard to tell where till you try it. There are always substitutions you can make in any story to tighten the screws and make it land harder.

6. References. Constantly be on the lookout for material. Standard joke material gets old very fast. Right now robots and zombies and Ed Hardy and Jon Gosselin and diarrhea are big in the joke-making world. But good jokes are all about surprise, and if you refer to any of these (or a variety of other well-worn topics), you’ll get no surprise from anyone remotely used to hearing jokes. If you look around your own life, you might find a half-drunk bottle of Pimm’s on your living room floor and a stack of Taco Bell napkins covered with joke-writing rules . . . uh, anyway, the more specific the reference the better. And the more unexpected, the more pertinent, and the more completely the specific detail tells a full story — that’s what makes a joke funny.

7. Rule of Threes. First example is to establish. Second to reinforce the pattern. Third to bust expectations. Third example is the funny one. Third should be a twist and/or a build on the first two.

8. Setup/Punchline. Not all jokes have to follow this format (in fact, I’m a big fan of the one-liner and also the more narrative long-form joke, which rambles and is more about making a character out of the person speaking.) However, the setup/punchline — the monologue joke you see on late night talk shows — is the most basic joke form, and it’s stuck around for a reason. People get it. One-liners leave more to the audience’s imagination, the result of wordplay or basic twists of logic or reversals of expectation. But because they’re free-standing — the audience has to do more thinking to understand them — these jokes feel a little more dangerous. Monologue jokes use these techniques as well but feel safer because they always provide a basis for understanding (the setup), so the audience knows exactly what the joke is about. The setup is two lines long, then the punchline is one line. The setup gives just enough information the audience needs to understand the punchline, and nothing more. Anything more confuses or dilutes the focus. I had a mentor who said scenes should be structured like a monologue joke — a good tight setup, then end on a punchline (not necessarily a funny line, but a punchy one that lands). The punchline to a comedy scene is called the “button”.

9. Show the irony. Where do things not match up? Where’s the disconnect in the situation you’re talking about? The disconnect is the heart of the joke. Human nature hates things that don’t match up — it upsets us, so we laugh at it. Once we laugh at it, we feel like we’ve won. We’re in control. We’re no longer upset. That feeling of us winning is very important. Structure your jokes to focus maximum attention on what doesn’t match up — what’s unfair or ridiculous or absurd or opposite to the way things ought to be. This works for dramatic storytelling as well: if you go into every scene with the goal of finding what doesn’t match up and then shining a spotlight the size of the sun on that, your story will shine.

10. Exaggerate — or downplay. Don’t play scared and don’t stay in the middle. This goes back to my rule about risk.  If you’re going to compare something to something else — compare it to the most absurd example (not necessarily the biggest or most outlandish of its kind — finding that right, most absurd example is part of the art of joke-making. You know it when you see it.) Or conversely, downplay the comparison. Deflate the joke. This is another  way to play against the conventions of joke making. You can do this if you want to really serve the victim of the joke — in other words, this person is so pathetic, I’m only going to compare her to something slightly more pathetic. She doesn’t even rate a good comparison. Drama happens at the extremes, which is why jokes are little drama-nuggets.

11. Take a common word or phrase or assumption that people make and use that as the setup. Then twist it around, invert it, reverse the meaning, turn it back on yourself … turn the setup into a punchline. Play around with the words until it sounds funny. Inverting the familiar is essential in drama.

12. Callbacks. Everybody loves callbacks. Because people like to feel smart, and callbacks make us feel smart for understanding the link between this joke and the last joke. The two jokes multiply their comedy coefficient. There’s also a symmetry to it that human nature responds to. Remember how human nature hates when things don’t match up? Callbacks help us feel like things are matching up. It’s reassuring. It all comes together in the end. Another lesson for dramatic storytelling.

There’s no trick to callbacks (though improv people who do Harolds and stuff like that are masters of the form). Just take a word or reference or element from an earlier joke and use it as a word or reference or element in this joke. Preferably your final joke. And preferably your punchline. You can do as many as you want, but doing too many starts to feel like resting on your laurels. A good dramatic story becomes satisfying with the right callbacks — references, words, gestures, symbols, characters that remind us of where the story was and where it’s going. But again, too much of this keeps the story backward looking when you’re trying to move forward.

And it’s that simple. You can read some of my jokes on Twitter by looking to your right. I’m gonna go see a movie.

143 thoughts on “The Perfect Story: How To Tell A Joke

  1. Aw, thanks for saying so Hamilton.

    It occurs to me this post is wordy, philosophical, pretentious …. the opposite of comedy. See–I’m showing you how to be ironic.

    That’s the other thing about comedy–you’ll find a lot of comedy people are always on and kind of unbearable to be around. Because they stay on the surface, always making shallow bids for people’s attention. But really good comedy is deep and emotional. The best sitcoms have characters with heart and depth and serious moments. Get vulnerable and self-deprecating and even serious sometimes to be funnier.

  2. This is bad in so many levels…

    “It occurs to me this post is wordy, philosophical, pretentious …. the opposite of comedy. See–I’m showing you how to be ironic.”

    yeah, right…

  3. Wow. This is the sanest collection of non-borrowed-from-somewhere else joke tips I have seen. Thanks for posting it.

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