Writing for stand up part 1: What is a joke?

Jokes subvert assumptions.

Consider this joke from Jimmy Carr:

My girlfriend said she wanted me to tease her. I said “alright, fatty”.

Carr creates an assumption (that his girlfriend wants to be teased playfully) then subverts it (by teasing her maliciously). It’s a classic setup/punch joke; the first sentence (setup) leads us in one direction, the next sentence (punch) reframes the setup revealing an unexpected twist.

A joke writer must identify assumptions or create them by witholding details or building patterns, then re-interpret the information in a surprising way.

Here’s a classic Lee and Herring sketch where they dissect a joke that witholds a key piece of information.

(Watch this 2:22 video on Youtube, also check out this 2:57 video where the phrase “and then I got off the bus” gets similar treatment)

Although Lee and Herring ridicule this joke type it is actually very common, even in their acts. Writing in The Guardian Stewart Lee suggests that “half of what we find amusing involves using little linguistic tricks to conceal the subject of our sentences until the last possible moment, so that it appears we are talking about something else”.

Other joke types subvert assumptions by building patterns and then breaking them. Here’s a line from The Nutty Professor:

Anything I can get for you? Juice? Coffee? Rack of lamb?

In this line the writer has created a pattern by listing two drinks. We assume the next item will be another drink and we’re then surprised when it’s something completely different.

Observational comedy works by pointing out the ridiculousness of every day life. It uses preconceived assumptions about how we think things should be, then points out the reality.

“You never know where to look when eating a banana.” – Peter Kay

Some jokes subvert preconceived expectations about joke structure. Take this ancient Christmas cracker joke:

Why did the chicken cross the road?

To get to the other side.

We assume that there will be a funny punchline. Instead we get a serious one, surprising us, and somehow making it funny (to a four year old).

Jokes don’t have to follow the setup punch formula ridgedly.

A setup isn’t always required. A joke can subvert a pre-existing assumption. For example swearing or sexually themed content are common in stand up comedy. Because they are taboo subjects there is an assumption that they should not be mentioned. If a comedian breaks that assumption we (may) find it funny.

A punchline isn’t always required. Sometimes it’s funnier to deliver a setup and let the recipient work out the punchline for themselves. Stewart Lee has a great joke about watching the Pope’s funeral and Prince Charles’s wedding to Camilla Parker-Bowles on split screen:

On one side we witness the veneration of a wrinkled old corpse….

A joke doesn’t have to be verbal. The setup and/or punch could be delivered using body language, props, a pause or a sound. This video of Zach Galifianakis is a good example:

(Watch this 2:04 video on YouTube)

Subverting an assumption is necessary but not sufficient for creating a funny joke. A comedian may say something that has the rhythm and the structure of a joke, but won’t get a laugh. Jokes are mysterious. If the punchline is too obvious or too oblique it won’t get a laugh. Some people may think it’s funny, some might not. Writing in The Guardian Richard Herring says:

How will you know if your joke is funny? The terrifying thing is that you can’t really be certain until you try it in front of other people. Even professionals are never sure until they hear the reassuring sound of laughter. Or don’t.

Update: Read Part 2

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  1. Freddie Daniells
    Posted March 12, 2010 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

    excellent article – will be tuning into this series for sure!

  2. Andrew
    Posted March 18, 2010 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Freddie!
    Parts two and three will be available soon.

  3. Posted April 11, 2010 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    many people said that body language is more meaningful than words…

    nice info.. thank you..

  4. Dash
    Posted August 17, 2012 at 7:20 am | Permalink

    I heard the joke “why did the chicken cross the road? to get to the other side.” is about suicide. the other side means death

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