If you read the last two articles in this series you may have written something that resembles a joke. If you’re still at the ideas stage try fitting one into the setup/punch format discussed earlier. Don’t worry if it doesn’t seem very funny. We’ll try and whip it into shape.
The process of refining an idea into joke is difficult. It requires logic and a creativity. It’s like trying to fill in a blank sudoku grid with beautiful calligraphy, and never being sure if the numbers can ever line up.
But there are techniques and and rules of thumb that can help you. First and most importantly…
Get Audience Feedback
You will only know if a joke is funny if you try it out on people.
Some people will drop their jokes into conversations with friends to see if they hit. I dislike this practice. It’s unnatural to interrupt a conversation with a clearly prewritten joke, delivered with comic timing, and a little pause at the end where the teller makes a mental note of who laughed.
I think it’s better to let your friends know that you have a few jokes you’d like to try out or, even better, find a group of other comedy writers/performers to bounce ideas off.
But this can only take you so far. At some stage you will have to try your stuff out infront of a real audience. This can be brutal. Or it can be fantastic. But it’s never ambiguous. The audience laughs or they don’t. The joke is funny or it’s not. It’s important not to take this personally. It’s all part of the writing process. Jokes that continually get laughs are solid. Jokes that don’t get laughs need to be worked on or discarded. Use the audience response as feedback to focus your writing effort.
Comedians will often record their set and listen back paying attention to the audience’s reaction. Little mistakes, improvisations or adjustments to timings may completely change the audience’s reaction. Quality improvisations can be incorporated into the joke allowing it to improve and grow.
This process of evolving material is beautifully described, in this performance by Baba Brinkman. (I was in the audience when this was filmed. It gave me goosebumps.)
(Watch this 4:35 video on Youtube)
Attention to audience feedback and allowing your joke to grow, really is the most important part of joke writing. This annoying if you’re a perfectionist or if you’re or doing something one-off like a best man speech.
But don’t worry. There are plenty of rules of thumb that can help enhance your joke from the comfort of your armchair.
Rules of Thumb
Get to the funny, ASAP.
When you’re specific you create a more vivid image in the audience’s mind. “My mate Dave told me..” is usually better than “People tell me..” Furthermore vivid imagery brings a whole load of new assumptions which could potentially be used as the basis for more jokes.
Punch at the end
The audience will probably “get” the joke at some point during the punch line. Ideally you want this point to be the very last word, otherwise you’ll still be speaking when they’re laughing (or worse, they’ll suppress their laughter to let you finish).
Make your emotional reactions more extreme. Make the conditions worse.
Use funny words
Some words are funnier than others. According to this list, “dipthong” is the funniest word.
If you’ve managed to write a joke that gets a laugh, well done! But we’re not finished yet. We can probably squeeze a few more laughs out of it by adding additional punchlines also known as Tags or Afterthoughts.
Here’s one of my jokes:
My mum gets me rubbish Christmas presents. Things like Eau de Toilette. Never Obsession by Calvin Klein. It’s always Indifference by Superdrug. Or Effluence by Poundland.
The main punchline is “Indifference by Superdrug”. That always gets a laugh. Then I get another laugh with “Or Effluence by Poundland”. This second punchline didn’t require any additional setup, it was just tacked onto the end of an existing joke. Tags/afterthoughts might restate of the same joke in a new way, or they could take the joke in new directions by subverting other assumptions present in either the setup or the previous punchline. I could potentially add many more tags/afterthoughts to this joke.
The major advantage of tags/afterthoughts is that the lack of additional setup allows you to fit many more laughs into a shorter space of time, allowing you to build up a momentum of laughter.
In the following example from 90s Comedian, Stewart Lee has just described a gratuitously vulgar scene, and now he’s mocking the audience reaction. He gets seven laughs off a single setup:
‘You’ve broken that bond of trust. Because we weren’t expecting to be made to visualise that image. There was no warning of this, it wasn’t flagged up …
It’s like fingering someone on the first date, [laugh]
you wouldn’t do it. [laugh]
Even at arm’s length, [laugh]
wearing a mitten [laugh]
through the shattered window of a rural bus shelter [laugh]
at the end of an otherwise pleasant evening, [laugh]
as an inappropriate gesture of thanks. [laugh]
You wouldn’t do that, Stew, so why are you doing this? Why? Why?’
In this series we’ve looked at the structure of jokes, examined how to generate funny ideas, and how to refine those ideas into jokes that get laughs. This is the end of our examination of jokes as individual units. In a future series I plan to cover how to build a stand-up comedy routine or humorous speech.