Humor – Basic joke construction
I recommend that you read the first article in this series before continuing, for obvious reasons.
In the last article we talked about the key ingredient of humor, the element of surprise, and how creating humor does not start with finding the fun in life, but rather with finding the truth in life. Today we are going to start there and travel down the road of building jokes.
Finding the truth
Humor begins with the things we hold true about life. At this stage of the game, we don’t want to make ourselves laugh. We look for the things that we find true in life that other people can identify with. That is a broad topic. So let me make it easier and tell you to look for those things in life that you think are weird, difficult, scary, or stupid. These are attitude words and I am not the first or the last to use them. Just search for a topic and ask yourself what you find strange, difficult, scary, or stupid about that topic.
For example: What is difficult about marriage?
If you are married, I imagine several things come to mind.
How about: What’s scary to drink and drive?
O: What’s so strange about TV commercials?
Let me remind you that the goal is not to think funny, but to think the truth. The funny thing will come later. Stick to your attitude words. I recommend that you get a spiral notebook to start collecting all these random thoughts because you will write a bit before coming up with something that you want to keep. When I sit down to write, I like to think about a topic and let go of the creative process. Sometimes I write about what it was like to be an overweight teenager: what was strange, difficult, scary, or stupid. Sometimes I write about being the older kid or being an older parent.
Two things to help you when you go through this process:
1. Think of things that other people will relate to. They don’t need to have been through that exact situation, but you want to find something that they can sympathize with. You may not want to talk about how difficult it is to grow up owning a camel because it is highly likely that no one in your audience can relate to that. But they can be related to losing a pet or wanting some kind of strange animal as a pet.
2. The more specific your topic, the better. Instead of talking about dating, why not talk about internet dating? Instead of using the topic of parenting, why not talk about what it’s like to be a lazy parent? When choosing a general theme, keep in mind that hundreds of other comedians are falling for that same general theme. To be unique (which is key in comedy) you need to be more specific.
I’ve found that some of the best topics are those that annoy, irritate, annoy you, etc. It is very likely that you are not alone in that way of thinking. Again, choose the topics that most people will have experienced.
This is actually the topic of the next article, so let’s drop this and jump to joke building and then get back to the process of finding topics, which is best done once you’ve learned how to craft a standard joke.
Basic joke construction
Let me start by saying that there is no standard joke. There are many different formulas floating around created by different people as they explain their own creative path to joke building. Find the ones that best suit your needs. Read the books. For starters, I recommend The Judy Carter Comedy Bible. Then get Greg Dean’s book on Standup Comedy. Those are two of my favorites, but you have a lot to choose from. Study. Practice. And writes!
Jokes are told and passed on in millions of different ways, almost as unique as the person creating the joke. But if you take it all away, you’ll find that each prank consists of two parts: the setting and the punch. You will hear it called in different ways by different people. But it still means the same thing: two parts, the setup and the hit.
The setup is the serious part of the joke. This is where you set up your audience. This is where you force them to make an assumption. Many comedians will mistakenly try to make their montage funny. Whose. Make it true.
I lost twenty-five kilos.
There is nothing funny in this statement.
Here’s the punch:
Oh, not all at once. I lost ten, I won twenty … I lost five, I won two …
Okay, so it’s not the best joke in the world, but it is an example of how a joke has two parts. And by the way, the settings can be a line or a whole paragraph. Whatever is needed.
The punch is the second part of the joke where you surprise your audience. Remember in the first post where I talked about breaking expectations? Well, here you go. The hit is where you say what they didn’t expect you to say. This is the fun part. And there is more than one way to surprise your audience.
And that is. I know, it sounds too easy to be true. Trust me, it’s anything but easy. It takes work and a lot of writing. It takes twenty bad jokes to come up with a good one. But if you keep working on the process, you will improve. Let me go so you can get down to business.
But before I go, here are some quick jokes that I’m building right here on the spot, just creating a setup and then adding a punch. Be aware that some will not look as funny on paper as they would on stage.
My boyfriend and I have been together for three years.
Oh, you don’t know yet.
I bought a cream that was guaranteed to remove unwanted lumps.
I put it on my husband.
I finally got my son to sleep in his own bed.
It was about time … the boy is fifteen years old!
Okay, I know I said I was leaving, but one more helpful hint before I go. Write down a setting (any setting) and then stop (before trying to think of fun things) and think about what we assume to be true of this setting. When I said earlier that my boyfriend and I have been together for three years, you assume he knows.
The more you start typing in settings and punches, the more you’ll start to see ways you can tweak your settings to create a better or different surprise. Find words that have double meanings. If you are a man of word games, then start playing with your word games.
Here’s an old joke. I don’t remember who wrote it, but it wasn’t me. And I’ve heard a lot of people do it.
The doctor told me that I had two weeks to live. I said, “Doctor, I want a second opinion.” He said, “Good. You’re ugly too.”
Well, I’m really going now. On the count of three. One two …