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What Makes a Good Joke?
A funny joke takes us on a brief, narrative journey and makes us laugh. The below elements form the foundations of a good joke.
- Content. Religion, politics, parenthood—there is no topic that’s off limits. Collect ideas from what you know and what you see. Steve Martin, one of the most successful comedians of all time, suggests observing the people and events around you for material. Even the most mundane things can make people laugh.
- Pace. There is a rhythm to telling a joke. Comedic timing is how you say the words, but it’s also the pauses between lines and physical gestures you make that allow an audience to visualize your story and contribute to the laugh you get at the end.
- Delivery. The delivery of the punchline will impact the audience’s reaction, so make it big. Build anticipation by waiting a few beats before you reveal it. A punchline is short, sometimes even just a word.
- Subverting expectations. A good joke should make an audience look at a familiar topic in a new way. When you have an idea, think of all the different ways you can approach it, or how it might fit into a different scenario. Humor takes what we know to be true and flips it on its head.
How Is a Joke Structured?
Most joke structures are built around two fundamental elements—a setup, followed by a punchline.
- The setup details the characters, the place, and a situation that set the scene.
- The punchline is a plot twist, a divergent resolution to the one the audience is expecting.
See if you can identify the setup and punchline in this joke—one of the earliest jokes Steve Martin used in his stand up sets:
“I gave my cat a bath the other day. You know, I’d always heard you weren’t supposed to give cats baths, but my cat came home, and he was really dirty and I decided to give him a bath, and it was great. If you have a cat, don’t worry about it. They love it. He sat there, he enjoyed it. It was fun for me, you know, and uh—the fur would stick to my tongue, but other than that, you know, it was great!”
What Are the Different Elements of a Joke?
Think of a joke as a story. They need the same elements to engage an audience, even though jokes are written for a very specific response—laughter. For each joke you start to write, make sure it has these narrative elements:
- A story arc—a beginning, middle, and end
- Characters—the subject of your joke
- Conflict—a situation or problem faced by the characters
- Resolution—the punchline
What Are Some Different Types of Jokes?
There are numerous ways to write a joke, as long as you have the elements and structure in place. Here are five types of jokes that are popular in comedy writing and stand-up comedy.
- Observational. These jokes are reflections on the absurdity of everyday life. Jerry Seinfeld is famous for his observational humor, covering everything from Pop Tarts to weddings in his routines.
- One-liners. Jokes that are told in one sentence.
- Self-deprecating. Self-deprecating jokes make the comedian the target of the humor. It pays to have a sense of humor about yourself.
- Topical. Topical jokes are about politics, current events, and newsworthy items. Late night talk show hosts like Stephen Colbert and Seth Meyers use topical jokes in their opening monologues.
- Anecdotal. Anecdotal jokes take their content from the comedian’s life. They are usually relatable and personable, and often popular with audiences.
How To Write a Joke In 7 Steps
Writing jokes starts with ideas. Jot any and all ideas down when they come to you, either on your smartphone or in a journal—Jerry Seinfeld still writes his jokes out on paper. Bit by bit, start applying the structures and elements described above (i.e. characters, plot, punchline) to your ideas. Slowly, they’ll evolve into jokes.
Be patient, and be prepared to write. Here’s a quick step-by-step guide to help get you started.
- Find a comedy teacher. Watch videos of stand-up comedians, like Judd Apatow, who can make anything from a bowl of fruit to the Ottoman Empire funny. Study the anatomy of their jokes. What makes them work? When does the audience laugh? Watch stand-up if you want to learn to perform it. Learn by observing, then develop your own angle.
- Gather your material. To kickstart your joke-writing process, come up with a topic and write down as many jokes about it as you can think of. You’ll likely use only one or two of them, but you need to write a lot in order to find the true comedic gold. As you go through your day, always be on the lookout for people, places, and things that have the potential for comedy. Always listen and observe the world, as everything around you can be used in your comedy routine, skit, or screenplay. Allow funny things that people say and the way they behave and carry themselves to inform your process. You don’t have to go far to look for ideas. Make yourself the main character, and use your life to mine for content. Think about a time everyone can relate to, like high school. Sometimes, a punchline will come to you first and you’ll work backward to write a setup that complements it.
- Structure your joke. Begin to build a story around a punchline. Think about the funniest thing that has ever happened to you, and identify the core of that story. Then, illuminate different parts of the story by describing the situation and your feelings in detail. What were all of the events that led to that moment? Make sure there is a narrative arc, with a beginning, middle, and end. Does your setup create one expectation that conflicts with your punchline?
- Keep it concise. In comedy, less is more. Part of writing a joke is editing for clarity and brevity. Take out any unnecessary words. Always propel the joke forward during your setup. You want to hook your audience here and get them to invest in your joke. Too many words and you’ll lose them.
- Jab lines. While the punchline should get the biggest laugh, funny stories have other peaks of laughter. “Jab lines” are those funny moments throughout a joke that build the comedic tension.
- The punchline. The final line of your joke is the big reveal. Leave a few beats before you deliver it to build the anticipation (and write those beats into your joke if you need to). The punchline must be short, have an element of surprise, and get the biggest laughs. It goes without saying that if you have to explain the punchline, the joke doesn’t work.
- Test your joke out. Comedy writers always test material in front of other people. Start by saying your joke out loud as you write it, even if no one is around. When you feel it’s in good shape, take it for a test ride. Tell the joke to other people, either in a group or individually. You’ll know right away if it’s terrible by the reaction—or lack of one. These practice runs will help you with your joke writing technique and build confidence in front of an audience.
2 Exercises To Get You In the Joke-Writing Mood
Both these tried-and-tested exercises will help you find your comedic voice.
- Go to a busy public place and spend two or three hours just sitting and watching people. As you observe, write down as much as you can about the people you see, the conversations they have, and the things they do. When you get home, read through your notes. Circle moments and interactions that strike you as funny, and underline bits that feel like basic human truths or experiences that anyone can relate to.
- Practice mining an idea for jokes. Go through your notebook of possible material. Pick one idea and squeeze ten different jokes out of it. Keep pushing until you have ten. List them in your notebook and circle your favorites.