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What Is a Joke?
A joke is a brief story, observation, or thought that has a setup and a punchline that triggers a physiological response—laughter. Jokes present a humorous take on a subject. They are a form of entertainment. They can be spoken, like during a stand-up routine, or written down in comedy writing, poetry, and even song lyrics.
What Does It Take to Be a Comedian?
Steve Martin and Judd Apatow have made it to the top of the comedy world, but they each spent years performing stand-up comedy in small clubs before they became famous. Each one performed their own unique brand of comedy and told different types of jokes.
- A sense of humor is important, but making jokes funny is a craft that takes practice, patience, and a lot of writing.
- Comedians also know how important it is to know how to structure a joke so that it creates the biggest impact possible, and at the right time.
- Use a versatile slate of jokes to talk about personal things and current events.
Is There a Basis for Every Joke?
Why do we tell jokes? Jokes are a form of entertainment. But the also serve a higher purpose. Comedy unifies people through laughter and the ability to identify with the premise of a joke. It is like a universal language.
All good jokes are based on two important things:
- A good joke is part storytelling and part social commentary. It gives people a way to process and reflect on the world around them through humor.
- Every good joke disrupts expectations. If someone’s mental momentum is going one way, a good punchline changes that direction. The element of surprise is the foundation for any good joke.
10 Most Popular Types of Jokes
There are various types of joke structures and joke formats built around the basic formula of setup and punchline. Even one-liner jokes and kid-friendly knock-knock jokes have this simple story arc. Here are the most popular types of jokes.
- Observational. “Have you ever noticed…” If you’ve ever seen Jerry Seinfeld perform comedy, you’re familiar with observational humor and jokes. They are an examination of everyday things or situations through a comedic lens. Observational comedy covers topics familiar to almost everyone, even the most trivial aspects of life.
- Anecdotal. Anecdotal humor is pulled from the comedian’s personal life and is popular with audiences because we can identify with their stories. Writer, producer and director Judd Apatow, who also performs stand-up comedy, believes that stand-up gets better as it becomes more personal—that comics who lay themselves bare to the audience are often the strongest performers. He gives the following example: one of his daughters has gone to college. His remaining daughter is unhappy that she is the only one left in the house with Judd and his wife, because four people is a family, but three people is a child observing a weird couple. You get the most laughs when the audience recognizes themselves in your story or joke. Learn more about writing comedy from Judd here.
- Situational. Situational humor is used to describe a genre of comedy and jokes that rely on a set of characters, a place, and an event. Television is a popular medium for situational comedies—or sitcoms, as they’re called—that follow recurring characters in different scenarios. Some examples are Friends, Big Bang Theory, and Black-ish.
- Character. Some comedians create a different persona, or personas, for their comedy routine. Stephen Colbert played a fictional version of himself on The Colbert Report, staying in character even when he interviewed guests.
- One-liner. “I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it.” That one-liner was delivered by Groucho Marx. Robin Williams once joked: “Why do they call it rush hour when nothing moves?” One-liners squeeze a setup and punchline into one succinct thought.
- Ironic. Ironic jokes are contradictory, with two opposing concepts tugging at one another. For example: why do people park in a driveway but drive on a parkway?
- Deadpan. Deadpan jokes are delivered in a matter-of-fact, monotone voice with no expression. Steven Wright is a deadpan comedian. The humor in his act comes from the combination of the trivial content and his emotionless utterance of the joke: “I’ve been getting into astronomy so I installed a skylight. The people who live above me are furious.”
- Farcical. Farcical jokes and comedy are over-the-top plotlines (think The Hangover) with exaggerated stories, characters, and events.
- Self-deprecating. Some comedians make fun of the person they know best—themselves. Rodney Dangerfield made a career of self-deprecating jokes poking fun at his looks and his love life with jokes like this: “I went to the psychiatrist, and he says ‘You're crazy.’ I tell him I want a second opinion. He says, ‘Okay, you're ugly too!’”
- Slapstick. Slapstick jokes are also known as physical comedy. Comedy Legend Steve Martin credits Laurel and Hardy, two of the earliest slapstick performers, as an influence on his career. The Three Stooges are another famous slapstick group, getting into absurd situations where they would repeatedly get hit, slapped, or bonked by someone or something in a comedy of errors.