9 Tips for Writing Jokes That Are Actually Funny
While having a relatable sense of humor is helpful, honing your comedy writing skills and crafting the perfect punchline takes a lot of time and practice. If you’re looking to be a funnier writer, check out the following comedy writing tips:
- Do comedy writing exercises. An important skill for comedy writing is the ability to take funny ideas and turn them into jokes or funny stories. You can practice your storytelling and joke writing skills through various prompts, as well as uncover new material along the way. Having a set up ready for you to finish can help brainstorm your own ideas, as well as get your creative juices flowing.
- Know your audience. Not all humor writing hits equally. A raunchy comedy TV show about divorced moms probably won’t appeal to a teen demographic. A stand-up comic’s jokes about politics may not be funny in certain states. Humor is subjective, but knowing who your sitcom, stand-up set, or satirical short story is for can greatly improve the chance that your audience will find it relatable and funny.
- Subvert expectations. Contrasting or changing up expectations—also known as incongruity—is a useful technique for writing jokes. Humor often comes from the unpredicted or abnormal, and when you use unexpected ideas, words, or images to replace what was logically anticipated for a punchline, you create incongruity. TV comedy screenwriters, improv actors, and stand-up comics all make use of incongruity to bring humor through surprise, which might make the audience members and viewers at home laugh.
- Know when to pay it off. The more you build up a joke, the better the pay off should be. A set up that meanders too long or tries to do too much will eventually lose steam, and you won’t get the big laughs you were planning for. A good tip to remember is “the rule of three,” where a particular joke hits twice, establishing a pattern and building tension, then pays off on the third time. You can use this style in many different ways, like in dialogue (“I came, I saw, I broke my toe”), or spread it out across the three acts of a screenplay. This works well in tandem with subverting expectations, as the third hit of the joke is usually the unexpected.
- Ensure the joke fits. When you’re trying to write funny dialogue or scenarios for screenwriting, novels, or stories, don’t just put in a joke because it’s a funny joke—everything changes with context. Unless it’s relevant to the plot, if you’ve established your main character as a serious type who suddenly starts making the kinds of jokes a different, funnier character makes, it’ll create inconsistency for the viewer, and probably won’t be as funny.
- Use callbacks. Bringing back a comedic line from earlier to play in a different context is a strategic way to refresh a joke or create a feeling of completion in the audience’s mind. Callbacks are not just useful for getting laughs, but tying together your material and helping the audience feel satisfied as well (famed humor columnist Dave Barry is especially known for this technique).
- Reach beyond the low-hanging fruit. Puns are easy because they’re shallow wordplay, but real humor takes digging and true observation. If the joke feels too easy, it’s because it probably is. Take your time and think about the image or concept you’re trying to establish and convey to your audience, and do it in the most unique or different way you can to separate it from the hundreds of other jokes that may be just like it.
- Tell the truth. The phrase “it’s funny because it’s true” exists for a reason—the most universally relatable feelings and experiences are generally the funniest because it’s something the majority of people can share. Self-awareness about a situation or event that others can empathize with and see the humor in is a good way to connect to your audience and make them laugh.
- Do it again. If you think your funniest one-liner was written perfectly the first time, try writing it again—several more times, in fact. The first draft of a joke will probably not be its final form, and it’s important for humor writers to craft multiple versions to see which works best. Read it out loud, check the cadence, cut down on wordiness if possible, or see how many different iterations you can write.
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