Film & TV

What Is a Punchline? Tips for Writing a Great Punchline and 3 Great Jokes from Steve Martin

Written by MasterClass

Apr 15, 2019 • 4 min read

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Steve Martin Teaches Comedy

In comedy, a well-structured joke ends with a big reveal, known as a punchline. The punchline is usually the funniest part of a joke. Writing the perfect punchline takes work, but when it’s done right, it has a big payoff.

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What Is a Punchline?

A punchline is the climactic conclusion of a story or joke that makes an audience laugh. It’s a short line that delivers a humorous reveal. Punchlines are often funny because they are the opposite of what an audience is expecting.

Does Every Joke Have a Punchline?

There are jokes that don’t have punchlines on purpose. They are known as anti-jokes, where the laughs are meant to come from the anticlimactic ending.

Most other jokes, however, rely on punchlines. Without a final wrap-up, a joke falls flat. The punchline is the part of a joke that justifies and rewards the setup—otherwise it’s just a story with funny anecdotes.

The two most basic kinds of jokes follow the setup and punchline model:

  • Knock-knock jokes are a short back-and-forth that results in a quick, sometimes nonsensical, punchline. They’re popular with kids because of the simplicity of the narrative and the delivery of that final zinger.
  • One-liners are another great example. They deliver the setup and punchline in—you guessed it—one line. This provides an instant payoff.

Where Did the Punchline Originate?

Punchlines in jokes can be traced back a long way, but the term “punchline” first came onto the scene in the early twentieth century. While it is usually attributed to the British humor magazine Punch, the term itself was first used by a Wisconsin newspaper, The Racine Journal News, in 1912, when a review of a play described a “punch in every line.”

The New York Times talked about “punch lines” the following year. “Punchline” then gained traction and usage in reference to performances and finally appeared in the Merriam Webster Dictionary in 1921.

What Is the Difference Between a Punchline and a Jab Line?

The definition of punchline makes you think of a knock-out punch—the final funny blow delivered in a joke. Whether you’re writing a script or a stand-up routine, you should weave other funny moments throughout before arriving at the punchline.

A funny line during the course of telling a story is called a “jab line.” Jab lines are narrative comedy tools that build the humorous tension and set a comic pace and rhythm. They elicit releases of laughter while propelling the joke forward towards that final punchline.

Are Punchlines Used Outside of Comedy?

While punchlines are most often associated with comedy, they’re also used for effect and emphasis in other forms of entertainment and communication. Just like in comedy, punchlines are written to get a reaction from an audience.

For example, hip-hop lyrics often use punchlines. In this context, a punchline is a phrase that makes a powerful statement when paired with well-crafted lyrics. It stands out from the rest of a song, and sometimes becomes as well known as the name of a song itself. Rap battles, a back-and-forth competition where two lyricists spontaneously compose and perform songs to try to outdo one another, are notorious for ending on a punchline which is meant get a positive reaction from the crowd, antagonize the opponent, and deliver the win.

Tips For Writing a Great Punchline

Writing hilarious jokes depends on how you set up the story, and how you write and deliver the punchline. Many comedy writers and stand-up comedians carry around a joke log to jot down notes and compile funny word lists for the material they’re working on. They will often write and rewrite, a joke many times with new words and different punchlines before it’s complete. You’ll know you’ve hit on a strong punchline when you test your joke out in front of other people.

Here are some tips and tricks for writing funny punchlines:

  • Watch footage of your favorite comedians performing. Study the structure of their punchlines, their timing, and delivery, and see which lines get the biggest laughs.
  • Start with a punchline. When you get an idea with punchline potential, jot it down and build the joke around it. Try several different approaches to see if it’s got legs, and gets laughs.
  • Make it short and sweet. The funniest punchlines get to the point in a succinct style, ranging from one word to one sentence.
  • Make sure your punchline has a twist. A punchline pivots the story in a new direction and conflicts with the setup. It throws the audience a curveball by creating a different ending than the one they’re expecting.
  • Punchlines with two meanings make the audience think a little harder but can generate a lot of positive response from them when they grasp the double entendre.
  • Time the delivery for maximum impact. Pause before you deliver the punchline to build anticipation.
  • Be open to changing a punchline when needed. Try out a new word, a new phrase, or a completely new thought to make a joke even funnier.
  • Test different variations of your punchline on people like friends, family, or even complete strangers, to see which version gets the biggest laugh.
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3 Jokes With Steve Martin

From the comedy stages in New York to dinner table conversations, people tell their favorite jokes to get the biggest laughs. Here are three jokes with standout punchlines from a comedy great, Steve Martin.

  • “I gave my cat a bath the other day. He sat there, he enjoyed it, and it was fun for me too. The fur would stick to my tongue, but other than that it was great.”
  • “A day without sunshine is like, you know, night.”
  • “I love a woman with a head on her shoulders. I hate necks.”

Learn more comedy tips from Steve Martin here.