George Washington was the first President of the US and is often given to kids as an example of what they should aspire to. When he was in his late teens, he wrote out a list of rules that a gentleman should abide by.
The list contained such wise rules as don’t turn your back to someone when you are speaking, or that the gestures of the body must be suited to the discourse you are upon.
Do you know what his number one rule was?
Don’t scratch your balls in public! 🙂
Well, actually it was number 2!
The list itself can be found here, but that was not the point of this little section.
The short story above (inspired by an A.J. Jacobs presentation) very nicely demonstrates the anatomy of a joke, as well as many elements inherent in comedy.
First there is some sort of an introduction, which explains the premise and leads the audience to think in one direction.
Then boom, an element of surprise suddenly appears, and the joke teller comes up with an unexpected unravelling of the story.
Sometimes this can be followed by another element that continues the joke, an add-on joke.
These things are called the set-up, the punchline, and the tagline and form the basic structure of a joke.
This is a formula that can be replicated in any type of story or joke on whatever subject you want. With any joke, first you need to set up the scene, then you finish it up with a punchline.
The key to the audience laughing is surprise. With the set-up you lead the audience to assume one thing and then suddenly hit them with something totally different, something that they weren’t expecting.
You can feed off of this by quickly adding up another short phrase which is called the tagline or topper. This is basically a short second joke that builds upon the punchline and in many cases can make you look spontaneous and witty.
An important part of any joke is what is sometimes called the connecter, which is something in the set-up that has a double meaning or can be interpreted in different ways. It can be a punch word or even an entire phrase.
“My wife and I were happy for twenty years. Then we met.“
Let’s illustrate the structure of a joke by decomposing this classic Rodney Dangerfield joke:
The set-up: “My wife and I were happy for twenty years.” This sets up the audience to paint a picture of an old happy married couple.
The punchline: “Then we met.” However this line totally destroys any image of a happy married couple that the audience might have had in their heads. It gives a totally different spin to the previous set-up.
Watch this Rodney Dangerfield video and try particularly to notice how he structures his jokes, how he sets them up, when he delivers his punchline and when he uses taglines.
You can use this with any of your favorite comics. Go find their videos, watch them and try to pay attention to how they structure their jokes and where the laugh points are. Most comics will usually use some sort of a version of the standard set-up, punchlines, taglines structure.
The overall themes of humor structure are based around tension, surprise and relationships. Melvin Helitzer in his book “Comedy Writing Secrets” describes what he calls the THREES formula, which are the very basic elements needed for a joke to be successful.
THREES stands for target, hostility, realism, exaggeration, emotion, surprise and I have broken down this concept in more detail in a previous article which you can read here.
Now for the exercises:
1) Start creating a collection of jokes that you come across and write them down somewhere. To start off, find 30 short jokes. They can be about anything you want. Once you have found them, try to look at how they are structured. Try to find the punchline, the set-up and any potential taglines.
2) Find videos of your favorite comics. Watch the videos and look for the laugh points. When does the audience laugh? Then go back and rewatch the clips, noticing how they structure their jokes and stories. Which part is the set-up, which is the punchline, which phrases or words serve as the connecters and are there any taglines? When watching, also try to look for elements from the THREES formula.
If you haven’t read it already already, go back to read Part 1 of this series on humor. Or go to read Part 3.