Now that we know about the structure of a joke and the different parts that it consists of, how do we actually go about writing it?
What creative process do you need to go through in order to come up with an idea for a joke and then craft it in a funny way?
Watch the video below to see Jerry Seinfeld’s process:
A lot of humor is based on things happening around you, whether in the news or in your own life. These are the basic starting points of all jokes or funny stories. You just need to be able to capture that, process it and then deliver it in the right way.
You can write a simple story about your day, job, life and use a specific comedy formula to shape it in order to create laugh points that will make the audience start rolling in the aisles.
“Aside from velcro, time is the most mysterious substance in the universe. You can’t see it or touch it, yet a plumber can charge you upwards of seventy-five dollars per hour for it, without necessarily fixing anything.” Dave Barry
Edgar E. Willis (author of “How to be funny on purpose”) states that every joke has what is called an expressed idea and an inferred idea. The expressed idea is what the joke teller says in an explicit form, while the inferred idea is the idea that the listeners should get out of what he is saying.
So basically the joke is delivering two ideas simultenously, what is said literally and what those words are implying.
Since you have two basic ideas in a joke, you also have two main starting places for a joke: either think up the inferred idea (what you want the audience to draw out of what you say), or come up with the expressed idea (material that will lead audience to make inferred idea).
Listen again to Jerry Seinfeld’s description of his joke creation process. In the example he gives, he is starting out from the inferred idea: Pop Tarts are weird and food is crazy.
Once he has the message he wants to pass in his head, he goes about crafting the words that would deliver it.
Here is another Jerry Seinfeld clip which has as its inferred idea the craziness of the shopping experience. Notice the words he uses in order to show this:
How do you craft the words themselves? Even if the inferred idea is good, the actual words that you use can be the difference between the audience giving out a slight chuckle or breaking out in roaring laughter that makes half the people end up in the hospital due to the fact that they were cracking up so hard that they forgot to breathe.
One way to do this is visualization, describing in such a way as to paint a vivid picture in the head. Another good joke formula is the use of exaggerations, either overstatements or understatements in order to better convey your idea.
This can be done by combining metaphors or analogies with hyperboles. Your brain often thinks using metaphors and analogies and that’s why their use can really underline what you are saying.
These are very powerful ways of expressing an idea. Using these tropes in different contexts can often give a very different spin to your message.
A metaphor basically says that A is B. For example the “war on drugs” is saying that there is a war on drugs.
On the other hand, a simile compares two things that are similar in some way. A simile often states that A is “like” B. In order to tell apart a simile from a metaphor look for words like “like” or “as”. For example when Forrest Gump said that “life is like a box of chocolates” or when you say something is “as cute as a kitten“.
An analogy is essentially an extended, more elegant simile. For example this quote from the character Matt McGrath in the movie “Broken Hearts Club” is an analogy: “Dumb gorgeous people should not be allowed to use literature when competing in the pick-up pool. It’s like bald people wearing hats.”
Now let’s go back to the first Seinfeld clip in order to further analyze how he develops the joke and what techniques he uses.
Notice how he uses exaggerations and metaphors: “the back of my head blew right off” or “orange juice that was frozen years in advance that you had to hack away at with a knife“. These create much more powerful pictures than simply saying that he was “astounded” (which in itself is a pretty descriptive word, but not as effective in painting a picture) or just “frozen“.
Another technique he uses is funny words. Some words are just funnier in the English language than others and if you use them, you automatically paint a funnier picture in people’s heads. One such word is the word “pop tart” itself.
All these different things create the “funny”.
Here is the Pop Tart Joke in all its glory:
In the first clip, Jerry Seinfeld also says that he often links the “Pop Tart Joke” with a joke on chimpanzees. The make-or-break issue here is finding the right connectors. Notice how in the clip above, Jerry Seinfeld moves from talking about friends to talking about restaurants and then to Pop Tarts and how he connects the different ideas together in a smooth way.
Someone who is naturally funny is someone who understands patterns and therefore can make connections between varied things. Working on improving your pattern recognition skills can greatly improve your humorous side. 🙂
Jokes can often be formed through linking two unrelated subjects. It doesn’t have to be a logical link. This isn’t rational thinking (as exemplified in the article I wrote on critical thinking).
With jokes anything goes. Humans are good at linking things, which often causes them to make connections that don’t really exist.
That is good news for comedy. That conspiracy theory might not be good for a rational explanation, but it is great for a joke. Making outrageous links works in drawing out humor and is a good technique to use for example when you are bantering with other people and trying to tease them.
How do you come up with jokes about specific subjects? Where do you get the ideas from?
The best way to get ideas is to get them from your everyday life. This also makes the jokes relevant to your audience, since the best jokes are the ones other people can identify with and draw parallels from their own lives.
You can use observational comedy to point out the absurdities of everyday life and get a laugh in the process.
There are different techniques that you can use to come up with ideas. One such technique is coming up with lists.
Let’s say you want to come up with a joke about basketball. First thing you do is sit down and list all the words that you can associate with basketball.
You can start off by making categories and then list some words under them:
You can also do it using the mind mapping technique:
These different words then can start as the starting place for you to create a joke. Look for double meanings, funny words or associations. We will go more into this in a later chapter.
In order to combine different subjects (often non-related subjects), you can use what Sally Holloway (“The Serious Guide to Joke Writing”) calls the Hadron Joke Collider. Basically what you do here is create mind maps for two different concepts and then compare and contrast them, trying to find similarities or potential common points. In this way you can juxtapose different elements and create a joke linking the two concepts.
You could use the above technique if you wanted to find a connector to link a joke on Pop Tarts with a joke on chimpanzees.
You can practice to try to find connectors by picking two random words and trying to link them. For example, how would you link the words rabbit and criminal?
Here is how I did it:
“Q: Why did the Energizer Bunny go to jail?
A: Because he was charged with battery.“
Greg Dean (“Step by Step to Stand-up Comedy”) uses a technique he calls the Joke Prospector. This technique is a variation of the list technique. He writes the subject, then lists words associated with the subject. Last he writes a list of negative opinions about each of these associations. Hey, humor is pain. 🙂
Once you have these lists, you can proceed onto creating your jokes:
“Q: What do you call 12 millionaires around a TV watching the NBA Finals? A: The New York Knicks.“
“Q: Why is a referee like an angry chicken? A: They both have foul mouths.“
Here is a technique that comic Jerry Corley uses to come up with his jokes:
A final strategy that can help you refine your joke and include all the necessary elements in it, is if you ask yourself these five basic questions: who, what, when, where, why. I call it the 5W technique and it can be used not only for crafting jokes, but also for creating any type of story in general. Answering these five questions for yourself is a prerequisite for the “how” of the story.
If this seems a bit overwhelming at first, don’t despair! The good thing is that if you are not a professional comic, you can also use another strategy: reuse jokes thought up by others! 🙂
There are two benefits you will get out of this: you will always have some joke at your disposal, but you will also get better implicitly by imitating others.
That’s how Steve Allen started. He learned about jokes by first copying jokes out of jokebooks. You can do the same thing to start off. Find some jokes and write them down in a notebook. You can use them in the real world later.
“Ours is a government of checks and balances. The Mafia and crooked businessmen make out checks, and the politicians and other compromised officials improve their bank balances.”
Another thing you can do is watch your favorite comic, and then transcribe their act word for word. Then watch the video again and mark the words where they get laugh. With this technique you can also observe the structure of their jokes, as well as how they deliver them. Set aside some time to imitate them in front of a mirror.
Many famous jokesters and wits did not come up with their own jokes most of the time, but had committed a lot of different jokes to memory and used them when the opportunity arose. For example, both Oscar Wilde and Winston Churchill did this.
If you want to get better, you need to practice. As with anything this is the key to your success. All the famous comedians had to go through stages when they sucked. However they worked at it and became better over time.
Benjamin Errett (author of “Elements of Wit”) studied many of the famous wits of history and had this to say about one of the greatest of them:
“George Bernard Shaw was originally a terrible speaker and about as sharp as a beach pebble, yet over time he worked on it and developed into one of the great wits of his day. Half the battle is accepting that you can learn it.“
Let’s do some practice now:
1) Go back to your initial list of jokes, read them again and list their inferred idea.
2) Enlarge your initial list of jokes with a further 20 jokes and start a routine of periodically enlarging your list with new jokes.
3) Find a video of your favorite comic and watch it. Then examine how they structure their jokes and what types of elements they use. The second week try to transcribe their act word for word. The third week try to rewrite the act in your own words.
4) Start a habit of periodically sitting down to do some exercises. Pick words and list associated words. Once you have the list, try to find the words that could best be used in jokes.
5) Pick two random words and try to link them together. You can use the lists that you created for exercise 4 to help you.
If you haven’t read it already already, go back to read Part 2 of this series on humor. Or go to read Part 4.
image 1; image 2; image 3
2 thoughts on “Your Simple Guide To Being Funny 3: How To Write A Joke”
Just today I discovered “Your Simple Guide to Being Funny”. Where have you been all my life (or at least the last eight years that I’ve been trying to do standup comedy)? Your advice is clear, comprehensive, savvy, articulate, obviously experience based, understandable and, most importantly actionable.
I would like to humbly point out what seems to be a typo. You say in part 3, “Edgar E. Willis (author of “How to be funny on purpose”) states that every joke has what is called an expressed idea and an inferred idea. The EXPRESSED idea is what the joke teller says in an explicit form, while the EXPRESSED idea is the idea that the listeners should get out of what he is saying. ” Shouldn’t the last part be “while the INFERRED idea is the idea that the listeners should get out of what he is saying.”?
Thanks for your kind words! 🙂 and also for for pointing out the type – it’s fixed now!
Actually I plan to continue this series at some point. I started writing a post on how to use these things in everyday conversation, but have abandoned it for the moment (I often start a post and then don’t finish it up, as usually these posts take a long time to write up and I usually either lack the time or my interests move to a different subject).