Most people think that humor is a free-flowing thing without any structure. That’s not true at all.

Most theories of humor state that the act of finding something funny is a result of things like surprise or incongruency. However these things don’t arise by themselves, but are highly dependent on delivery.

You can create these incongruities and surprise by putting in the right words, following a certain word order, and through the use of highly-paid actors (optional).

That and anything with O.J. “Orange Juice” Simpson in it, is funny. 🙂

The surprise or incongruency comes from the way the joke is structured. You can make or break a joke just by the specific form you put it in.

We’ve all heard someone bumble up a joke really badly. Fat Joe hears a great joke, jots it down into memory and then later tries to retell it in front of a crowd. Nobody laughs.

What makes it funny was lost on him. He did not get the essence of the joke right. The problem was that he did not put the joke in the correct structure and did not use the right form.

Let’s start off with a little exercise. Look at the jokes below and try to identify what makes them funny (well at least to some people 🙂 ):

Never argue with an idiot. He will drag you down to his level and beat you with experience.” George Carlin

War does not determine who is right – only who is left.” Bertrand Russell

I chased a girl for two years only to discover that her tastes were exactly like mine: We were both crazy about girls.” Groucho Marx

I had a flight attendant on the last flight who was so old, after she demonstrated the oxygen mask she left it on.” Bob Hope

A drunk was in front of a judge. The judge says “You’ve been brought here for drinking.” The drunk says, “Okay, let’s get started.”” Henry Youngman

Honesty may be the best policy, but it’s important to remember that apparently, by elimination, dishonesty is the second-best policy.” George Carlin

We live in an inherently sexist society, in the sense that a lot of women who get ahead do so through the sexualisation of everything.” Omid Djalili

People who lose sleep over the stock market are lucky. I lose money.” Melvin Helitzer

Got it? We will come back to looking at these jokes in a little bit. First let’s get familiar with the basic joke forms.

There are many comedians, countless jokes and even more people trying to be funny, but luckily most jokes can be broken down into a limited number of formulas. If you learn to recognize these formulas, you can construct your own jokes much more easily.

A mathematician about his late colleague:
“He made a lot of mistakes, but he made them in a good direction. I tried to copy this, but I found out that it is very difficult to make good mistakes.”

Learning to tell jokes is a lot like learning any other skill. You will make a lot of mistakes at first, but over time you will get better and better. Having some joke frameworks in your head will help you get started in the right direction.

The trouble with learning from experience is that you never graduate.” Doug Larson

As the great Cicero observed more than two millennia go, all the different joke formulas can be divided into two categories: those based on words and those based on things. So between verbal and content based humor.

How do you tell the two categories apart? You use the translation test! 🙂

If you can tell the joke in different words and it still remains funny, then it is content-based humor, a play on things. If the joke depends on the particular meaning of a word or phrase and if you use different words, it loses its humor, then it is verbal humor, a play on words.

Play On Words

Life is a waste of time. Time is a waste of life. Get wasted all the time and you’ll have the time of your life.” Billy Connolly

A lot of humor is based on playing around with the meanings of words. There are many words that have multiple meanings and they can be used to create surprise, either through misinterpretation or the twisting of familiar expressions and applying them in unexpected situations.

Jokes using a word to mean two different things are sometimes referred to as puns. Watch out though! These techniques are double-edged swords, because they can cause one audience to laugh so hard that they start rolling around on the floor clutching their stomachs, while some other people will start growling and beat you over the head with their shoes. Use at your own risk! 🙂

There are four basic play on words techniques:

1) Using a different meaning of the same word (double-entendre)

This is a classic form for jokes, where you use a word or phrase which could have a double meaning and instead of using the meaning that the audience thinks you are using, you use the other meaning.

The audience might be thinking you are talking about roosters (cocks), but then you switch it around to reveal that you were talking about the male reproductive organ all along!

This can be great especially in social interactions when you want to tease someone and misinterpet the implied meaning of the word they are using for a different, usually more naughty meaning. 🙂

With double-entendres you play around with the meanings of words. Many words usually have an obvious meaning and that is usually the one that the audience thinks you are using. The key to getting a laugh here is to then switch cleverly to the non-obvious meaning of the same word.

Look at the following Henny Youngman joke:

A bum said: “I haven’t eaten in 3 days”, I said: “force yourself”.

The set-up here is that the bum is saying that he can’t find food and is hungry. However the phrase “I haven’t eaten in 3 days” can also be misinterpreted to mean something else. For example it can mean that he is on a diet. Or as it can mean the meaning that Youngman is using, that he simply doesn’t want to eat.

My father never liked me. For Christmas, he gave me a bat. The first time I tried to play ball with it, it flew away.” Rodney Dangerfield

The heart patient refused the transplant saying he’d already had a change of heart.” George Carlin

One golfer tells another, “Hey, I got a set of golf clubs for my wife.” The other golfer responds, “Great trade!”

A politician is asked to run, wants to sit, and is expected to lie.

Patient on the phone: “Is the doctor in yet?” Nurse: “No, we are just up to foreplay.”

2) Using the literal meaning of the word (simple truth)

A lot of times when we talk, we use language in a figurative way. This is the type of language that uses words or phrases in a way that is different from their literal meaning.

This presents us with great comic opportunities. 🙂

When doing your set-up, you can use a word that has multiple meanings and most of the time the audience will think you are using it in its figurative sense. However with the punchline you surprise them by instead actually applying the literal meaning of the word.

My wife went window shopping yesterday and came home with seven windows.” Rodney Dangerfield

I was in the park wondering why the Frisbee gets bigger as it gets closer, and then it hit me.” Stewart Francis

You can also use the literal interpretations of not just words, but also entire phrases or situations. Watch the following clip from the movie “Airplane!”:

3) Substituting a similar sounding word (substitution)

You can also create humor by substituting a similar sounding word, instead of the usual word that should go there. This can be done in several ways:

  • Homophones: No, these are not gay phones in case you were wondering. The word “homo” means “same” and homophones are words that sound the same, but have different meanings (and usually different spellings too). For example: red (color) and read (as in past tense of read), flower and flour, flu and flew and many others…

Oh are you from Wales ?? Do you know a fella named Jonah ?? He used to live in whales for a while.” Groucho Marx

  • Malaprops: This technique substitutes a word for a different similar sounding word, which often end up making a non-sensical statement. Sometimes these substitutions are made inadvertenly in speech. For example, Yogi Berra the baseball player was a legend in saying malaprops. 🙂

He hits from both sides of the plate. He’s amphibious.” Yogi Berra

Republicans understand the importance of bondage between a mother and child.” Dan Quayle, former US Vice President

Former US President George W. Bush is also legendary for his malaprops, which have become known as Bushisms:

The law I sign today directs new funds… to the task of collecting vital intelligence… on weapons of mass production.” George W. Bush

And another great example from the movie “Airplane!”:

Surely and Shirley 🙂

4) Using cultural references (slogans, proverbs, quotes)

Slogans, proverbs, song lyrics, movie quotes, and other cultural references can be parodied or used in different contexts for humorous effects. There are many common sayings or slogans that you might have heard in commercials that can be really funny when used in unexpected ways.

Just do it!” from Nike:


You can use all kinds of cultural references in this way. However many of these are very culture or country specific and can only be used in places where these are common knowledge, otherwise no one will understand them.

Last night, I got so drunk that I African-Americaned out.” Zach Galifianakis
– act of blacking out, while being politically correct

There are also many proverbs that you can use, combine and twist around for humorous effects.

For example take the common proverb “money doesn’t buy happiness“.

Whoever said money can’t buy happiness didn’t know where to shop.

Or my take on teaching a man to fish:

This is the original proverb:

Give a man a fish, and you will feed him for a day. Teach the man to fish and you will feed him for a lifetime.

I decided to keep the first part of the proverb as the set-up:

Give a man a fish, and you will feed him for a day. Give the man a regular welfare check, he will buy the fish and spend the time playing on his X-Box.

To reform the joke, I took something that is often discussed (welfare), mixed it with some popular culture (X-Box), and created the punchline. The result is an old set-up and a new punchline.

Let’s do a bit of practice:

1) Go back to your collection of jokes and see which ones are based on play on words. Try to find some other plays on words from famous comics.

2) Start a list of words that could be interpreted in several ways. Whenever you come across an interesting word with word play potential, add it to the list.

If you haven’t read it already already, go back to read Part 3 of this series on humor. Or go to read Part 5.



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