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The Anatomy of a Joke
By comedienne and comedy writer Jan McInnis

Want to add a few jokes to your next written piece?  No problem.  As a professional stand-up comedienne and writer who stays afloat by selling volumes of jokes each month (Clinton’s antics paid my ’98 mortgage and Bush isn’t doing too badly either), I’ll pass on some joke writing tips that’ll send you in the right direction.  Since there are no formal “rules” to joke writing, I’ve made up my own...

Jokes involve a set-up with the subject and facts, and a punch line that highlights the irony, twists the joke in another direction, or gives an outrageous result.

RULE 1:  Use familiarity, word associations and common assumptions.  We know Strom Thurmond is old (okay, dead, but I like these examples, so play along), Anna Nicole Smith is fat, Richard Simmons may be gay, etc.  So take your subject and list phrases, synonyms, stereotypes, sayings, people, places and things connected with it.  If you do this when writing an age joke for example, and you want to describe how old someone is, then just list words you associate with old... and you may get – “I won’t say he’s old, but he baby-sat Strom Thurmond.”  Or when trying to describe how fat someone is, list out fat people or things and you might get “I won’t say she’s fat, but she gives her hand-me-downs to Anna Nicole Smith.”  A gay joke might be something like “I won’t say he’s gay, but Richard Simmons called him a fag.”  You get the picture.  Using an analogy is funnier than just saying someone is fat or old.  Also use familiar set-ups like “he’s so cheap...,” “this town is so expensive...“and brainstorm what things are cheap, expensive, etc. to get some comparisons.

RULE 2:  Exaggerate things to the extreme.  Saying Anna Nicole Smith is 400 pounds is funny, but it may be too close to the truth.  Saying she weighs 1200 pounds is funnier because the picture of a 1200-pound woman is, just, well, funny.  (Besides, noooobody weighs 1200 pounds, so you’re pretty safe... even 400 pound people will laugh at that one.)

RULE 3:  Be brief.  Bill Cosby can go on for hours with a single joke.  The rest of us should only include facts in the set-up that NEED to be there for the punch to work.  Delete unneeded adjectives and prepositional phrases, so that all words pertain to the punch line.  I try to keep my jokes to 3 typed lines (not 3 sentences, but 3 lines).  When you make a crack about Winona Ryder shoplifting for example, do you need to say “at Saks?”  We all know that’s where she got caught, so you don’t need to repeat it.  Really, less is better... unless you’re Bill Cosby.   

RULE 4:  Show the irony.  That’s what you’re really trying to do is pull out the irony in a situation.  Look at it as a good news/bad news...  find the irony by listing out all the good and bad in a situation, either real or made-up, and then match them up to see the inconsistencies.  “The good news is we’re giving out free tickets to the buffet.  The bad news is, you’ll be in line behind Anna Nicole Smith.”

RULE 5:  Twist the joke.  Give out a real fact in the set up, and make up a crazy (exaggerated) fact in the punch line.  A lot of times punch lines are grouped in threes with the crazy fact at the end.  Three things just seems to have a good cadence.

RULE 6:  Speaking of punch lines, make sure the last word, or pretty darn close to the last word, is the zinger punch line.  No prepositional phrases or other words after that word.  Really, I’m not kidding.  See these examples of jokes I sold:

"A new study has found that the anti-anxiety drug fluvoxamine is effective in relieving anxiety in school-age children.  Of course, it's not quite as effective as getting their braces off."  The words "their teeth" don't need to be included because we already get it and it would just slow down the joke.

"The first bloodless surgery was performed this week in which a kid who is a Jehovah's Witness got a new liver without a blood transfusion.  The parents were so happy, they almost celebrated!"  The word "celebrated" is the punch... no need to say "celebrated his survival" because we already get it and it would just slow down the joke.

RULE 7:  The “Cuh” sound.  A general comedy rumor is that words with the “c” or “k” sound are funny.  Who knows if this is true, but ya gotta admit, the names Chuck and Cletus are funnier than Steve and Stuart.  (especially if Chuck and Cletus are dating Anna Nicole Smith... no?)

There are many more joke tips, but these will get you started so that people will read your material and you’ll achieve fame, fortune, and timely car payments!

Jan McInnis is one of the few entertainers in Los Angeles who doesn’t waitress!!  She actually supports herself with her stand-up comedy and freelance joke writing.  She currently sells over a hundred topical jokes a month to radio, and has freelanced for a number of other venues including TV, awards shows, greeting cards, and has written for comics and professional speakers.  Her stand-up act, which focuses on the 15 years she spent in the corporate world, can be seen at comedy clubs and corporate events throughout the country.  And Jan can also be heard weekly on radio stations as “The Work Lady” in which she dispenses hilarious “How To” career advice. Visit her site at www.TheWorkLady.com.

 

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