How to Write a Joke

How to Write a Joke

By Kelly Swanson
Guest Writer
Comedian and Motivational Speaker

First understand that when it comes to how to write a joke, there isn’t one school of thought, one class, or one resource guaranteed to make you funny. There are no hard and fast truths to writing jokes. You have to do your own research, check out different authors on the subject to find the one whose language speaks to you, study other comedians, and develop your own style. You may have already decided it’s not worth the effort. Nobody said it would be easy. But funny sells. So, to me, it’s worth the time and energy invested.

There are many comedians out there who believe that you can’t learn to write a joke and be funny. I see where they are coming from, but I disagree. Some of you out there will never have the talent necessary to be a standup comedian, which obviously hasn’t stopped a lot of you from trying, bless your hearts. No amount of training will turn you into a Steve Martin if you don’t have the talent.

But here’s the good news: you can learn to be funnier. And sometimes that’s enough. It’s like singing. I can take all the lessons that I want and I will never sing like Celine Dion no matter how many showers I take. But with some lessons I might sound better -maybe even good enough to sing backup or to sing in a choir. And, who knows, maybe there is a star inside of me after all. It’s the same with humor. I used to be funny naturally. Then I started studying how to recreate what I did naturally. And I taught myself to be even funnier. I’m still learning. But here is what I can share so far.

What Is Humor?

This is such a hard question and I don’t have all the answers, but I will give you one of the answers that seems to apply to much of humor. It’s the ability to make your audience think you’re going to say or do one thing, and then saying or doing another. Setting them up to assume something and then shattering that assumption.

The ways to accomplish this are as varied as the many assumptions we make as humans -assumptions that change depending on location, culture, age, life circumstances, etc.

For example, let’s say a man just said his wife ran off with his best friend. There are several things we assume: that he misses his wife, that he’s angry at this wife, that he’s angry at his best friend, etc. I heard a comedian once say, “My wife ran off with my best friend. Boy, will I miss him.” That’s funny.

When assume mailboxes don’t talk, so when the mailbox talked back on Candid Camera, we laughed. We assume that when a man is walking in a straight path with nothing obvious blocking him, that he will continue to walk that straight path. So when he falls, or hits the side of a bus, we laugh. Because we weren’t expecting it.

Don’t Look For Funny, Look For True

Humor starts with the things we find to be true about life. At this stage of the game we aren’t looking to get a laugh. We are looking for the things we find to be true of life that other people can relate to. That’s a broad topic.

So let me make it easier and tell you to look for those things in life that you think are weird, hard, scary or stupid. These are attitude words and I’m not the first or the last to use them. Just find a topic and ask yourself what you find to be weird, hard, scary, or stupid about that topic.

For example: What’s hard about marriage? If you’re married, I would imagine that several things come to mind. How about: What’s scary about drinking and driving? Or: What’s weird about television commercials?

Let me remind you that the goal is not to think funny, but to think truth. The funny will come later. Stick to your attitude words. I recommend that you get a spiral notebook to start collecting all these random thoughts because you will do a great bit of writing before you hit on something you’ll want to keep. When I sit down to write, I like to think of a topic and just let the creative process go. Sometimes I write about what it was like being an overweight teenager – what was weird, hard, scary or stupid about it. Sometimes I write about being the oldest kid, or being an older parent.

Two things to help you when you go through this process:

1) Think of things other people will relate to. They don’t have to have gone through that exact situation, but you want to find something they can sympathize with. You might not want to talk about what is hard about growing up owning a camel because chances are good nobody in your audience can relate to that. But they can relate to losing a pet, or wanting some kind of strange animal as a pet.

2) The more specific you get your topic, the better. Instead of talking about dating, why not talk about internet dating. Instead of using the topic of parenthood, why not talk about what it’s like to be a lazy parent. When you pick a general topic, keep in mind that hundreds of other comedians are falling on that same general topic. To be unique (which is key in comedy) you need to get more specific.

I have found that some of the best topics are those that make you annoyed, irritated, angry, etc. Chances are good that you’re not alone in that way of thinking. Again, pick the topics that most people will have experienced.

Basic Joke Construction

Let me begin by saying there is no standard joke. There are many different formulas floating around out there created by different people as they explain their own creative path to joke construction. Find the ones that work best for you.

Read the books. I recommend Judy Carter’s "The Comedy Bible" for starters. Then get Greg Dean’s book on "Standup Comedy". Those are two of my favorites, but you have a lot to choose from.

Study. Practice. And WRITE! That's how you learn how to write a joke.

Jokes are told and delivered in millions of different ways – almost as unique as the individual creating the joke. But if you peel it all away, you will find that every joke consists of two parts: the setup and the punch. You will hear it called different things by different people. But it still means the same thing.

The setup is the serious part of the joke. This is where you set your audience up. This is where you force them to make an assumption.

Many comedians will mistakenly try to make their setup funny.

Don’t. Make it true.

For example:

  • I lost fifty pounds.

    There is nothing funny about this statement.

    Here’s the punch:

  • Oh, not all at once. I lost ten, gained twenty... lost five, gained two….

    Okay, so it’s not the best joke in the world, but it’s an example of how a joke has two parts. And, by the way, the setup can be one line or a whole paragraph. Whatever it takes.

    The punch is the second part of the joke where you surprise your audience. Remember in the first article where I talked about shattering expectations? Well, here you go. The punch is where you say what they didn’t expect you to say. This is the funny part. And there is more than one way to surprise your audience.

    And that’s it. I know, sounds too easy to be true. Trust me, it is anything but easy. It takes work and a lot of writing. It takes writing twenty bad jokes to get to one good one. But if you continue to work through the process, you will get better at it. So let me leave so you can get to work.

    But before I go, here are some quick jokes that I’m constructing right here on the spot, simply by creating a setup and then adding a punch. Keep in mind that some won’t seem as funny on paper as they would be delivered on a stage.

  • (SETUP) My boyfriend and I have been together three years.

  • (PUNCH) Oh, he doesn’t know it yet.

  • (SETUP) I bought a cream that was guaranteed to get rid of unwanted bulges.

  • (PUNCH) I put it on my husband.

  • (SETUP) I finally got my son to sleep in his own bed.

  • (PUNCH) About time... the kid’s eighteen!

    Okay, I know I said I was leaving, but one more helpful hint before I go. Write a setup (any setup) and then stop (before you try to think of funny things) and think about what we assume to be true of this setup. When I said above that my boyfriend and I have been together for three years, you assume that he knows it.

    The more you start writing setups and punches, the more you will start to see ways that you can tweak your setup to create a better or different surprise. Find words that have double meanings. If you’re a pun man, then start playing with your puns. That's how you get comfortable with how to write a joke.

    Here’s an old old old joke. I can’t remember who wrote it, but it wasn’t me. And I’ve heard many people do it.

    The doctor told me I had two weeks to live. I said, “Doctor I want a second opinion.” He said, “Fine. You’re also ugly.”


    Kelly Swanson Comedian, Author, and Motivational Speaker
    Author of: "It’s all fun and games ‘til the hair gets messed up"

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