Set Up, Punchline, Set Up, Punchline: How I Write a Joke

Nothing is a joke with me. It just all comes out like one. ― Lorrie Moore, Like Life

I wish there was a simple way to write a joke. There isn’t. Actually, jokes are easy to write. Getting people to laugh at your jokes is the hard part. And that is the key to writing a good joke.

For stand-up comedians who are starting out, there are usually two types of jokes: long form and short form. Sometimes you have a version of both for a joke and you use one or the other depending on how much time you have on stage.

Long form is when you tell a story. There may or may not be a final punchline, but there are usually funny anecdotes or non-sequiturs sprinkled throughout the story that make people laugh. Maybe you tell a story about how a first date went: how you met through a Craigslist ad, you emailed back and forth for several days, you debated if they were a serial killer, you stalked them on Facebook, you ended up at Applebee’s for dinner after the background check cleared, and so on.

Short form jokes are your typical knock-knock type jokes. You don’t always ask a question and then answer it, but the joke is short and wrapped up in a few sentences.

I’m a good storyteller so you’d think I’d be really good at long form jokes but I’m usually not. I prefer to write short form jokes and then lump a group of them together to tell a story. Here’s an example:

I start my act usually by making fun of my name: Shannon. It’s a unisex name and I’ve frequently been mistaken as being a woman based on my name alone. It’s happened my whole life. So I like to start by pointing that out and I have 3 small separate jokes about it that I tell back to back right from the beginning. Each one is just a few sentences. Each is completely different and can stand on its own. None of them rely on the other to get the point across. But they all have a common theme and when told together they tell a story.

What’s more important is determining what’s funny. There’s lots of information right at your fingertips if you just surf the web or watch the news. Yep, you just have to observe. Think of something that is funny to you and then exploit it. Talk about the first time you did something, like the first date I mentioned earlier. Or make fun of yourself, the way I do with my name.

My joke writing usually starts with a word or a sentence in my journal. Yep, I keep a joke journal. Most comics do. If you don’t have one, get one and devote it to nothing but jokes and joke ideas and take it with you everywhere you go. I’m often at work or at an open mic and don’t have time to flush an idea out so I just write some quick notes to capture the overall concept. I review the notes and add or take away from them later when I’m ready to work on the joke.

With writing anything, I always like to step away from it for a while, a few days or a week even, and come back to it with a fresh set of eyes. I once sat on an entire manuscript of a novel for a year before picking it back up and doing something with it. So don’t feel like the joke has to be perfect in the beginning. Give it some time to develop on its own.

When I think I have the premise down, I write the joke from start to finish exactly the way I intend to tell it on stage. Then, I read it out loud. I immediately get rid of any words I stumble on, or any sentences that are unimportant. You don’t always tell a joke on stage the same way you’d tell a story out loud to friends at a party. You know the people at the party and you already have their attention. They trust you. They are already listening, so you can go on and on and on. If you forget details, you just back track or throw them in. Your entire story is entertaining them so they don’t mind how you are telling it.

It’s different with comedy. You have to earn the audience’s attention. You have to make them want to listen. And the best way to do that is to get them to laugh as quickly as possible, which means leaving out unneeded details and getting to a punchline as soon as you can.

Here’s an example. This first paragraph is a long form first draft:

I was walking my dog the other day. It was a Tuesday. He’s a Collie. He has a purple leash and wakes me up every morning by getting the leash and bringing it to bed and putting it in my hand. He’s quite big and always tugs on the leash so it’s more like he’s walking me. Everywhere we go kids yell out, “Look, Mom, it’s Lassie!” I just smile and wave at them. My dog’s name is Ralph. It’s kind of like if you got mistaken for a celebrity everywhere you go, maybe not a very good celebrity either, like Honey Boo Boo or someone like that. We think Lassie is a good celebrity but maybe dogs hated Lassie. I always imagine Ralph yelling back, “Hey! Fuck you, kid!” Ralph probably hates when people do that but he just smiles and we walk on like we didn’t hear them. If I fell down a well, Ralph would probably just pick up my cell phone and call 911 and then play Candy Crush until help arrived.

There’s a lot of unneeded details in there that slow the joke down, but would be fine if you were just telling this like a story instead of a joke. I immediately get rid of those details, right down to just a single word if I feel like it’s not needed. Here’s what my edit looks like:

Now here it is, edited:

I was walking my dog the other day. His name is Ralph. He’s a Collie. Everywhere we go kids yell out, “Look, it’s Lassie!” It’s like if you got mistaken for a celebrity, maybe not a very good celebrity either, like Honey Boo Boo. We think Lassie is a good celebrity but maybe dogs hate Lassie. I always imagine Ralph yelling back, “Hey! Fuck you, kid!” If I fell down a well, Ralph would probably just pick up my cell phone and call 911 and then play Candy Crush until help arrived.

So that’s writing a joke. Everyone has a different way, but this is how I do it. Like I said, it’s easy to write a joke. The tough part is getting people to laugh at it. As you go to open mics to test your jokes out, you’ll make even more changes and rewrites to them. There’s timing, pacing, delivery, and lots of other things to consider when telling a joke at a mic, but you have to write it first!

Writer, Poet, Artist, Gardener, Southerner, Reader, Blogger, Creative. Not always in that order.

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