This lesson is part of a free 6-week, humor writing mini-course. Here we discuss some basic principles of writing jokes for standup comedy and how these might apply to your writing.
Here is a very condensed summary of how standup comics write jokes: There are three parts of a joke: The premise, the setup, and the punch. Sometimes there is also a tag, which is an additional punch line without a new setup.
Premise: introduces a topic, your feeling about the topic, and your reason for that feeling (in any order).
- “I hate parking for this class because there’s always a line.”
- “You know why I hate parking for this class? There’s always a huge line.”
- “I love coming to class. I just wish the parking line was shorter.”
Setup: Leads from the premise to the punch line, and provides the information needed to understand the punch line.
- “All the way here, I was so happy I avoided traffic, then…”
- “There was actually a cop directing traffic. I said, ‘what happened, is there some type of big event going on?”
Punch: The funny part. This is where the audience should laugh.
“Then I get here and the entrance to the parking lot is like a… parking lot,”
“The cop says, ‘yeah. English 101.’”
Tag: A line that allows you to get another laugh after the punchline without setting up a whole new joke.
“If I’m going to wait in a line this long, there better be a roller coaster at the end of it.
*Note: These jokes are not particularly funny, but that’s okay. They’re just meant to illustrated the parts of a joke. But also, even the best comics write tons of jokes before they get a good one.
Here are some joke-writing tips from standup comedy that might also apply to your writing.
Use words with hard sounds. Letters like K, T, and P are funnier than letters like S, L, and M. All other things being equal, saying, “I got sick from the chicken,” is funnier than saying, “I was ill from the fish.” I don’t know why this is, but it works.
Say it happened to you. Pretend the story happened to you or someone close to you, even if it didn’t. Kevin Hart saying he got chased by an ostrich is funnier than Kevin Hart saying his friend’s cousin’s ex-girlfriend got chased by an ostrich.
Say it happened recently. If you are telling a story that could have happened this morning, say it happened this morning.
End with the word or image that will make people laugh. If you keep talking, the audience will stop laughing to hear you – also called “stepping on” your laughs.
Keep the setup as short as possible. Get to the laugh as fast as possible. Eliminate extra words in your setup.
Exaggerate – but not too much. Gabriel Iglesias saying he ate 11 cakes is funnier than if he said one cake… but also funnier than if he said he ate 300 cakes.
Tell jokes that fit your character. When you are onstage, you are a character similar to yourself. If your joke makes you sound like an insensitive jerk, your character on stage must be an insensitive jerk. If your joke makes you sound like you take things too seriously, your character should get mad easily.
Pick an inside joke or a “you had to be there” moment and describe it for your readers in enough detail that they get it. Use the tips above to bring readers inside your “inside joke.”
Want to know more about how to write jokes for standup comedy – or even just how to be funnier when you speak? Check out these resources:
- Zen and the Art of Standup Comedy, Jay Sankey – A book that talks about all the delicate balances a speaker has to strike when trying to make an audience laugh. I’ve also found this one helpful as a teacher.
- Step-by-Step to Standup, Greg Dean – A book that breaks down joke structure to help with joke writing.
- Good One Podcast: This is Vulture’s new comedy podcast, and I’m in love with it. The host, Jesse David Fox, spends an hour dissecting ONE JOKE with the comic who wrote it. This is serious humor nerd territory, so enter at your own risk.
If you’re a teacher who would like to teach humor writing to your students, you can find my classroom-friendly humor writing unit on TeachersPayTeachers here.