Comedy: Can Online Gurus Teach Anyone How To Write It?
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I get paid to write jokes.
(waits for applause)
For the past 20 years or so, I’ve been a contributor to funny websites that likely made you laugh at some point. But do I know how to write a joke? I’m not so sure. I mean, I must. I got paid! But could I describe the process to a beginner in any meaningful way?
Thank the comedy gods, then, for the Internet. While *I* can’t explain how to craft a joke from nothing, there are several online gurus who claim they can. All of them offer simple formulas that promise to put us on the highway to comedy heaven. Some of those formulas are even free!
Google how to write a joke and you’ll find hundreds of joke yogis offering spiritual comedy wisdom. For this article, we selected three:
-- Onion alum Scott Dikkers’ How to Write Funny
– Former Tonight Show writer Jerry Corley’s Stand Up Comedy Clinic
All of these how-to-joke methods suggest choosing a topic. Randomly, I chose “getting meals by mail” as my family just started one of those subscription services. Seems weird and good fodder for comedy maybe? We’ll start there.
So get ready to download some PDF worksheets -- we're going to learn to write jokes!
MasterClass with Judd Apatow
Wow, Judd Apatow! It’s hard to imagine a better comedy writing teacher than Judd. Just check out the resume -- The Larry Sanders Show, Freaks and Geeks, 40-Year-Old Virgin. I think we’ve found our guy.
But of course, there’s a cost. A few years ago, you could purchase a single MasterClass like Judd’s, but that’s no longer the case. The good news is an annual MasterClass subscription includes every dang body on their roster, so we also get Steve Martin Teaches Comedy along with the hilarious Serena Williams Teaches Tennis.
The bad news is that MasterClass costs $180 for that annual subscription. And annual is the only option.
Lucky for us, Judd and the MasterClass folks have given us some nuggets for free, including How to Write a Joke in 7 Easy Steps. Who needs a subscription? That sounds like exactly what we were looking for. Let’s follow the easy steps and see where they lead.
1. Find a comedy teacher.
Whoa whoa whoa. I thought Judd was our comedy teacher? Reading further. OK, what MasterClass is really suggesting here is that we watch videos of stand-up comedians (like Judd, I guess) to figure out what makes them work. “Learn by observing, then develop your own angle.”
Hmm. If this is an “easy step,” we could be here a while.
2. Gather your material.
“To kickstart your joke-writing process, come up with a topic and write down as many jokes about it as you can think of.”
Let’s get this straight. Step #2 for “How to Write A Joke” is “write down lots of jokes”? If we knew how to write down jokes, then we wouldn’t need easy steps in the first place! This is like saying, “If you want to learn to juggle, start by juggling as many balls as you possibly can.”
3. Structure your joke.
“Begin to build a story around a punchline.” That certainly sounds like solid advice. Except … how do you write a punchline? MasterClass suggests thinking of a funny story, maybe one that’s happened to you, complete with a beginning, middle, and end. Which leads to the punchline.
Which … we still don’t know how to write.
4. Keep it concise.
5. Jab lines.
While the punchline should get the biggest laugh, says MasterClass, funny stories have “jab lines” -- funny moments that build comedic tension. Totally makes sense. Except how do you write a jab line? Could you give us an example?
6. The punchline.
“The punchline must be short, have an element of surprise, and get the biggest laughs.” That “element of surprise” seems to be important. But how do we do it? Yelling “Cracked.com smells like wet cat hair!” seems out of the blue, but it doesn’t qualify as a joke. Not a good one, anyway.
7. Test your joke out.
“Start by saying your joke out loud as you write it, even if no one is around. When you feel it’s in good shape … tell the joke to other people, either in a group or individually.”
That makes sense. As soon as we have a joke, we’ll do just that. Maybe we’ll have better luck with …
Scott Dikkers’ How to Write Funny
Dikkers offers a virtual comedy college on his website, with courses ranging from Comedy Genius Workshop to Comedy Business School to How to Write Funny. That last one sounds like what we’re looking for -- the 20-part video course is available for $297.
Worth it? Dikkers does offer some free tools to try out his techniques, including a Joke Writing Cheat Sheet in exchange for our e-mail address. OK, fair deal! We downloaded the worksheet and at the very least, it seems more practical than MasterClass’s 7 Easy Steps.
The Cheat Sheet is pretty straightforward: 1) Pick a topic; 2) State an opinion about the topic; and 3) Run that opinion through Dikkers’ Funny Filters.
The filters themselves are listed on the worksheet, but what those filters mean and how they work are not. To find out, you can buy Dikkers’ How To Write Funny book or learn for free on the How to Write A Joke episode of his How To Write Funny podcast. Got 45 minutes?
Now let’s do our best to apply some of those filters to our still formless joke. Remember, our subject is “meals by mail.”
Dikkers asks us to state a strong opinion on the subject, expressed in a simple sentence. OK, how’s this: I don’t believe I can get a week’s worth of great meals inside my one lousy mailbox.
Now it’s time to run that opinion through the Funny Filters:
-- Character (someone linked to that opinion)
-- Reference (a relatable experience about the opinion)
-- Shock (add swears, sex, or violence!)
-- Hyperbole (exaggerate the opinion to an impossible degree)
-- Parody (the opinion in the voice of some entertainment format)
-- Wordplay (puns or double-entendres that state the opinion)
-- Analogy (self-explanatory)
-- Madcap (funny physical action or goofy sound that expresses the opinion)
-- Misplaced Focus (focus on something silly or unrelated)
-- Metahumor (find the humor in the opinion, then deconstruct it).
Whew. Some of these are more easily done (and explained) than others. But let’s give it a shot. Here are a few jokes -- or at least, starting places for jokes -- based on the cheat sheet.
Irony. Well, let’s see. The cook-it-yourself meals don’t cost much less than getting takeout, which seems ironic. How about something like
“Now there are meals for people who love Chipotle but wish they could chop all the vegetables themselves.”
“I always get junk in the mail, but I’m not used to paying ten bucks a box for it.”
Character. “My mom was a swell cook so she didn’t need the mailman for great meals. She used him for something else entirely.”
Shock. “Finally! I can get dead animal parts in my mailbox without the funny looks from my neighbors.”
Wordplay. “These lousy meals-by-mail give new meaning to ‘going postal.’”
Maybe not a lot of winners here. But we’re writing jokes, folks!
Jerry Corley’s Stand Up Comedy Clinic
Jerry Corley offers comedy writing workshops in person! I mean, who does anything in person anymore? But like MasterClass and Dikkers, he also has online offerings – on a variety of amusingly specific topics. You can sign up for:
-- How to Write Like Jim Gaffigan
-- How to Write Great Set-Ups
-- Political Comedy: How to Write from the Right or the Left
The guy’s YouTube channel is packed with this kind of comedy dynamite. The mini-courses are $49 a pop but ComedyNerd once again opted for the free route, trading an e-mail address for Corley’s free “Joke Writing 1-2-3: Premise to Punch Fast Cheatsheet.”
The 1-2-3 part relates to finding a premise. To find a joke topic, Corley suggests asking yourself:
- What’s new?
- What has changed?
- What have I acquired?
Write a long list, he suggests, and you’ve got a bunch of potential topics for jokes. I did that exercise at the beginning of this article-- breaking down empty meal boxes from my new online service suggested our joke topic. So let's write some more jokes.
Corley suggests asking the basic questions of journalism:
How would those questions relate to our joke topic? Following Corley’s example, it would look like this:
Who is getting meals by mail? Me and my family
What is it? A box of meal ingredients that arrive by mail
Where do I get it? I get the meals from my mail carrier or another random delivery service. I make the meals in my kitchen.
Why do I get meals by mail? To avoid shopping and meal planning. To avoid eating takeout all the time. To eat healthier.
When? Meals arrive once a week.
How? A simple set of instructions tells me how to assemble the meal.
Now Corley wants us to look through the list for things that make people laugh. He suggests that two prime ways to make people laugh are surprise and embarrassment. So let’s look at the list for possible set-up lines that could revolve around surprise or embarrassment.
No super-obvious answers here. Maybe I’m embarrassed that I might be the one guy who could ruin the idiot-proof instructions?
A set-up line based on that might look something like:
I subscribed to a meal-by-mail plan that is supposed to make healthy cooking simple.
Now Corley suggests making a list of phrases that can be combined with the premise. I’ll try to combine cooking with “things that come in the mail.” Which could lead to a joke like:
These meals-by-mail are supposed to make cooking simple. I tried it last night. The meatloaf was amazing but the glazed carrots tasted like the J. Crew catalog.
And trying again:
My meal-by-mail didn’t turn out like the one in the picture. I tried to mail it back but the stamp wouldn’t stick to the chicken piccata.
Fine. I probably wouldn’t get paid for those. But Corley’s method of combining the two elements did yield a couple of starter jokes.
And that’s likely the best we can expect. As any of these gurus would tell you, joke writing is a volume game -- techniques like these can help you generate lots of ideas and they won’t all be winners. But like any skill, the more swings you take, the better your chances of hitting one out of the park.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some Mediterranean shrimp warming up in my mailbox.
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Top image: Gabrielle Henderson