How To Write A Joke In 5 Steps
Welcome to Cracked's Comedy 101, where we offer comedy coursework without adding all that much to your student loan debt. Today, we'll be covering how to write a joke in five steps.
So, you want to know how to write a joke, huh? I guess the first question that you need to answer is, what is the joke for? Is this for a stand-up act? Are you wanting a tweet to go viral? Is it for a screenplay you're writing, a song parody, a cheesy pick-up line, a meme, a dirty limerick, WHAT?!? Every joke medium has its own set of written and unwritten rules, and any time that structure gets stale they just pitch the rules out the window anyway. Just throw yourself into the deep end, do what you think would be funny, and see if anyone laughs.
So yeah... The end, I guess? Now, I just gotta invoice my editor and get paid for this shi-AUTHOR'S NOTE: The editors didn't fall for it, so I guess I gotta be more specific.
Essentially, every joke breaks down into two parts: A setup and a punchline. The setup builds tension by leading the audience in one direction, and the punchline releases the tension by taking an unexpected sharp turn. It’s the same element of surprise used in all forms of storytelling… Like a jump scare in a horror movie, or during a magic show when they try to convince you that there’s nothing up their sleeve, and then with a flick of their wrist they summon a demon that drags you straight to hell. What? I said it was a magic show, I didn’t say whether or not it was dark magic.
That is really the only ironclad rule in comedy: Everything is there in service of releasing tension. Think of every sarcastic quip or sick burn you’ve ever heard. That’s just a response to a stressful situation or a person who’s taking themselves way too seriously. It’s a punchline to a joke the other person didn’t know they were setting up.
It’s the same thing in action movies when the hero says a funny line after they kill the bad guy. The dead guy sure as hell ain’t laughing.
That line is there because the audience needs that release. That wouldn’t work in the real world. In a movie, that line gets people to cheer. On a surveillance video, that line would be a slam-dunk murder conviction.
So, at the bare minimum, the amount of tension released by the punchline should be equal to the amount built by the setup. For a really good joke, the release is greater. If there’s a joke you can laugh at no matter how many times you hear it, it’s essentially breaking the laws of thermodynamics.
The Word Tree Method
Every joke starts out as a vague, general idea. You don’t know what you’re gonna do with that idea yet, but you just know there’s something funny there. You either have a setup in search of a punchline, a punchline but no idea how to get to the setup, or you may have only the subject you want to talk about. So, what’s the best way to get to the joke? I find it helpful to literally map it out.
Whatever your initial idea is, write it down in small print in the middle of a sheet of paper and circle it. Surrounding that circle, you jot down all of the things you associate with that subject. Just the first things that pop into your head: What you like, what you don’t, synonyms, or anything that is most commonly associated with it. Circle each of those subjects, draw a line to connect it to the original circle. Then you repeat the process with each circle, Just like the word trees you may have done back in grade school. If you repeat the process long enough, you may just find two paths that cross one another.
Say I wanted to write a joke about religion. I’d write down everything I associate with it: God, beliefs, scripture, church, temple, etc. Branching out further and further, I find that one path goes Religion > Church > Sermons > Stories > Movies > Star Wars. But then, another branch might go Religion > Followers > Extremists > Fanatics > Toxic Fandoms > Star Wars. There it is… Same central theme, two different paths, same destination.
From there, I would brainstorm ways to make those two paths work in tandem. How I feel about religion, how I feel about Star Wars, compare and contrast, don’t overthink it, and here’s what I ended up with:
“I love going to church, even though I hate dealing with church people. For me, it’s kinda like Star Wars: I love the stories, I just can’t stand the fan club.”
Not my best joke ever, but I’m pretty proud of it.
The conventional wisdom of joke writing is that the shorter the joke, the better. I know that advice may seem a little hollow coming from a guy like me who won’t get paid for this article unless it hits 2,000 words, but just hear me out. Yes, your joke should be short, but it doesn’t hurt to take the scenic route once in a while.
I feel the ultimate goal for a joke is not exactly to just get the joke down to the fewest number of words possible, but rather to boil it down to only the details you need in the setup to be able to make the punchline land. You could always elaborate on those details if you feel like you need to better set the scene and build the tension. The joke could still work if you keep it down to only the essentials, but if you paint a more colorful scene in the setup it just might make the punchline hit harder, you never know.
If you overdo it on the setup, there are two schools of thought. You could go the preferred route and trim down your word count until the joke works better. Oooor It might be possible to lean the hell into it and make the joke so long and anticlimactic that it almost becomes a prank. This is otherwise known as the Norm McDonald Method.
Strip that joke down to only what the punchline required: There was once a great man. Smart, educated, highly respected, could’ve done anything with his life, but instead he took a job at SeaWorld feeding baby dolphins. When asked why he wasted so much potential just to feed baby dolphins, he said, “Well, I feel I’m serving a youthful porpoise.”
That joke would’ve taken 16, 20 seconds, tops. And the punchline is such a lame pun, it would’ve gotten the same groans. But Norm McDonald stretched it out to three minutes and made it so insanely elaborate that the journey was way more fun than the destination. That method definitely won’t work for every joke, but when it does? Oh, man…
It’s not just what the joke is, it’s how you tell it. There’s a rhythm to a good joke, like song lyrics. You bring your voice up on this word, down on this one, pause at just the right time, etc. Comedy is all about timing, right? If you choose your words just right, you’ll be leading the audience like a conductor.
Don’t be afraid to break out a thesaurus once in a while. There may be another word that means the same thing, but is just way more rhythmic or just more fun for you to say and for your audience to hear. You still want to have it sound natural, though. Don’t always go straight for the really obscure synonyms that hardly anyone uses anymore. Have we learned nothing from Dennis Miller?
Some word choices are just funnier than others. Underpants is always more fun to say than underwear. Poop is just an objectively funnier word than shit. The key difference? Hard consonants. Those sharp little B, D, G, K, P, and T sounds that just give the word a little extra pop than its other counterparts. You don’t have to go full-on tongue twister but just pepper them in where you feel it may be needed.
Also, use your F-bombs sparingly and strategically. There’s a lot of power behind that word, starting off soft with the FU- that only gives the audience a split second to brace for the hard impact of the -CK. And if you use that word too often in a comedy bit, your audience can become numb to its effects. But if you save one good F-bomb up for just the right moment? (chef’s kiss) Beautiful.
Review: Is Your Joke Edgy, Or Are You Just Being a Dick?
George Carlin once said, “I believe you can joke about anything. It all depends on how you construct the joke. What the exaggeration is… Because every joke needs one exaggeration; every joke needs one thing to be way out of proportion.”
That is really solid advice on writing comedy. But it is important to remember that Carlin said that 32 years ago, and obviously times and attitudes have changed a lot since then. For example, what if I told you that Carlin said this in the middle of a bit called “Rape Can Be Funny," or that 28 minutes later he also does a bit that included 36 racial slurs in a row? Because if he had released that special today, it’s that other stuff that would be trending on Twitter, not that quote. So why is George Carlin not being posthumously canceled over this? Two reasons:
1) He took great care to put everything in context. That was the entire thesis of that album: putting jokes in their proper context. That long string of racial slurs? He immediately followed that with, “There is absolutely nothing wrong with any of those words in and of themselves. They're only words! It's the context that counts. It's the user. It's the intention behind the words that makes them good or bad. The words are completely neutral. The words are innocent. I get tired of people talking about bad words and bad language. Bullshit! It's the context that makes them good or bad!”
2) He was George F–-king Carlin. At that point in his life, he had spent over three decades building his career so that he could pack a theater full of people, and get thousands of HBO viewers to tune in at home, to specifically hear him say those things. He had the fame, stage presence, fan base, and charisma needed to pull it off. People trusted him with that message.
That’s something you need to keep in mind when writing an edgy joke: Can you pull it off? Do you have the charisma to get away with that joke? It’s not about people being too sensitive these days. They’re not. If anything, people are just too cynical.
Every day, people are bombarded with (mis)information that tells them just how badly they’re getting screwed over. So now, the default position for so many people is that no one can be trusted, everyone has an agenda, and nothing can be taken at face value anymore. Today, it’s harder to write a joke that satirizes a specific worldview without making it sound like something an extremist might actually believe. It’s not the death of comedy, it’s just a higher bar for entry.
Dark and edgy material can still exist. Anthony Jeselnik has some of the darkest material in stand-up today. Pitch black-no, wait.. Vantablack® level dark material. But he manages to get huge laughs because that’s just what everyone has come to expect from him. He’s earned the audience’s trust and he possesses the necessary charm to pull it off. Take that same level of material and place it in the mouth of some first-time open mic participant no one has ever heard of who has all the personality of a broccoli fart? Those jokes are gonna sound horrifying.
If you have a joke you think might be too far over the line, take another pass at it. Odds are you could find another way to word that joke that could make the exact same point without making you come off like a colossal prick. Or, if you decide to just go for it and just deliberately piss people off, all I gotta say is - good luck with that.
Dan Fritschie is a writer, comedian, and frequent over-thinker. He can be found on Twitter (https://twitter.com/FritschieComic), and he thanks you for your time.