How to Write a Joke
Like any short form of writing, creating jokes teaches how to use a few words effectively. In this article, I will give examples of jokes and I will (shudder) explain them too. I know, you shouldn’t explain your jokes, but this helps us talk about them.
Good jokes are often:
Incongruous – This is the central feature of humor. That is, something that is funny is also surprising. Yes, it also needs to be recognizable (see below) – unless you know what something is, you don’t know what to expect from it. Unless you’re familiar with something, you don’t know what’s unfamiliar. But a joke needs to present its subject in an unexpected way.
“Well, what shall I talk about? I ain’t got anything funny to say. All I know is what I read in the papers.” Will Rogers
Recognizable – That’s probably why comics and humorists get so much material from current events or popular culture. They know their audiences will recognize the jokes if it’s based on what everyone is currently talking about. That’s also why inside jokes work so well. When I was sixteen, I combined several of my history teacher’s favorite expressions into one sentence: “Well, ol’ Richelieu thought that was such a hoot that he lost his facilities like there wasn’t going to be a tomorrow.” That may not seem particularly funny to you, but it seemed funny to my fellow history students.
Short – A joke is funniest when it uses the fewest possible words, because humor requires limiting complexity. Robert I. M. Dunbar, an experimental psychologist at Oxford University, found that the funniest jokes have only two characters and less than five layers of meaning. On one hand, your joke is not funny if you have to explain it. On the other hand, if nobody understands the point, it’s not funny either. Humor depends on a careful, delicate balance between giving too many hints and giving too few. The preceding joke comes from a Reddit list of the world’s shortest jokes, and its irony is that if you use gratuitous French words such as “moi,” you will seem pretentious. I wanted to give you a chance to get the joke before I explained it.
“It doesn’t really matter how many sit-ups you did this morning if you get hit with a Volvo.” – Ronald Dee White, paraphrased
Specific – A joke about Volvos in particular is funnier than one about cars in general. Writers know that specifics are more interesting than generalities, but that apparently makes them more humorous too. Let’s face it, some words are funnier than others. Unfortunately for the Ford Motor Company, their car name “Edsel” was too humorous to become popular. Ronald Dee White’s joke has the added irony of being hit by “the world’s safest car.”
“Wait ’til the yoga class sees my killer ‘tree position’.”
Unexpected – That’s why a humorist must be like a magician, able to hide his tricks. Or like a mystery writer, who wants her readers say, “I should have seen that coming” exactly half the time and “I would never have seen that coming” the other half of the time. If readers expect the punchline, it may not turn out funny. That’s why a well-presented joke may not sound like a joke until the end. I think my humor, more than anything else, depends on bluntness. That is, when I make people laugh, it’s often by being dead serious. It surprises people that I’m saying exactly what’s happening. For example, we don’t expect a successful adult to admit they’re taking yoga classes to impress other successful adults, and the joke is funnier because of the incongruity between competitiveness and yoga’s goal of attaining control over one’s desires (I think). This is one of about twelve drafts of this joke. How would you rewrite it to make it funnier?
“When I came to this town,” said the millionaire businessman, “I had only a quarter in my pocket. But I used that quarter wisely. I called home for more money.”
Insightful – A good joke goes beyond incongruity to touch what it means to be human. It’s incongruous to play a trick on a disabled person, but because it’s inhumane and unjust, somehow it’s not really funny. When good triumphs over evil, or when a pompous person is humbled, that makes the joke more satisfying. And just being human is often funny. Our expectations lead us to assume the businessman will boast of investing 25 cents and turning it into a million dollars. We haven’t done something like that, but instead of making us feeling like failures, this joke lets us feel good that the businessman didn’t either.
Respectful – Some pseudo-jokes are incongruous but not funny because they don’t make sense or respect their audience. One is the interminable “shaggy dog story” whose punchline doesn’t justify the time spent hearing it. In the original joke, after a long series of irrelevant digressions (one such joke takes 45 minutes to tell) that have little to do with the dog in question, a character finally says only, “He’s not so shaggy.” Another group of jokes shares the meaningless punchline: “No soap, radio.” But because the punchline isn’t funny, these jokes are themselves practical jokes. The teller gets perverse amusement from his bewildered audience (“Get it? ‘No soap… RADIO!’ Ha ha ha!”), either when they admit “I don’t get it,” or when they pretend to find the joke humorous.
Two old ladies are in a restaurant. One complains, “You know, the food here is just terrible.” The other shakes her head and adds, “And such small portions.” – Woody Allen
Narrative – If you want to touch your readers’ humanity as well as surprise them, maybe you shouldn’t write jokes, but write stories. The best humor includes the basic elements of a story, such as character and conflict and wisdom. If you simply follow a standard joke structure, such as “garden path” or “reverse,” your readers may anticipate your punchline. But when you tell a story, you may catch your readers off guard – they may not realize you’re telling a joke. Woody Allen describes people we all know, who complain a lot, but his joke reminds us that after a certain point, complaining doesn’t make sense.
Humor is studied by scientists: University of Western Ontario psychology professor Rod Martin has found more than 4,000 peer-reviewed journal articles on the psychology of humor. But as you practice it, you’ll discover that humor writing is not only a science, but an art as well. You can never predict with certainty what people will laugh at. Stop me if you’ve heard that one before.