Need joke writing advice
March 5, 2009 8:59 PM   Subscribe

I need help figuring out how to write stand-up comedy style jokes. It may seem like a contradiction but the thing is that I understand the technical construction of existing jokes, it's just that I can't seem to figure out how to write one of my own. My specific problem is that I don't know how to extract a punch line out of an idea for a joke. How do you do that? I have a good sense of humor and I have an original way of thinking so I think I may have some potential to put something of some kind together. I hope someone(s) will understand what I mean and be able to help. Thanks!
posted by atm to Media & Arts (12 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

You just need to watch a lot of standup, to get a feel for the rhythm, style, tolerated length, and money shot. I personally am a huge fan of a lot of the more recent British standup comedians like Dylan Moran (ok, Irish), Bill Bailey, and Sean Lock. Ricky Gervais is okay in small doses.

You also have to have an idea of your preferred audience. Are you an early Eddie Murphy or Robin Williams, or a modern Larry David? What "flavour" comedian do you desire to be?

I don't know where you live, but I guarantee there will be an impromptu/amateur standup night at a bar or club or the like within a hundred-mile radius of you. Find out where it is an go to it. Prepare for pain.

Also, a little tip: it's not enough to have a "good sense of humour" and an "original way of thinking". You need to be consistently, gut-bustingly unique and hilarious, or you'll know what it is to drown.
posted by turgid dahlia at 9:10 PM on March 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

Also I seem to recall that there are a couple of actual professional or semi-professional standup comedians here on MetaFilter, so you should hunt around and see if they can do anything for you.
posted by turgid dahlia at 9:11 PM on March 5, 2009

-How to be a funny writer (book rec's)
-how to be funny in explaining a funny situation (there are a few interesting insights in the discussion of why the situation doesn't comes across well as a joke)
-how to be a good storyteller
-medium-length jokes (and there are lots of other threads with jokes if you click the joke and jokes tags)
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:41 PM on March 5, 2009 [3 favorites]

If it doesn't come somewhat naturally... you might be in for a tough time.

Countless books have been written about this, so an AskMe answer can't possibly cover it all. Plus, there are so many different kinds of jokes, and they all have their own structure.

But I'll throw this out there: One basic kind of punchline results in a laugh because the listener fills in the missing but implied and surprising information. In an old Steve Martin joke (of course his persona is funnier than the joke itself) he says he has always heard you shouldn't give your cat a bath, but he he decided to go ahead and give his cat a bath anyway. "It took an hour to get all the fur off my tongue."

The listener (hopefully) laughs because they realize he is so stupid that he has bathed his cat as a cat bathes itself, by licking. The "filling in the blank" results in laughter, because the "filled in" part is an incredibly stupid act, which makes it surprising.

Licking a cat isn't necessarily funny in itself; it's allowing the listener to fill in that part that makes it a joke. If he said "Hey, I gave my cat a bath by licking her, and got fur all over my tongue," the response would probably be blank stares, or groans.

Add to this the intangible characteristic of "funniness" that many successful comedians have. These people can often get a laugh by delivery alone, whether there is an actual, repeatable joke or not. This is more of a "you had to be there" kind of humor.

OK, that's about 0.0000000001% of what can be said on this subject.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 9:47 PM on March 5, 2009 [2 favorites]

Best answer: My specific problem is that I don't know how to extract a punch line out of an idea for a joke. How do you do that?

Here's how some professional comedy writer friends of mine do it: By twisting and turning and squeezing and beating an idea until a punchline is wrung out of it. One will come up with an idea and throw it out, the other will suggest a punchline. Usually it's not very good. Then they will bounce lines back and forth, each feeding off the other's ideas, until they discover the funny. Sometimes this takes a few minutes. But other times the process takes much longer, and these two have a habit of taking their work with them everywhere, so whenever they are together they are constantly bouncing punchlines off each other, giggling and muttering and shouting out sentence fragments and what sounds like random words and thoughts to the rest of us. It's very annoying.
posted by Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese at 10:42 PM on March 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

I may be misunderstanding your question, but one trick I've noticed in lots of standup material is that the ultimate punch line is often delivered almost as a throwaway line early in the routine, then the story wanders around with lots of other funny lines and observations thrown in, and the big payoff comes when the whole story comes full circle and the punch line is delivered again. In and of itself, the punch line doesn't have to be completely hilarious, as long as you're able to plant the seed early and then come back to it in a completely different context that catches the audience off guard at the end of your story. The humor isn't so much in the punch line as it is in the dance you do around the punch line.

If that's the techincal part of the kind of joke you understand already, and I'm not completely off base, I'd think you'd want to try to distill the essence of your joke and play around with different contexts in which it can be referenced, then build a story that includes several different angles and provides plenty of distraction and misdirection, with a punch line that is pithy but not too obvious, and a payoff that's a big, unexpected, "Oh, yeah!" moment for your audience.

For (a very bad and not very funny) example: "Do you ever read internet forums? Everybody thinks they're a comedian on internet forums. I was reading this one forum and this guy kept telling everyone he had a fish in his pants. What the heck is that all about? [Observations about the absurdity of having a fish in your pants]... and speaking of pants, [funny observations about pants]. I found this sweet pair of pants at the store the other day. They were expensive--too expensive, really--but they sure did they make my ass look good, so I bought them. You know what I mean. They were the kind of pants that become your go-to pants when you need to look good. Your guaranteed-to-get-you-laid pants. So the other night this hot girl from the coffee shop invited me over for dinner. Yes! The perfect occasion to try out my new pants. I went over to her place, and my ass was irresistable! She was so busy cooking this awesome meal that she didn't really notice, but I knew she'd notice later and it would be a good night. I sat down, and as she was bringing dinner to the table she tripped over the cat and spilled the main course all over me. The dinner was ruined, my pants were ruined, and she was devastated. 'I'm so sorry! This is awful! I'm such a klutz! Look at you... you're a mess! I'm so sorry! And the worst part is that I invited you over for dinner and now there's nothing to eat!' ... Good thing I had come prepared, and had a fish in my pants!"
posted by Balonious Assault at 11:03 PM on March 5, 2009

Not all jokes have to be the classic set up/punchline form. It sounds like you're trying to be the sort of comic you think you should be, rather than the sort of comic you actually are. Original thinking will, in the long run, prove more valuable than just having a GSOH. It's better to be an Eddie Izzard or a Mighty Boosh than a Jimmy Carr or a Michael MacIntyre (sorry for UK specific refs).

Also, because it's excellent advice in general, I'm going to link to this Patton Oswalt blog post.
posted by permafrost at 3:25 AM on March 6, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks everybody, especially Kraftmatic Adjustable Cheese. KAC's answer is really the kind of info I was looking for. Anyone else know how this can be done, or maybe tips or other techniques on how to do it? Thanks.
posted by atm at 4:39 AM on March 6, 2009

Best answer: What I do is try to write jokes I don't worry too much about how funny they are I just try to write a lot of jokes. I write really traditional type jokes with set up punch line and nothing else. Most comics write bits more than jokes, they still have a punch line but it isn't the source of the humor so much as the punctuation on a humorous bit of theater.

I think the fountain head of really good joke writing is to be mindful of those moments when you feel like you might be crazy. When you think maybe you are crazy for feeling a certain way or thinking a certain thing and you think maybe you are the only one who feels this way. That's going to be a joke. Unless you are really crazy (which actually does happen).

I was at a job interview and they asked me the question "what's your greatest weakness?" and I thought about how silly it is as a question. Because everyone's "too much of a perfectionist" on job interviews. No one is going to say heroin. The question is ultimately "so um, how good are you at lying? can you lie right now to my face?"

Now I'm not using that as an example of a strong joke. But you see how it came into being. In my life I encountered something that I had sort of been trained to take for granted that it was normal and made sense. But it didn't really make sense. Not to me and probably not to other people too.

There's a reason comics carry around a notebook all the time everywhere. They do it because jokes, the basic kernel of a joke is a game of noticing.

Once you have the kernel then you write. I was listening to some debate about prop 8 and it struck me that everything they were saying about homosexuals I sort of felt about pedophiles. How it isn't a sin to have desires but it's wrong to act on them. But that observation on it's own isn't interesting. So I thought about how these two views might be similar in a surprising way. So I sat down and wrote a lot of things. Most of them weren't too funny, but finally it struck me that right wing anti-gay people don't really have their heart into hating lesbians in a way thats similar to the way that we treat adult women who have sex with male minors. Like it's not nearly as bad. That was something that I could work with as a punchline. So I wrote it out like it was delivering, and I got in a couple funny phrases in between the set up and the punch line and it's still not where it needs to be yet, but it's on it's way.
posted by I Foody at 6:57 AM on March 6, 2009

I used to do some open mic. For me it was interesting watching those in the open mic community go through the learning experience you are.

I believe you are thinking about it backwards, for me, no one got better when they were trying to write punch lines. The people that did get better were trying to create a good comic character, who then can do material. Fuzzy upstream talks about Steve Martin's washing the cat joke, imagine Ron White telling it, the context creates a whole new meaning. This is why covers don't work so well in comedy.

And to cliche: there's more to doing standup than the construction of a joke. What goes over well in one situation often, for me always, fails the next.

My advice: Write five minutes of material, and as Turgid upstream says, find an open mic. Repeat as often as possible.
posted by rakish_yet_centered at 9:22 AM on March 6, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks, I Foody. By the way, I love the "job interview question" joke! I laughed at it each time I reread it. Knowledge like your answer is what I was hoping for when I posted the question. Thank you again.
posted by atm at 11:23 AM on March 6, 2009

Response by poster: By the way everybody, I should've said this before. I just want to be able to write jokes, not really go on stage. I would just like to be able to write them, mainly, and maybe have something to use while public speaking or to just throw out every now and then.
posted by atm at 11:27 AM on March 6, 2009

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