joke structure explained

Universal Joke Structure Explained 4:
The Role of Assumptions – One-Liner Jokes

Greg Dean Greg's Blog, How to Be a Comedian, How to Write Jokes

joke structure explained

In this article, Universal Joke Structure Explained 4: The Role of Assumptions, I’m going to offer a series of axioms, which are statements considered to be self-evidently true. I’ll use these axioms to help describe how the human mind processes information from setup to punch. 

Doesn’t that sound like fun? Okay, but it is. Trust me.

In my previous articles, Universal Joke Structure Explained 12, and 3, I established that all humor and comedy are fundamentally made up of jokes, and that they all have two parts. In one-liner jokes they take the form of setup and punch, which creates an imagined 1st story and a 2nd story. These respectively conclude with an expectation and a surprise.

One-Liner Jokes

Axiom 1 – expectation and surprise are results, which imply some prior mental processing.

This process begins when human beings receive some communication. For instance this joke setup, said by a man, “My wife is an excellent housekeeper.” 

Axiom 2 – our senses, perspective, and biases limit the information we take into our minds.

This means there’s always incomplete, undefined, and implied information in any communication. If we don’t know what some communication means, we’re uncertain how to relate or respond to it. Therefore we all have an unconscious need to understand what something means.

Axiom 3 – nothing has meaning without context.

To understand the meaning of the setup, “My wife is an excellent housekeeper,” we must first identify, assign, or assume a context for it. For the sample setup we probably assigned the context of a happily married couple. This context gives us a framework for defining and understanding what the elements of the setup mean.

Axiom 4 – assumptions are made based on our past experience to fill in the missing, undefined, and implied information. 

Based on the context of happily married couple, we examine the elements of the setup. For instance the setup was said by a man, therefore we make the assumption that “my wife” means the man and his female wife are married. From the phrase, “excellent housekeeper,” we make assumptions they’re happily married, and the husband is proud of the job his wife does of cleaning and running their household.

Axiom 5 – assumptions are not real, they are imaginary, often informed guesses without evidence or proof, but accepted as true.

This isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s absolutely necessary. Imagine navigating everyday life without making assumptions to fill in all of the incomplete, undefined, and implied information. You’d have to carefully test each step you took to make sure the ground would hold your weight. You’d have to peek behind everything to find out whether the backs were actually there. You’d have to look in a mirror to make sure you’re still human. You’d have to call the IRS every year to determine if they still wanted your money. You get the idea.

Axiom 6 – based on a context and a collection of assumptions the mind forms an elaborate, imagined story to organize the communication so it makes sense.

For the setup, “My wife is an excellent housekeeper,” we imagine an elaborate scenario called a 1st story. For this setup, it would be: a happily married man is proud and bragging about how his female wife cleans their house, shops, cooks, does laundry. Their house is organized and tidy. She loves being a housewife and he loves going to work knowing dinner will be on the table when he gets home.

Let’s look at the setup versus the 1st story. The setup is a man saying, “My wife is an excellent housekeeper.” In this setup, did the man say anything about being happily married? No. That his wife is female? No. The man is proud? No. His wife cleans? No. She cooks? No. Does laundry? No. The house is organized and tidy? No. That she likes being a housewife? No. Dinner will be ready? No. He has a house? No. This is why assumptions are not real. They are guesses to help us understand what we think the setup means. All of these assumptions help us believe we know how to relate and respond to the setup.

In my next article, Universal Joke Structure Explained: The Role of Assumptions – Continued, I’ll introduce more axioms and further take you through the mental process from setup to punch.

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