How to Write Jokes – Joke Premise Part 2

In my previous article, How to Write Jokes – Joke Premise Part 1, I defined the joke premise for its specific use in stand-up comedy as a negative opinion about a subject.  In this article, How to Write Jokes – Joke Premise Part 2, I’ll explore the difference between a premise and the jokes, and how to change from one premise to the next.

The Difference between the Premise and the Jokes

First, let me give you a dictionary definition of premise: a statement used to develop a further argument. This definition affirms how the joke premise is used in stand-up comedy. The premise is the statement of the negative opinion about a subject; and the argument is expressed through the jokes that follow.

For instance, Chris Rock’s joke premise: women cannot go backwards in lifestyle. Rock states this premise several times at the top of the bit, and then proceeds to do a series of jokes to develop his argument. Here’s one: “Fellas, have you ever been going through some hard times and lose your job or something. And your woman tries to console you by saying, ‘Hey baby, don’t worry, we’re going to get through this. I know we got some bills, but if we have to get rid of some of this shit, we’ll get rid of some of this shit.’ She’s talking about YOU.” This is a great example of a premise followed by a joke that further explores that premise. Rock is a master of routine construction, which is why he’s one of the best.

When comics don’t know the difference between a joke premise and jokes they make several mistakes. One, they’ll present a premise as a one-liner joke, if it gets a laugh, they’ll keep it in their show, but won’t explore for the possible jokes that could be developed from that premise. Two, if it doesn’t get a laugh, they’ll think it’s just a bad joke and take it out of their show, so again they missed the potential jokes that could be developed from that premise.

Comedians, who know the difference between the premise and the jokes, communicate their ideas clearly by stating their premise at the beginning so the audience will understand the point of the story and jokes that follow.

Some Premises are Funny

The difference between a premise and its jokes can be confusing because sometimes premises are jokes. For instance, when Louis CK says, “My four year old daughter is an asshole,” this is his premise, but it’s also a joke. Louis then follows it with a series of jokes that are all examples of his kid being an asshole. Whether it gets a laugh or not, he knows the premise is the introduction for a routine and not just a one-liner joke. Of course, a premise that introduces the routine, gets a laugh, and produces funny jokes is the best of all world

The Premise and the Routine

Routines are formed in two ways: One, the one-liner comics string their jokes together under unifying topics. For instance, all the mother-in-law jokes are placed together and performed to determine the best order. Two, storytelling comedians have a premise and then all the jokes are examples of that premise, until they change the premise.

How to Change Premises

A show can have several premises, so here are the three techniques to change a premise during a show:

• Change the Subject and Negative Opinion

The comedian moves onto an entirely new premise by changing the subject and stating a negative opinion about it. For instance, if the comedian’s premise was about poker is addicting and then changes to a new premise self-service check out stations take more time, the audience can easily follow the comedian’s flow from one premise to the next.

• Keep the Subject and Change the Negative Opinion

Routines often revolve around one subject for which the comedian has several opinions. So within the routine comedians will change their premises by keeping the subject, but changing their opinion about it. For instance, a comedian could have a premise of astronauts piss me off and express their anger with several jokes; and then change the premise to I’m jealous of astronauts, which keeps the subject of astronaut, but changes the negative opinion to jealous. This approach helps the audience follow the comedian’s multiple opinions about the same subject.

• Keep the Negative Opinion and Change the Subject

Comedians sometimes get on a rant fueled by a negative opinion about several subjects.  For instance, a comedian can begin with the premise of being miserable at work, and then change to being miserable at dinner parties, and end with being miserable on vacation. For the audience to follow, the comedian needs to clearly state the same negative opinion about the changing subjects.

The joke premise is a guiding mechanism to create well-constructed routines for those who know the difference between the premise and the jokes. If a premise is funny, it can still serve as a premise to explore for more jokes. Use the three ways to shift from one premise to the next to brings variety to longer shows and add sophistication.

In my next article, How to Write Jokes – Joke Premise Part 3, I’ll explain how to make unfunny premises funny, and the premise’s effect on the comic voice and the audience.

See: How to Write Jokes – Workbook

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Greg Dean

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