How to Write Jokes – Joke Structure Part 7

My previous article, How to Write Jokes – Joke Structure Part 6, covered how reinterpretations are either recognized or invented. In this article, How to Write Jokes – Joke Structure Part 7, I’ll show how the target assumption and reinterpretation are two interpretations of the central mechanism, the connector.


At the center of joke structure is a third mechanism which I call the connector, defined as one thing interpreted in at least two ways. Interpreting the connector in one way provides the target assumption, and interpreting it in another supplies the reinterpretation.

Take this Emo Phillips joke, “One day I had an asthmatic attack. These three asthmatics jumped me.” The target assumption is that he had bout of wheezing and shortness of breath due to his asthma; the reinterpretation is that he actually got beat up by three guys who have asthma. The connector is the phase, “asthmatic attack.” It’s the one thing with two meanings.

In at Least Two Ways

Notice the definition of the connector includes “in at least two ways.” Connectors can have many possible interpretations; two is simply the minimum required to construct a joke. When a connector can be interpreted in several ways, it can result in a joke with several punches.

Any Thing

Since any thing can be a connector, the challenge is in recognizing it. Words lend themselves to multiple interpretations, so they make excellent connectors. For the joke, “I went to my doctor for shingles – he sold me aluminum siding.” The connector is the word “shingles,” because it’s the one thing interpreted as both a skin condition and house covering.

Objects make great connectors, for instance the microphone stand sight gag of being used as a metal detector, the connector is the shape of the mic stand because it can be used for holding a microphone and it resembles a metal detector.

Here’s an example from a silent movie comedy using only body language as a connector. Picture this scene: A wealthy drunkard in his parlor finds a note from his wife saying she’s left him and won’t return until he stops drinking. He turns away from the camera, and walks to a counter. He hangs his head, and his shoulders begin shaking up and down spasmodically. He’s sobbing, right? Crying his eyes out over losing her? Nope. He turns around, and we see he’s shaking up a drink in a martini mixer.

This is perfect joke structure using only body language with the connector being the shaking of his shoulders. That motion is the thing that causes the audience to make the target assumption that he’s crying. Then the shaking of his shoulders is reinterpreted and reveals that actually he’s mixing a drink. By the way, that scene is right out of a Charlie Chaplin film called The Idle Class.

I know you’re saying to yourself, “But it isn’t true for all jokes.”

These fundamentals about joke structure are the same for all jokes. It doesn’t matter whether the laugh emanates from the wit of a literary story, a clown’s pratfall, a remark in a situation comedy, a dirty joke, an accidental humorous irony, an off-handed comment at a party, a funny riddle, or a gag without an overt setup or punch the underlying structure is the same.

The challenge in recognizing these fundamentals is that there are so many joke format variations. The structure is often masked by the nature of the character performing the joke, hidden deep within cultural or national presuppositions, obscured by layers of implication, and disguised by individual styles of expression. But no matter the variation, the 1st story and target assumption, connector, 2nd story and reinterpretation are essential in constructing all jokes. In time, you’ll become more proficient at identifying them and a whole new universe of joke writing possibilities will open up to you.


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