How to Write Jokes – Joke Writing Part 1

In my previous article, How to Write Jokes – Joke Structure Part 7, I defined the central mechanism of joke structure, the connector. In this article, How to Write Jokes – Jokes Writing Part 1, I’ll discuss the opposite relationship between the setup and the punch.

Setup and Punch

As discussed in, How to Write Jokes – Joke Structure Part 2, the function of the setup and 1st story is to create a false expectation and then the punch and 2nd story can reveal a surprise. To do this, these two stories must be in opposition.

Opposite – Directly or By Degree

Charlie Chaplin said it a long time ago: “Comedy is two opposite ideas that collide.” This is true even today. In general terms, setups and punches are opposite either directly in the form of: good to bad; or by degree in the form of bad to worse.

Good to Bad

A joke based on the pattern of good to bad is directly opposite because the setup is about something good, and the punch is about something bad. To see how this works, take a look at this joke from Stephen King. That’s right, the famous author of horror novels has a wonderfully wicked sense of humor. The story goes that when asked by a journalist how he came up with such imaginative ideas for his stories, Mr. King answered:

“I still have the heart of a little boy. . . in a jar on my desk.”

To reveal the opposites, let’s break the joke down into its fundamental elements. In general terms, the setup is about the author having the playful, imaginative, and creative spirit of a little boy, which is good. Then the punch gives us an opposite view, the author keeping the actual physical heart of a little boy in a pickle jar on his writing desk. I think most people would consider that bad.

Bad to Worse

The other relationship between setup and punch is bad to worse which is less clear because it’s opposite by degree. To show you what I mean, here’s a joke from my student Derek McKusick:

“Being raised with five sisters can really warp your mind. I was sixteen before I realized I was fat and not just retaining water.”

In the setup, Derek is influenced so completely by his five sisters that he’s deluded into believing he isn’t fat when he actually is – which is bad. Then, in the punch, at sixteen he awakens to the fact that he really is fat and not just retaining water – which is worse.

Toward the More Negative

Whether your jokes go from good to bad or bad to worse, they’ll always be moving toward the more negative action or result. If you’re uncomfortable with this concept, get used to it because it’s a consistently useful technique that will come in handy whenever you’re writing jokes. For instance, if you have a setup and you’ve written several punches for it, the more negative punch will usually be the funniest.

In my next article, How to Write Jokes – Joke Writing Part 2, I’ll lay out the process of writing setups.


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Live to Laugh,

Greg Dean

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