Posts belonging to Category How to Write Jokes

How to Write Jokes – Joke Structure Part 1

In my previous article, How to Write Jokes – Joke Premise Part 3, I wrote about the joke premise and its relationship to the comic voice. In this article, How to Write Jokes – Joke Structure Part 1, I’ll uncover the first layers of joke structure to show how setup and punch create expectation and surprise.


Joke Structure

What is a joke? Funny you should ask. Most people would define a joke as something someone says or does that makes others laugh. That statement, though true, doesn’t really tell us what a joke is. It just describes the desired effect. What about jokes that get a huge laugh in one situation and a roar of silence in another? If a joke doesn’t get a laugh, does it suddenly stop being a joke?

Interestingly enough, people usually recognize a joke whether it makes them laugh or not. Why? Because there is some consistent, intrinsic structure that everyone identifies as a joke. Until now, no one has presented this structure in an understandable manner. That’s about to change. Explaining joke structure to you is exactly what this blog series is all about.


Setup and Punch

Let’s begin with what most people already know about jokes. Traditionally, they contain two parts:

1. The Setup

2. The Punch

 Take this joke, for example, by my friend A. Whitney Brown:

Setup: “I saw my grandmother the other day…probably for the last time.”

Punch: “Oh, she’s not sick or anything, she just bores the hell out of me.”

The setup and punch are usually defined in this way:

The Setup is the first part of a joke that sets up the laugh.

The Punch is the second part that makes you laugh.

You may say, “That doesn’t explain anything but the order.”

That’s true. So, let’s dig deeper into joke structure.


Expectation and Surprise

The setup and the punch have two very different functions. The setup creates expectation and the punch reveals a surprise. Take this joke by Wendy Liebman for example. Notice how the setup causes us to expect something.

 Setup: “The only way to really have safe sex is to abstain.”

Now notice how the Punch reveals a surprise:

Punch: “From drinking.”

 In order to work, a joke has to surprise. And we cannot be surprised unless we’re expecting something else. That’s what a joke does. The setup causes us to expect something, and then the punch surprises us.

So, here are better definitions of setup and punch:

The Setup creates an expectation.

The Punch reveals a surprise.

So now that you understand this, you can write a joke, right? Wrong. It isn’t enough to know what a joke does. You need to know how a joke does what it does. And I’m going to explain that in my next blog How to Write Jokes – Joke Structure Part 2.



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How to Write Jokes – Joke Premise Part 3

In my previous article, How to Write Jokes – Joke Premise Part 2, I explored the difference between a joke premise and the jokes it generates, and how to change from one premise to another. In this article, How to Write Jokes – Joke Premise Part 3, I’ll discuss the joke premise and the comic voice.

The Comic Voice

Let’s begin with my definition of the comic voice: the internal voice that says what you’re really thinking.

That Internal Voice Is the Real You

Since there is no one to offend, internally we all speak our honest thoughts and opinions without reservation. But, if we spoke those internal judgments outwardly all the time…no one would want to be around us. You’d be like some homeless people who talk out loud and scream angry things and argue with people who aren’t there. We all have that homeless person hiding and yelling in the back of our heads. We just suppress this mental homunculus because its opinions are too raw, too offensive, too politically incorrect, and too honest…unless you’re a comedian.

That Internal Voice Is Your Comic Voice

Your comic voice runs in the back of your mind all day long, spewing out your honest perspective about events in the world. To do honest stand-up comedy you need to bring that voice forward and let it speak.

Most people are too scared to express their internal opinions. Either because they believe people will hate them, or because they don’t want others to know who they really are deep inside. Instead we create a social façade to edit and soften our honest thoughts into socially accepted pablum. If you are willing to accept and listen to this comic voice, you’ll develop a unique comedy style, because no one interprets the world the same way you do.

“But those thoughts aren’t funny.”

How do you know–if you’re the only one who’s heard them? The challenge of becoming a comedian is to tell it like you see it, give your take, make your observations, administer your justice, expose the frauds, and tell your truth.

For instance, Bobby Slaton and I started performing comedy in San Francisco in the mid 70’s. Bobby began doing one-liner jokes, but then I saw him at the Comedy Store in Hollywood, and he was doing a combination of half one-liners and half speaking his mind, honestly and genuinely. Then I saw him a few years later and the one-liners were gone altogether, and he was only doing material based on his opinions. This was when he was finally recognized as being a top comedian with a specific comic voice. If you know Bobby Slaton, the Pit Bull of Comedy, then you know that his show reflects the real person, with no apologies.

The Joke Premise and the Comic Voice

“What’s this got to do with the joke premise?”

Let me remind you of my definition of the joke premise: a negative opinion about a subject. If you investigate your internal voice, you’ll discover that it’s ranting and raving about something that bothers you–which is a premise. All of your internal rants are based on joke premises.

Now, I have a question for you:

“Are you willing to write jokes that express the real you?”

If you are, then you’re ready for the kind of success that Bobby Slayton and other successful comedians have found by letting that inner voice out.


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How to Write Jokes – Joke Premise Part 1

In my previous article, “How to Write Jokes – Association List,” I showed you how to use the association list to generate many ideas and details for your topic. Now, in “How to Write Jokes – Joke Premise Part 1,” I’ll define and discuss how to use the association list to create joke premises.

Think, again, and Write Jokes.

Comedians talk about the joke premise all the time, but if you ask one to define it, they hem and haw and end up telling you one of their premises as an example. It strikes me as funny that an important technique such as the joke premise for how to write jokes has no clear definition and no one agrees on what it is.

So, I’ll give you my definition the joke premise: a negative opinion about a subject

A premise is not a topic. A topic is broad. The function of the premise is to narrow down the topic into more specific subjects. I can’t write jokes about the topic, “family,” because there are no details. But I can write jokes from a premise because a premise contains a detail.

Let’s break down the elements of the joke premise.


 A Negative Opinion

What do I mean by negative opinion? Well by, negative I mean bad, adverse, undesirable, harmful, objectionable, and many more synonyms I could get from my thesaurus. We express what we consider wrong by identifying the exact negative aspect.

And by opinion I just mean judgment. We gather information about the negative aspects of a subject and form in our minds as an opinion. The opinion will determine how we express our views … positive or negative. In the case of comedy, we address negative opinions because positive things don’t need to be made funny.


A Subject

The subject is that detail we were just talking about. Not subjects…subject. Singular. One detail. Too many so-called premises have multiple subjects because the comic is trying to cover too much. At the center of every great book, song, movie, dance, art work, etc. is a single idea. Knowing how to write jokes is no exception.

A singular subject forces you to make a clear choice on what you’re going to write jokes about. The jokes are in the details, so the more specific the subject the more specific will be the jokes.

Where do you get these details for the subject? The association list is entirely made up of details related to your topic that you can use as the subject of the premise. If each premise contains a subject from the association list, then you can know how to write joke for an entire routine based on the same topic with multiple premises about it.

Put these all together and you will select a specific subject and focus on a specific negative opinion and create a joke premise.


Joke Premises

Here are some examples of well devised joke premises:

Louis CK does a routine that starts with: Kids are assholes.

Tim Allen’s famous routine: Men are Pigs.

Chris Rock: Women won’t take a step down in lifestyle.

Bill Hicks’ bit: Non-smokers are self-righteous.

Many times the comedian will state the premise outright. For instance, Chris Rock repeats his premise three or four times at the top of a bit to make sure the audience gets it. Whereas one-liner comics’ premises are not often stated, but are implied by the joke that expresses it. Whether stated or implied, all funny people used joke premises.

Now that you know a premise is simply a negative opinion about a subject, you’ll begin to see the premises in stand-up comedy routines. And understand when the premise is unclear why some routines seem to flounder.

 *     *     *

The joke premise is a very complex mechanism that has important routine structure implications, deep psychological effects on the audience, defines the comic voice and much more. Therefore, I’ll discuss these additional ideas in my next article, How to Write Jokes – Joke Premise Part 2.” Stay tuned.



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How to Write Jokes – Association List

Think How to Write Jokes
Think How to Write Jokes

As I mentioned in the previous article How to Write Jokes – Topic. The jokes are in the details. So how does one go about figuring out what the details are? The answer is here in How to Write Jokes - Association List.

The function of the association list is to take a broad topic and help you explore and compile the details related to the context of your topic. When beginning students have difficulty learning how to write jokes, it’s usually because they’re attempting to find jokes within some broad, general category. As soon as they dig into details, they find a wealth of ideas for how to write jokes.

Let me define association list – a method to assemble related ideas and details.

Making lists has been a primary tool of how to write jokes for centuries. The more details you list, the more subjects you’ll have for joke premises. Also, when detailed information is fed into a comic mind – jokes emerge. So keep a pad and pen or an open screen available so you can jot down any jokes that pop into your head.

To write an effective association list, here are some guidelines:

• Use Categories
It’s helpful to explore the details by using some general categories. These categories give you a starting place to ask questions and find details. They can also help you when you get stuck, just pick a new category and explore by asking questions about it.

Here are some suggested categories:


• Choose Details Relevant to the Topic
The most effective association list is one filled with ideas and details directly related to your topic. For example, for the topic “my family” you could list, “air,” but that relates to almost everything, therefore it’s not germane. But “air” would be relevant for the topic of “balloons.” A relevant item will lead to other relevant details.

• Keep the Entries Concise
Most of the items should be one word, or at most a short phrase. The association list is a collection of details, not scenes or stories. Lengthy descriptions serve no purpose because the association list is about creating subjects for your joke premises.
For instance, the list below:

topic: my family
association list:

Father’s Day



sharing a bedroom


the sex discussion


• Not Too Big and Not Too Small
The quality of your association list will determine whether you have a viable topic or not.
If the topic is too big, then the association list will be filled with categories, rather than details. For instance, if you selected the topic “sports,” and then listed “football,” “baseball,” “hockey,” these items are categories of their own, not details. Therefore your topic is too big and you need to chunk down to one of the categories, like, “football,” and then make an association list for that topic.

Conversely, if your topic is too small, you’ll get a very short association list and you’ll need to select a broader topic to get a robust list of details. For instance, if your topic is, “computer cables,” and you can only think of a few items to put on your association list, then you’ll want to chunk up to a topic like “computers.” Then create an association list which will include “cables.”

A good association list should have at least twenty to thirty items. Since some lists can become quite long, at some point you must stop. But you can always add more items later. I know this seems kind of silly, but you’ll be amazed at the plethora of related ideas and details you’ll generate from an association list.

Now that you understand the topic and how to make an association list, you’ll want to know the next techniques for how to write jokes. In my next article, I’ll define and discuss, “How to Write Jokes – Joke Premise.”


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How to Write Jokes — Topic

“I told my psychiatrist that everyone hates me. He said, that’s ridiculous…everyone hasn’t met you.” — Rodney Dangerfield

How to Write Jokes - Thinker on Toilet

Think, stink, and write jokes.

In this article of the How to Write Jokes series,  I’ll define and discuss the role of the topic in how to write jokes. If you’re starting from nothing, the realization that you can write jokes about everything can be overwhelming. Therefore, narrowing your ideas from generalities to specific details is the primary function of all joke writing methods. The reason for this is that you cannot know how to write jokes about generalities. The jokes are in the details. The topic is the generality, and then it’s the function of list making and the joke premise, etc., to dissect your broad topic into details so you can then know how to write jokes.

Let me define the topic: Single Category with Something Wrong

There are two parts to this definition, “Single Category” and “Something Wrong.” Let’s go over them one at a time so you can understand their meaning and how they relate to each other.


Single Category

On the surface of how to write jokes this would seem rather obvious, but there are some snags that can complicate selecting a category. The single concept is pretty simple. A topic shouldn’t be multiple. It’s not a topic if you choose cars and motorcycles, even though they’re related, they’re separate categories, therefore two topics. Multiple categories in the topic can lead to confusion about how to write jokes. Keep the topic singular.

The category is where things can get tricky. It seems that any idea would be good for a topic, but alas that is not true. Categories can be too big or too small. For instance, a category that’s too big would be the universe. Yes, it’s a single category and there are certainly things wrong, but what do you focus to know how to write jokes. Since this category is too large, you must chunk down to some smaller category, like meteorites.

Conversely, a category can be too small. For instance, the head of a pin is too small an idea to generate many details to write jokes about. So, it must be chunked up to a category like sewing, which has hundreds of related associations from which to begin to know how to write jokes or even a routine.


Something Wrong

Potential comedy hides in the most unlikely places – in hurtful things. There’s an element of pain in every joke, because things we consider wrong cause us pain in some form, ranging from agony to mild discomfort. Sometimes the pain is as obvious as Richard Pryor’s re-enactment of his crack pipe, and sometimes as subtle as Steven Wright’s existential angst. But the pain is always there. Always!

Things that are only fun, pleasant, good, nice don’t need to be made funny…they’re already happy. It’s the painful things we need to turn into how to write jokes to get a different perspective and laugh to relieve our tension.

To have an effective topic, it must deal with something hurtful, and you need to identify, from your point of view, what’s wrong within your chosen category. This is your message as a comedian, and it will only be apparent to you with a clearly defined topic.

Using these criteria you’ll be able to easily select a topic that is singular, not too big or too small and be clear about what’s wrong. Having a proper topic prepares you to effectively learn the next tool for how to write jokes…the association list.

In my next article, I will define and discuss How to Write Jokes – Association List.



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Anthony Jeselnik







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Greg Dean

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How to Write Jokes – Intro

How to Write Jokes as a Thinker
Think and Write Jokes

“Every once in a while I feel that I’m at two with the universe.” – Woody Allen

Every working stand-up comedian has been asked this question by someone – “Where do you get the ideas for your material?” The answer, of course, is “my life.” I say that because I don’t know anything about your life.

There’s an old writing adage that says “Write what you know.” And, really, if you think about it, what else can you write? As a comedian you have one incredibly precious thing that no one else in the entire world has – your own perspective. That’s why I strongly urge you to know how to write jokes about your world as you perceive it, and the things that interest you and your own opinions and feelings. Tell your truth. Whether the audience agrees with you is not an issue. Many artists, from Picasso to Chris Rock, have expressed points of view that ran counter to their culture. But they told their truth, and people – eventually a lot of people – responded to that truth. (Even though Picasso never did appear on Letterman.)

One thing you should never, ever do with how to write jokes is to write about is what you guess the audience might think is funny. There’s actually a word for people who only try to write what they think someone else will like. Hacks.

You do have to consider whether the audience will be able to understand what your talking about. But always rely on your own sensibilities to guide you when you’re making the initial decisions about what’s funny, interesting, important, or simply worth talking about. If you really think there’s something terribly funny about Dutch ovens, PMS, pee-pee, snot, or butt-thongs, then by all means know how to write jokes about those things. But don’t do it because you heard someone else get a laugh with it.

Some comedians don’t know how to write jokes because they wait for inspiration. A new routine comes to them all at once in an unpredictable flash of funny thoughts. Then they dry up until the next lightning bolt strikes. They only rely on this haphazard approach because they don’t know of another way of how to write jokes.

In my opinion, inspiration is without a doubt the best for how to write jokes. The subject matter is heartfelt and honest, and the jokes are usually well-structured because they come in an intuitive flash. But if you want to be able to know how to write jokes on any idea of your choice at any time you choose, you need understand the mechanisms of how to write jokes. This series of articles will identify and define the major terms and techniques of how to write jokes.

In my next article in the How to Write Jokes series, I’ll cover the joke writing mechanism of the Topic. You need to read all the articles in this series on How to Write Jokes, so you’ll know how to write jokes.


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Greg Dean

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