setups and punches

Greg Dean Answers Stand-Up Comedy Questions: Are Setups and Punches Always Opposite?

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setups and punches

Yes and No.

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.

Setups and Punches

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. Truly, 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.

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.

Setups and Punches

Bad to Worse

Here’s a joke that goes from bad to worse joke:

“My wife says I’m nosy. At least that’s what she keeps writing in her diary.”

The setup is about the guy complaining that his wife saying he’s, “nosy, ” which is bad.  Then the punch reveals that he got that information from reading her diary, which is much worse as he’s invading her privacy.

Whether your jokes go from good to bad or bad to worse, they’ll always be moving toward the more negative. 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.

If you have a question, send it to Please put “Question” in the subject line.

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