Puns have been used since ancient times, in the Sumerian cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphs, and of course, Shakespeare. Clever use of language has always been a major source of entertainment and humor.
Puns may be useful for annoying your friends, but in professional comedy will invariably produce groans. That’s probably because a good joke, like a good magic trick, is only effective if the audience doesn’t see how it’s done. No form of joke displays its inner workings more overtly than a pun. To make matters worse, someone doing a pun always seems to be saying, “Hey, look how clever I am with words.”
This blog will focus on the use of puns in jokes, particularly one-liners, and how to avoid getting groans, instead of laughs.
Here are a few pointers:
• Put the Pun Word or Phrase in the Setup
If a joke like this,
“How does Jack Frost get to work? He takes an icicle.”
Is performed in the modern, jaded, overexposed, demanding, and critical global media, chances are it’ll get a groan. Not always, but more often than most funny people are comfortable with.
To avoid this dismissive groan, one trick is to put the pun word or phrase in the setup so you use the ambiguous pun as a misdirection device. For instance, the previous joke could be written:
“An icicle? That sounds like something Jack Frost takes to work.”
I’m not crazy about either of these jokes, but get my point. The second version has a chance of getting a laugh, whereas the first version will most certainly get a groan.
Make it your practice to put the pun words or phrase in your setups, and then you can write jokes that get laughs. Like:
Female Comic: “I’m back in the dating scene, so I thought I should get myself some feminine protection. I settled on a 45 automatic.”
“After my divorce I had a sex change. From very seldom to not at all.”
You get the idea.
• Groans Can Grow
Another downside of getting groans, is they can take over an audience like a virus. One groan, two groans, more join the groaning because it’s fun. Now you have an audience that only groans, even if the jokes or bits are funny. When it’s an epidemic it can become a form of heckling.
Make sure you’re not the carrier who spreads the groaning sickness that infects and destroys your own show.
• Use Puns to Take the Place of Dirty Words
The great W.C. Fields had his own language for cussing to get around the censors. He used the word “drat,” in the place of “damn.” Yes, back then they were that strict about any use of foul language.
Here’s a more modern example:
“On Halloween I grabbed a ghost by the ass and got a handful of sheet.”
• Have a Comeback for a Groan
For instance, in San Diego, I watched a street juggler use a pun to intentionally provoke a groan just so he could respond with this put down:
“Look, if you had any taste you wouldn’t be here in the first place.”
The laugh he got made it worth going through the groan. But only use this technique once per show.
I’ve had students disagree my view of puns, “Well, it’s better to get a groan than no response at all.” Of course it’s up to you, but be clear about your goals. If you want to get groans, then by all means pun it up. If you’re aim is to develop a 5 laughs per minute comedy show, then learn to use puns to get laughs, not groans.
My next blog, I haven’t got a clue.
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Tags: jokes, write jokes, how to write jokes, puns
“My ex-wife still misses me. But her aim is steadily improving.”