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.
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.