In my previous article, How to Write Jokes: Joke Structure – Part 1, I covered how the setup creates expectation and the punch reveals surprise. In this article, How to Write Jokes: Joke Structure – Part 2, I’ll dig deeper into joke structure to show how jokes work by having two different storylines.
Deep Joke Structure
You now know that the setup and punch create expectation and surprise, but how do they do that? The answer came to me when I read a magazine article entitled “Jokes,” (Psychology Today, October 1985) Victor Raskin offered a “script-based semantic theory of humor,” which proposes that a sentence joke has two scripts.
However, because it’s a semantic theory, dealing only with words and their implications, its application to physical and nonverbal comedy was limited. So I altered Raskin’s term from script to story, which made it possible for me to apply this concept to all forms of humor, not just language-based jokes. Through Raskin’s insight I found the first piece of deep joke structure.
1st Story and 2nd Story
The setup of a joke creates an imagined 1st story in the minds of the audience. This 1st story leads the audience to believe this scenario to be what the comedian means and expects it to be true. Then the punch causes the audience to imagine a different 2nd story that is a surprise, yet compatible with the setup. For example, imagine a male comic, appearing to be completely grief-stricken, telling this joke:
(SADLY) “My wife just ran off with my best friend. Boy, do I miss him.”
The setup creates a 1st story: A man is unhappy because he misses his wife. We expect that imagined story to continue along that theme, so we’re surprised when the punch reveals a 2nd story: A man is unhappy because he misses his buddy.
If a joke doesn’t have two story lines, it’s not a joke because there is no expectation and surprise. If a punch doesn’t reveal a 2nd story, then what you’ve got is a single story, but not a joke. For instance, this version:
(SADLY) “My wife just ran off with my best friend. Boy, do I miss her.”
Not exactly a knee-slapper. This starts off as a story about a man missing his wife, and it ends up the same way. There’s no 2nd story, so there’s no surprise. And since there’s no surprise – there’s no joke.
Setup and 1st Story
I’m often asked, what’s the difference between the setup and the 1st story? These two elements fulfill very different functions within joke structure. As the first part of the joke, the setup is only the words and actions used by the comedian to get the audience to expect something. Nothing more. Whereas, based on the setup, the 1st story is the detailed scene imagined by the audience they expect to be true.
Let me illustrate this with this old standard joke:
“For forty years I’ve been married and in love with the same woman. If my wife ever finds out she’ll kill me.”
When the comic says, “For forty years I’ve been married and in love with the same woman” that, and only that, is the setup. Then from hearing this setup the audience imagines a much more elaborate 1st story. Since it’s created in the minds of the audience, I can’t say exactly what the 1st story would be for any individual, so here’s my version:
1st story: This man is bragging about being deeply in love with his wife. In their forty years together they have built a rich and full life and were able to work out their differences and remain happy. He has never cheated on her and plans to be with her the rest of his life.
That’s more or less the 1st story most people would construct. As you can see, the 1st story has considerably more detail than the setup. So where does all that detail come from?
This 1st story has been built by making assumptions about the information in the setup. Making assumptions allows us to make sense of something when we get limited information. Based on our own life experience, we constantly make this kind of speculative leap.
Punch and 2nd Story
The relationship between the punch and the 2nd story parallels that of the setup and the 1st story. As the second part of the joke, the punch is merely the words and actions used by the comedian to surprise the audience. Nothing more. Based on the punch, the audience imagines a detailed 2nd story which is compatible with the setup, yet unexpected.
Still using the same joke’s punch, “If my wife ever finds out she’ll kill me,” here’s my version of the 2nd story:
2nd story: Despite staying in a terrible marriage with an ogre this man has never divorced. To find some happiness he’s fallen in love with a mistress and has been able to work it out with her so she’d stay with him for forty years even though he’s remained married. He lives in constant fear that his wife will find out about his long time affair and make his life with her more miserable that it already is.
Again, the 2nd story is a much more detailed scenario than the punch. You may have imagined a slightly different scene, yet the general thrust of the story will remain fairly consistent from person to person.
What I want to emphasize is how much information resides within a joke that’s not stated in the setup and the punch – information we add by making assumptions.
In my next article, How to Write Jokes: Joke Structure – Part 3, I’ll discuss assumptions and their relationship to writing jokes.
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