How to Write Jokes – Joke Structure Part 4

Greg Dean How to Write Jokes

In my previous article, How to Write Jokes – Joke Structure Part 3, I revealed that when an audience hears a setup, they imagine a 1st story in their minds based on making assumptions. In this article, How to Write Jokes – Joke Structure Part 4, I show how one particular assumption creates the misdirection of the setup.

Target Assumption

In every setup, there’s one particular assumption I call the target assumption. What sets the target assumption apart from the other assumptions that create the 1st story is that it fulfills two criteria.

1. The target assumption is the key assumption on which the 1st story is built.

Of all the assumptions you must make to imagine a story, one key assumption gives the 1st story its specific meaning. That is to say, if you don’t make that key or target assumption, you’ll imagine a very different story than the one required to make the joke work. Take this old joke for example:

“I had a mud pack facial done, and for three days my face looked much better. Then the mud fell off.”

The effectiveness of the setup hinges on your making the target assumption that the mud was taken off as part of the facial. Making that (key) target assumption lead you to imagine a 1st story, in which the mud pack facial gave the comic nicer looking skin for three days. Then the punch surprised you by revealing a very different 2nd story that the comic walked around for three days with a face covered with mud, which actually improved his or her looks.

2. The target assumption is the assumption made wrong by the punch.

Every joke with a setup is designed to manipulate an audience into imagining a bogus 1st story by making assumptions. The punch then reveals an unexpected 2nd story that surprises the audience by targeting the key assumption and making it wrong…that’s the target assumption. For instance, of all the assumptions you made about the setup, of the example joke, only the target assumption – the mud was taken off as part of the facial, was targeted and shattered by the punch – “Then the mud fell off.”

“Do all jokes have this target assumption?” you might ask.


Yes. Jokes only have a few basic mechanisms. For this section, I’ll demonstrate the two most relevant. One, jokes that have a setup and a punch. Two, jokes that do not have a performed setup, but rather that information already exists in our minds, then all the comedian needs to do is supply a punch.

Let’s unpack these one at a time.

Jokes With Stated Setups

This is the classic one-liner format. With these types of jokes, the setup misdirects by getting the audience to buy into the target assumption which creates the meaning of the setup. Then the punch makes the target assumption wrong. For instance this joke by my student Terry L. Jackson:

“After my divorce, I had a sex change. From very seldom to not at all.”

The setup causes us to accept the target assumption that he had a change in sex organs. Then the punch surprises us with the unexpected alternative that he only had a change in sexual frequency. Jokes with setups almost always use a stated setup and punch.

“What about the funny comments that don’t have setups?” you ask.

Jokes Without Stated Setups

There’s a whole class of jokes that have no performed setups. Strangely enough, they still have a target assumption, but there’s no need for it to be stated because it already resides in the minds of the audience as shared knowledge.

Let me illustrate with something that actually happened to me. I was sitting in a Chinese restaurant late one night. It was a very authentic establishment, and most of the other patrons were Asian immigrants – many of whom spoke little or no English. They had a big screen TV on the wall and a Gallagher concert was starting.

Gallagher made his entrance riding a bicycle with a square wheel, and everybody watching cracked up laughing. Regardless of language or cultural differences, everyone has already made the target assumption that bicycle wheels are round. Since this is universally accepted, there’s no need for a stated setup. To make a joke, all that was needed was a punch – in the form of a bicycle with square wheels – which shattered the existing target assumption.

Many jokes have a target assumption that everyone already accepts based on physical laws, societal biases, cultural and national presuppositions, accepted definitions, stereotypes, and familiar environments, just to name a few examples. On a daily basis, everyone makes tens of thousands of assumptions without realizing it. It’s these unconscious assumptions that are targeted by jokes without stated setups.

In my next article, How to Write Jokes – Joke Structure Part 5, I’ll reveal how the punch shatters the target assumption with a corresponding mechanism, the reinterpretation.

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Greg Dean

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