How to Write Jokes – Joke Structure Part 5

Greg Dean How to Write Jokes

In my previous article, How to Write Jokes – Joke Structure Part 4, I covered the setup mechanism of target assumption, which causes misdirection. In this article, How to Write Jokes – Joke Structure Part 5, I’ll define the punch’s mechanism, the reinterpretation, which reveals surprise.


We know that the setup creates an expectation when the audience builds a 1st story by making assumptions; the punch then shatters a key assumption (the target assumption) and reveals a 2nd story. The punch does this by presenting an unexpected interpretation of something in the setup. This unexpected interpretation I call the reinterpretation. The reinterpretation must adhere to two rules described below.

1. The reinterpretation is the idea upon which the punch’s 2nd story is based.

Just as the target assumption creates the 1st story, the reinterpretation creates the 2nd story. Take this joke for example:

“My grandfather died a peaceful death, he died in his sleep. But the kids on his bus were screaming.”

The reinterpretation is that he was sleeping at the wheel of a bus which is the basis for the 2nd story that the grandfather died in a bus wreck after falling asleep at the wheel causing the kids to scream. This, in turn, is communicated as the punch “But the kids on his bus were screaming.”

2. The reinterpretation reveals an unexpected interpretation of the same thing in the setup from which the target assumption is made.

Something within the setup causes the audience to make the target assumption. If you investigate the example joke, you’ll discover that where the grandfather fell asleep is the thing that caused us to make the target assumption he was sleeping in his bed, as well as the reinterpretation he was sleeping at the wheel of a bus.

These two interpretations of the same thing from the setup are imperative to making a joke work. When a punch presents a reinterpretation, the audience is confronted with an unexpected yet compatible interpretation of the thing within the setup. This makes them review their assumptions until they identify the one that is wrong, thus shattering that target assumption.

Shattering the target assumption with an unexpected reinterpretation is what creates surprise. When your joke shatters people’s assumptions, they laugh. Now we’re back to expectation and surprise. Only now you understand how the mechanisms of target assumption and reinterpretation cause them to happen.

Jokes with a Setup and a Punch

Jokes that have a setup and punch are easy to understand once you can recognize the mechanisms of the setup’s target assumption and the punch’s reinterpretation.  For instance, this joke:

“My wife is an excellent housekeeper. When we got divorced, she kept the house.”

The setup’s target assumption is that the wife is a good homemaker. Then the punch’s reinterpretation that the wife is a home taker, causes us to review the target assumption and realize that our assumption about the wife was wrong. This is classic joke structure with a setup and a punch.

Jokes with a Setup, but without a Punch

It may seem odd, but there are jokes that do not have an expressed punch. An example of this is the following joke where the setup leads to an obvious 2nd story, but there is no expressed punch.

“I went to this expensive restaurant that had a waiter for everything. The water waiter gave me water. The food waiter gave me food. The head waiter …”

How did you complete this joke? Me, too. The reinterpretation, about the customer receiving oral sex, is so strongly implied it doesn’t need to be said. The audience members supply the reinterpretation and 2nd story, which shatters the target assumption. However, because the joke allows the audience to infer the punch doesn’t mean the fundamentals of target assumption and reinterpretation don’t apply: They do.

Not all jokes have a setup and a punch. If you’re always looking for a setup and a punch, joke structure can be confusing, whereas all jokes have a target assumption and reinterpretation. If you want to understand and recognize jokes structure, examine jokes by searching for the target assumption and reinterpretation.

In my next article, How to Write Jokes – Joke Structure Part 6, I’ll explain how reinterpretations are recognized or invented.


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Greg Dean

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