To get an audience to think or to respond are two very different functions for creating a setup and punch material. Most funny people never make this distinction when constructing setup and punch because they don’t understand the mental dynamics between thinking and responding. I propose that for a joke to be most effective, a setup should cause the audience to think, and the punch should elicit an instant respond.
To get the audience to think and then respond is much like someone aiming a rubber band at someone’s arm. This causes the person being aimed at to think about the impending assault, which creates tension. When the rubber band is released, the impact causes an instant response. Just like a good setup and punch.
With one-liners, the function of the setup is to get the audience to think. For instance, when the audience hears a setup, they make up a scenario in their minds so it makes sense to them. This scenario is called a 1st story. (For more about 1st story go to my blog How to Write Jokes: Joke Structure – Part 2.)
When imagining a 1st story, the audience is thinking to create a mental scene they believe to be true.
For instance, this Emo Phillips’ joke,
Setup: “I was running to get here and had a very bad asthmatic attack.”
If you’re like most people, you imagined a 1st story something like this:
1st Story: Emo was in a hurry because he was late. As a person with asthma, he did the ill advised action of running to make up time. The running kicked off a severe asthmatic attack. But he got to the show and now he’s fine.
With the 1st story clearly set in the audience’s minds, then the punch can contradict this scenario with a surprise snap. (For more go to my blog Joke Misdirection – Part 1.).
Notice how this works in Emo’s punch:
Punch: “These 3 asthmatics jumped me.”
The punch reveals a surprise, which triggers an instant reevaluation of something in the setup that created the bogus 1st story. In Emo’s setup it was the meaning of “asthmatic attack.” The audience’s realization that “asthmatic attack” really meant Emo was beat up by three people who have asthma. If all this is simple to follow, it should cause an immediate response of laughter.
Conversely, for every moment the audience has to figure out something before they respond, the power of the laugh is diminished. Sometimes they think so long there’s no tension left for laughter, so they show their appreciation by saying, “That’s funny.”
You might be thinking, “But I like jokes that make the audience think.” So do I, yet they never get the quality of laugh a response joke gets. Partly because the tension isn’t release with sharp snap or the laughter is spread out over a longer period of time.
Here’s a rule of thumb: one think joke per show.
This way you get to have your think joke, but you won’t over burden the audience with dozens of think jokes.
Do you have a setup and punch that needs to go from think to response?
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