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Universal Joke Structure Explained 2: All Jokes Have Two Parts

Greg Dean Greg's Blog, How to Write Jokes, Teaching Stand-Up Comedy

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In this article, Universal Joke Structure Explained 2: All Jokes Have Two Parts, I’ll examine the beginnings of humor theory going back to Aristotle.

In my previous article, Universal Joke Structure Explained 1: Introduction, I discussed how all comedy, humor, and jokes share a universal structure, and that I’ll refer to as jokes.

There have been many great men and women who have attempted to explain humor. The first recorded was Aristotle. He proposed that “the best way to get an audience to laugh is to setup an expectation and deliver something that gives a twist to produce a surprise in the hearer.”

This is very significant as it established that comedy, humor, and jokes have two parts: expectation and surprise. Even though, modern humor theories show that expectation and surprise aren’t the only way to produce humor, there’s also an association of the two parts, much like that of a simile or metaphor.

Whether it’s expectation and surprise or bi-association, coined by Arthur Koestler, the fact remains that all comedy, humor, and jokes must have two parts.

This is simple and clear in one-liner jokes. There’s a setup which establishes and expectation, and then the punch which reveals a surprise.

For instance this joke by my comedy grad, Anthony Jeselnik:

“I just accidentally hit a kid with my car. It wasn’t serious, though. Nobody saw me.”

Based on the setup, we have the expectation that “it wasn’t serious” for the kid. Then the punch, “Nobody saw me,” twists it to mean it wasn’t serious for Anthony.

Moving beyond the one-liner it quickly becomes clear that setup and punch aren’t particularly useful to describe non-one-liner jokes. For instance, to pull off satire the audience must be familiar with the thing being satirized, which is part 1, in order to get the comparison and jokes of the satire, which is part 2.

For instance this joke:

“My girlfriend has a tattoo of a sea shell on her inner thigh. When I put my ear against it, I can smell the ocean.”

Part 1 for this joke is the idiom about putting ones ear to a sea shell and being able to, “hear the ocean.” If we don’t have this shared information, we won’t get the jokes. Part 2, of course, is “smell the ocean.”

The so-called setup resides in shared knowledge, only then can the punch satirize this with a surprise phrasing. Without the shared knowledge, part 1, this joke isn’t even a joke.

As this article progresses I’ll be giving many more examples of how all comedy, humor, and jokes have 2 parts.

In my next article, Universal Joke Structure Explained 3: 1st Story and 2nd Story, I’ll show what happens in the human mind when we hear a setup and a punch.

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