joke structure

Universal Joke Structure Explained 3:
1st Story & 2nd Story

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

joke structure

In this article, Universal Joke Structure Explained 3: 1st Story & 2nd Story, I’ll examine how the human mind tricks itself in a way that allows joke structure to happen.

In my previous articles, Universal Joke Structure Explained 1 & 2, I established that I’ll refer to all humor and comedy as jokes and how all jokes have two parts.

One-Liner Jokes

As previously established, one-liner jokes’ two parts are setup and punch. Next I’m going to demonstrate a mental trap which you can exploit to create joke structure.

Setup and 1st Story

A setup is a collection of elements, who the person is, their state of mind, body language, actions, and words communicated to get the audience to except a false scenario to be true.

When an audience receives a setup, they respond by creating an elaborate scenario in their minds based on each person’s past experience.

Still using a joke written by my comedy grad, Anthony Jeselnik:

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

The setup, “I just accidentally hit a kid with my car. It wasn’t serious, though” includes those words as well as Anthony being a good looking white guy and caring about the kid’s condition. When the audience perceives all of this, they imagine an elaborate scene in their minds so it will make sense to them.

Since I’m not everyone, I can only describe the 1st story in my mind, but it’ll be similar to most people.

1st Story: Anthony was sober and driving, when a kid (boy or girl) shot into the street on a bike. He swerved, but still hit the kid with the grill of his car. The kid was lying in the street seemingly unconscious. Concerned for the kid’s well being, he jumped out of the car to check if the kid was seriously injured. The kid got up, and without crying, checked his scratches and told Anthony that he’s was alright. The kid got on his bike and rode off.

As you may have noticed, the 1st story is far more elaborate than the setup and filled with details never mentioned by Anthony. Here’s the hitch, the 1st story is imagined by the audience and is based on making a great deal of assumptions about all the information in the setup.

Making a series of assumption to imagine the 1st story is how the audience tricks themselves. Assumptions are made up and therefore not real and not true. The entire 1st story can be partially or completely false, which is the mental error in critical thinking. Once the audience has accepted the 1st story as true, now we can mess with it by using an unexpected punch.

Punch and 2nd Story

The punch contains all of the elements as the setup, except Anthony’s change in emotion and vocal tone, along with the words, “No one saw me.” From receiving the punch, the audience imagines a detailed 2nd story that is compatible with the setup, yet unexpected.

2nd Story: Anthony is a horrible person and didn’t care at all about the kid’s injuries. He got out of the car, but not to check on the kid, but instead he looked around to make sure no one saw him hit the kid with his car. He jumped back into the car and sped from the scene of the crime. He’s now proud that he got away with it.

Notice how the 2nd story contradicts the 1st story, which surprised the audience when they realized the setup’s 1st story was untrue. If an alleged joke doesn’t have two contradicting stories…then it’s not a joke.

In my next article, Universal Joke Structure Explained 4: 1st Story and 2nd Story – Continued, I’ll demonstrate how the two stories work within jokes constructed from a setup based on shared knowledge.

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