joke structure explained

Universal Joke Structure Explained 3:
1st Story & 2nd Story – Continued (Cont’d)

Greg Dean Greg's Blog, How to Be a Comedian, How to Write Jokes

joke structure explained

In this article, Universal Joke Structure Explained 3: 1st Story & 2nd Story – Continued (Cont’d), I’ll expose how comedians use information that already existing in our minds as shared knowledge to create joke structure.

In my previous articles, Universal Joke Structure Explained 12, and 3, I established that I’ll refer to all humor and comedy as jokes and how all jokes have two parts, and that audiences imagine elaborate stories in the their minds.

In order for you to understand how my Universal Joke Structure applies to jokes based on shared knowledge I’ll give several more examples in different genres of comedy.


Satire requires the general shared knowledge of what’s being made fun of. For instance, this cartoon from New Yorker Magazine:


If you don’t have the shared knowledge of the Where’s Waldo puzzles, then you won’t get the satirical references. Or understand the joke about the question Waldo is pondering.

The existing setup and 1st story is about finding Waldo in puzzles with hundreds of people and object that look similar to Waldo. When we find Waldo he’s having a good time and is psychologically healthy and happy.

The punch “Nobody ever asks, ‘How’s Waldo?’” and the cartoon of him drinking alone in a bar, shatters the 1st story assumptions that he’s psychologically healthy. The punch’s 2nd story reveals him as unhappy, bitter and depressed alcoholic. Again, the punch and 2nd story contradict the existing setup and 1st story.

Are you beginning to see the pattern?


Parody is a form of satire, but it’s much more specific as to what it’s making fun of.

For instance, one of TV’s funniest moments was on the Carol Burnett Show. It was a parody of the movie Gone with the Wind after Scarlett O’Hara had lost everything, but she still wanted to impress Rhett Butler. She fashioned a dress for herself made from the curtain material.

In the sketch, Burnett came down the stairs in an unimpressive dress made of curtains which included the curtain rod.

On the left in the photo below, from the movie, shows Scarlett wearing the curtain dress.  On the right is a picture of Harvey Korman with Burnett wearing the parody versions of the curtain dress.


This joke about the curtain dress isn’t nearly as funny for anyone unfamiliar with this scene from Gone with the Wind. The curtain dress is still a joke, but made funnier when compared to the curtain dress in the movie. It contains the existing setup and 1st story that the curtain dress was indeed impressive. The punch and 2nd story parody contradict the existing setup and 1st story with Burnett sashaying down the stairs in this hideous curtain dress.

Observation Jokes

Observation jokes are completely constructed from shared knowledge as they have an existing setup and 1st story and an existing punch and 2nd story. The comedian simply recognizes the existing joke and then reports it to an audience. The only writing is in forming the exact way to expose the observation joke.

For instance this George Carlin joke:

“Ever notice when you blow in a dog’s face he gets mad at you, but when you take him in a car he sticks his head out the window?”

If you haven’t experienced both parts of this joke, then you won’t be ware of the contradiction in the dog’s behavior. This joke is so clear in the worded that one might still laugh at it. Yet it’s better if you’ve ever blown in dogs’ face and know how much they hate it.

Immediate Environment

This category is where the shared knowledge is in the immediate environment. The shared knowledge is something everyone in the audience can perceive.

For instance, I had a thirteen year old student named Nermin, who came up with an idea and I help him set the scene and the wording. It was at the Hollywood Comedy Store and Nermin was required to be escorted to and from the stage by his parent.

I instructed Nermin to stand on stage for a moment to let the audience take in the fact that he was a thirteen year old kid in room full of adults. Then he said,

“How many people here are going through puberty?”

The setup and 1st story existed in the immediate environment in the shared knowledge that everyone knew everyone had to be at least twenty-one year old to be in the nightclub. All Nermin needed to do was deliver the punch in the form of an absurd question in a faux attempt to find out if anyone in the crowd could relate to him going through puberty.

The 2nd story happened when everyone realized that everyone in the room was at least twenty-one and had long ago gone through puberty, so there was no one who related to his prepubescent angst.

Now you know more about jokes based on shared knowledge, I urge you to check out late night monologues which make fun of current news events. Follow SNL sketches to note how the use shared knowledge. Go online to find many forms of satire and parody based on shared knowledge and have existing setups and 1st stories. If you do this, then you’ll really begin to understand the reason I call it Universal Joke Structure.

In the next article, Universal Joke Structure Explained 4: The Role of Assumptions, I’ll how our minds trick ourselves with assumptions to allow jokes to work.

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