In this series of articles, Universal Joke Structure Explained, I’ll explore how my Joke Structure model explains all comedy, humor, and jokes in terms of joke structure. I know I just made a fantastic claim that I can explain all comedy, humor, and jokes, but it turns out that I can.
As this series moves forward, I’ll examine different genres of comedy and expose their structure. This is possible because joke structure is universal, which is to say, it transcends language and culture. Not the content of the jokes, but rather their structure. Individual instances of humor are very much dependent on language and culture, but not their structure.
Skeptics welcome. If you’ll take the ride with me with an open mind, I believe you’ll discover what I’ve discovered about how all comedy, humor, and jokes have the same structure. I know this goes against the current thought that comedy cannot be understood or analyzed. But if you’ll leave your flat world behind, you’ll discover a whole new universe of humor knowledge.
I’m going to retrace my thirty-five year journey as to how I came to uncover joke structure. I’ll introduce you to the many great minds who contributed to humor theory and how they influenced my joke structure model. This journey will not be chronological to my life because pieces came at different ages and I had to revise my model at least two hundred and fifty times. Instead, I’ll straighten out my circuitous route to better explain humor theory and its many facets.
I’d first taught clowning and street performing, since I’d done both of those things, in San Francisco. I was honing my chops at breaking down comedy in order to teach it. Then, I moved to Los Angeles in 1979, and within a year I was a paid regular at the Hollywood Comedy Store. My name is on its Wall of Fame. I’d been helping other comedians with their show structure and jokes. I even pitched jokes to Sam Kinison, Whoopi Goldberg, Jimmy Walker, and many others.
Someone said, “Why don’t you teach a stand-up comedy class.” It sounded like a great idea. So I wrote a workbook and opened my comedy classes in 1982. I taught some technique, like the two-list joke writing system. But what I mostly did was tell students what I thought was funny and what wasn’t funny. This worked okay, until I had a student who disagreed with me. He said, “That’s your way of doing it. Not mine. You’re sense of humor is no better than mine.” I said, “Yes it is. I’m a professional comedian.”
This exchange haunted me all week. Internally debating, I asked myself, “If I didn’t teach my opinion of what was funny, and then what else do I have to offer?” The answer was…not much.
I began combing new and old book stores for anything related to stand-up comedy and joke writing. There were a few on joke writing that were teaching the same two-list system I was already teaching. One book, by Steve Allen, How to Be Funny, had some sketches and ideas that could be taught. But overall most of them were books with jokes or about organizing the subject matters. The information was all over the place with no organizing principle to present fundamentals.
This was my first revelation: stand-up comedy had no established fundamentals. There were no basic techniques. All other arts and sports had basics that were taught, but not stand-up comedy. It was in the realm of “You’ve got it or you don’t.”
So began my journey to establish the fundamentals for teaching joke writing and stand-up comedy. I started by asking, “What is a joke?”
In my next article, Universal Joke Structure Explained 2: All Jokes Have Two Parts, I’ll take you into the ancient world of joke structure according to Aristotle.