In this blog, Write Short Jokes, I’ll discuss the importance of keeping jokes, especially one-liner, short and to the point.
As Shakespeare wrote, “Brevity is the soul of wit.” Nothing kills a good joke more certainly than smothering it with an avalanche of unnecessary words and information. I talked a little about this subject when you were first learning to write a punch.
Here is an excellent example from my own experience as a teacher of joke writing. A student of mine, Terry R. Jackson, brought a very funny but overwritten joke into class.
“I just went through a long and messy separation, which ended in a divorce from my wife. So, after all that, I went on a vacation to Denmark because I was having a sex change. The sex change was from not very often to nothing at all.”
This central idea of the joke was good, but it included a lot of information about the 1st and 2nd Stories the audience didn’t need to know to get the punch. In fact, it became confusing when they have to sift through the unnecessary details to identify which assumption was being shattered.
As a general rule, the audience should respond to your jokes, not figure them out. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write intelligent jokes. It means that a joke, even if it’s a novel idea, should be so simply put that the audience doesn’t have to figure out what you’re talking about.
Comedy has its own conservation of energy law: Energy spent by the audience thinking is energy taken away from laughing. That’s why it’s important to give them no more information to mentally process than absolutely necessary.
Your setup should include only enough information to establish the target assumption. And then give punch that reveals a reinterpretation that shatters the target assumption. Nothing more is needed.
I pointed all this out to Terry and advised him to reread the section on improving material in his class workbook. The following week he brought back this version:
“After my divorce, I had a sex change. From very seldom… to not at all.”
That’s an excellently constructed joke. Neither more nor less is needed. It got a bigger laugh than the original version yet required a smaller time investment for the pay-off. The less time it takes to get a laugh, the more laughs per minute, LPMs, you’ll end up getting. Economy is one very important technique for achieving high LPMs.