HOW TO WRITE A JOKE
You don’t need to be good at telling jokes to be able to write them. If you get tongue-tied down the pub when everyone is rattling off one-liners, don’t despair. Many good comedy writers are shy people.
The classic joke structure is a setup which establishes an expectation, followed by a punchline which subverts it. For example: “My husband left me on Tuesday and I’m depressed. Because the bastard came back on Wednesday.” The first sentence sets up an image (depressed because he’s left) which is turned upside down by the punchline in the second sentence (depressed because he came back). There’s a great joke from a Woody Allen routine: “When I was a child I was kidnapped. My dad leapt into action – and rented out my room.” Our expectations of a heroic dad fighting to rescue his son are overturned by the cynical reality. In each case the punchline provides a surprise which makes us laugh.
So all you have to do is tell a little story in which the second part subverts the first. Easy? Well, sometimes, but usually you have to do a bit of work. Give yourself a theme to write about. Let’s try dating, it’s something everyone’s done and is full of emotional complications which are great for comedy. On a sheet of paper, write down a list of topics related to dating: going to a restaurant, kissing, the cinema, blind dating, speed dating, dating people at work, etc. You can expand the list yourself.
Now look down the list and see if we can find ways of twisting a topic into a setup and punchline. One good technique is switching it round or inserting something else. Let’s look at “blind dating”: what can we switch in that? How about deaf dating? After doing a little work we could come out with “I’ve stopped blind dating and now do deaf dating. It means I don’t have to listen to them.” You can change the wording slightly according to your gender.
Wordplay is another useful technique. We can find different word meanings, either through contrasting usage, as a well-worn phrase or as a straightforward pun, and incorporate that into the setup – punchline structure. Looking down our list, we find “dating people at work”. Dating the boss is interestingly fraught. Also, the word “date” has subtle shades of meaning. “I asked my boss for a date. So she gave me a month’s notice.”
Don’t stress yourself by expecting to come out with a string of comedy pearls all the time. It’s normal to produce a few mediocre groaners before finding that little gem. You’ll need to polish the phrasing by cutting out unnecessary words, finding shorter ones where you can, and giving it a good rhythm. Words with a hard consonant, often “k”, work well. “Kipper” is funnier than “fish” and “cake” is funnier than “gateau”. And at all times think of that magic setup and punchline structure.