3 Key Mistakes in Writing Jokes

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I got an email from a person interested in doing stand up comedy and he saw my How To Write Comedy video online. In the video I take a headline right from Yahoo News and I write 15 jokes in about 30 minutes using what I call the listing technique.

The gentleman understood the concept but was having a hard time when it came time to write the material on his own from scratch. Sound familiar? So he emailed me a few questions including the line he was working with. The line was:

“Hand Sanitizer: The new vodka for teens”

Now that’s a headline!

One definition of a joke is “The convergence of two or more clearly identifiable ideas coming together.” It’s incongruity; comedy 101. You may already know this, but the incongruity comedy structure is probably the most common structure used in commercially accepted comedy today. It basically means you are imposing the characteristics of one thing onto another thing which normally does not possess those characteristics.

That headline does present us with two clearly identifiable ideas that are converging: Hand Sanitizer and drinking teenagers. But the problem with that headline is that it is a headline. It may work as a written piece of material but it doesn’t work for stand up because there is no conversation happening. In other words you would never talk this way so how would you present this to an audience?

Mistake #1:

When working with headlines. You must go beyond the headline to find the statement of fact that clearly defines to the reader or audience what we are talking about. The line must contain all the information we need to convey what is going on to the reader or listener. These are the facts. That’s why it’s called the straight line.

Mistake #2:

The line must be conversational. Many times people are trying to write jokes from the news or the headlines we forget to be conversational. The key to making someone laugh is surprise. If you sound like you are just telling someone a story and they are not expecting a twist that turns into a joke, then the joke is more effective.

Johnny Carson stood on that star on the Tonight Show for 30 years and we knew he was there to do his monologue. But he would start each joke in a conversational tone which made it sound like he was just sharing something he read or heard today. “Oh! I heard this today…” So if we used that concept for this joke premise it might sound like: “Oh I heard this today…apparently, in an effort to get drunk, some teens are now drinking hand sanitizer.”

Do you see how that changed the tone of the headline and made it a bit more conversational? Remember it’s still stand up comedy so the structure of having the important word as close to the end of the sentence is still crucial.

So now you have a clear set up with all the information necessary to converge the ideas and get to the comedy and one way to get to the comedy here is to list all the ideas we can think about regarding hand sanitizer, alcohol and teens. This leads me to…

Mistake #3:

Most comedians do not take the time to do the lists so that they can find the jokes.

Because I’ve been doing this so long, I do a lot of the lists in my head, but when I get stuck I will make a thorough list to find the incongruities of the contrasting elements: hand sanitizer and drinking. These jokes came out of the top of my head… Please keep in mind that these are all first draft jokes. They still could use some refining:

“Oh I heard this today…apparently, in an effort to get drunk, some teens are now drinking hand sanitizer.”

1. The good news is it has spurned new high school party games like “spin the Purell…” Sure you might still have to kiss the ugly chick, but you can be assured that she’ll be germ-free…

2. Kids are no longer doing shots they’re doing squirts. (or pumps)

3. Experts knew they were on to something when store shelves were stocked with hand sanitizers with names like Absolut, Grey Goose and Smirnoff.

or a version of the ‘spin the Purell joke:

4. Now kids are able to get filthy drunk, yet be completely germ free.

These 3 or 4 jokes rolled out of my head in seconds, just listing in my head. If I actually sat down and listed, I could probably turn out another 10-20 jokes or more.

Using the listing technique take that headline and let me know if you come up with any! Leave a comment below!

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Please Share Your Comments! Love to hear from you!

Jerry says:

It makes one miss the good ole days when kids used to be able to get filthy drunk! Thanks for the comment Jeff. Way to misdirect in the initial opening to the joke.

Jeff H says:

Wow, this is a very serious story about the surge in alcohol poisoning cases the hospitals are seeing due to teens drinking hand sanitizer… and you make fun of it?

These poor kids are getting sick and sometimes dying and they thought it was just good clean fun!

I keed. Good post, Jerry! Thanks!