How To Write A Joke

by Jerry Corley, founder of the Stand Up Comedy Clinic

Most people who contact me through this site do so because they want to know how to write a joke.

If that is a question that you have (I’m assuming it might be because you’ve found this post called “how to write a joke,”) then you’ve come to the right place because as a writer for the Tonight Show with Jay Leno for 8 years and a comedian for nearly 30, I’ve written thousands of jokes, sketches, funny stories, etc.

But the simple question of how to write a joke doesn’t stay simple for too long. With some people that leave comments, it soon it explodes into an argument of whether they want to do “jokes, ” or “stories.”

The simple fact is: A joke is a story! Let’s take a look.

Elements of Story

Jokes have the elements of stories in them:

If you remember creative writing or lit class, the there are five elements of story:

  1. Character
  2. Setting
  3. Plot
  4. Conflict
  5. Theme, and I always like to consider the…
  6. Narrative Arc

Sid Caesar, master comedian, performer and writer once said, “a joke is a story with a curlicue.”

Elements of a Joke

Let’s look at this joke:

Yesterday was my wife’s birthday and I got her a gift certificate for a ‘his-and-her’s” massage. She said, “Jerry this is a ‘we’ gift, not a ‘me’ gift.” So I returned it and got her a gift certificate for dinner-for-one!

This joke has all the elements of story:

  1. Character – In the case of this joke, the characters are me and my wife. We also have an antagonist and a protagonist as we’ll discuss in a moment.
  2. Setting – We assume we’re at home or somewhere celebrating her birthday and I am giving her a gift.
  3. Plot – The plot is I’m giving her her birthday gift and she doesn’t like it so I need a solution.
  4. Conflict – My wife doesn’t like my gift, (how dare she because it’s the thought that counts, right?).
  5. Theme – Marriage and relationships.
  6. Narrative Arc – We’re taught all our lives that it’s the thought that counts so when you don’t follow that moral, don’t be surprised if it backfires. In other words be thankful for what you’ve got.

If we explore that joke one layer deeper, because my wife didn’t necessarily appreciate the gift, the audience now treats her as the antagonist of the story. Jokes that have this built in, have an extra impact on the audience; emotion. Now they are not only listening to a joke, but in a subtle way they are rooting for the protagonist. They are actually yearning for (at some level) you to win.

And in storytelling that is powerful.

So when people ask me whether or not to do jokes or stories, they are literally one and the same.

Structure Must be Used when we Write Stories therefore Structure Must be Contained When we Write Jokes

People argue with me all the time that formula and structure have no place in today’s comedy. In fact, those folks are either completely naive or they are lying to themselves, because every great comedian, whether he knows it or not, is using comedic structure.

To understand how to write a joke, we must first understand why people laugh.

Laughter Triggers

Fact: The number one element that triggers human laughter is SURPRISE. It’s like magic, only with words. A magician surprises the audience when he does his trick. If there is no surprise, there is no trick. The formula for any magician is to have surprise. Without formulating surprise, you’re gonna have one hell of a boring act.

It’s the same with comedy. Once you understand this, you can do one of two things: 1. You can start to ramble and figure out how to surprise your audience: or 2. You can develop an understand of the structures or “formulas” in comedy that create surprise for the audience, whenever you want.

Two other major reasons humans laugh are embarrassment and recognition, but we’ll get to those later.

The key is for any joke to work, there has to be some kind of surprise. (The surprise is the ‘plot twist’.

So the next question is: How to we create surprise? The easiest way to create surprise is to  lead the audience to assume one thing, then surprise them with something different. (See how it’s similar to magic?)

  • I woke up in the hotel this morning and the housekeeper was banging on the door, just banging: Finally, I had to get up and let her out.

Let’s look at the joke. It’s a common situation. Most people have been in a hotel room and been disturbed by a knocking housekeeper. She knocks because she’s outside and wants to come in. That’s what the audience assumes! So as a comedian or humorist, you switch the ending at the last minute to surprise them.

This is called a “reverse” in comedy and it works all the time. The key is that you don’t want to use this same formula repetitively, because the ending will then be expected to be switched and you’ve given away the surprise. Remember, without surprise, there is no laugh.

Let’s look at a couple more jokes that come out of talking about personal setbacks in my life that I formulated into jokes:

  • “I’ve been losing my hair:some guys say it doesn’t bother them when they lose their hair. It bugs me a little bit:like, in the mornings, when my wife is running my fingers through my hair, but I already left for work!
  • I remember one relationship this chick broke up with me and I went over to her house at two in the morning to beg her to take me back. I was banging on the door, yelling, “Stacy! Stacy!” which is weird, cuz’ her name is Emily.

Each of these jokes use the formula of leading the audience to assume one thing then shattering that assumption with something different.

This is just one formula for writing jokes. Of course each of these can be weaved into a story and disguised as a story so it not so obvious that you’re telling jokes. If you disguise it into a story the audience is less likely to see the joke coming and be surprised.  And, like a magician if they don’t see it coming if makes for a better act.

I don’t just have one way I come up with material. I have about 24-25. Here’s a chart of the approaches I use to generate material.

how to write a joke


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About the author:

Jerry Corley is a professional comedian with 25 years experience touring the globe. He was also a contributing writer to the Tonight Show with Jay Leno for 8 years. Currently, he is still touring and also teaching comedy classes in Los Angeles at the Stand Up Comedy Clinic.

That’s Why They Call it a Set Up!

by Jerry Corley, Founder of the Stand Up Comedy Clinic

I was watching a very talented comedian friend of mine perform some of her new material the other night. She performed a new joke she was particularly proud of and the result wasn’t what she expected. Yep, you guessed it—crickets! It’s the sound most comedians loathe, sometimes fear. The joke didn’t work.

She was frustrated and after her set she asked me if I knew why the joke didn’t work. I told her that she didn’t set it up properly, so the audience didn’t know what she was talking about. In this particular scenario, she was talking about how her father showed up to visit her wearing nothing but bubble wrap. So as he was walking you could hear, POP, POP, POP.

The idea of that happening is funny, but the audience couldn’t figure out why her Dad would show up to a visit wearing bubble wrap. It just seemed too absurd. I suggested to her that the audience needs more information. She said, “I’m not going to spoon feed them!” As comedians and humorists we walk a fine line. We know we need to keep it short in comedy (as Shakespeare said, “Brevity is the soul of wit”), while at the same time we must give the audience enough information so they understand where we are going. In other words we have to have a clear set up so we can really PUNCH IT. Johnny Carson, who was the king of late night for 30 years always made sure that the setups in his jokes were crystal clear, so when he got to the punch line the audience knew exactly what he was talking about. In the scenario above the girl’s Dad was a paranoid schizophrenic.

If she delivered a solid set up to the audience by saying something like, “My father is a paranoid schizophrenic. Whenever he visits me, I never know what to expect, sometimes he’ll show up as a pirate, sometimes as Sherlock Holmes. He must’ve run out of ideas cuz’ last week he just showed up wearing nothing but bubble wrap. Maybe he still thought it was in the pirate theme since bubble wrap is essential in shipping:He was literally walking up my steps going, POP, POP, POP.”

In other words, the audience needs to know WHAT you are talking about before you can expect the punch line to connect with them. A friend of mine put it in a very succinct analogy, he said it’s like you have a hundred piece puzzle of a sailboat and you only put down the pieces that show the sky. There’s no way your audience is going to be able to tell it’s a sailboat because you didn’t show us enough pieces. It’s better to over do the set up and then cut back than to not give the audience enough information to make sense of it in the first place.

A good way to help yourself to make sure you’re giving the audience what they need is to do the “in a nutshell” test. Simply ask yourself, “In a nutshell, what am I trying to say?” This will get your head out of the story or the joke and help you to just say what it is you want to say and that’s when you can punch it!