What Makes a Joke Funny?

Comedy Material Generator - How to Write a Joke

I was teaching a weekend writing workshop. It’s 2-days packed with comedy writing concepts.

At the beginning of that workshop, I explain that there are 3 types of comedians; the “coincidental,” “architect,” and “humorost.”

It’s too detailed for this post to go into each one, but in a nutshell the coincidental comedian sees something, reads something or hears something and turns it into a joke in that moment.

We all do this, but the problem with being a coincidental comedian is that we have to wait for that coincidence to occur in order to come up with material.

Why is that a problem? Because sometimes it’s a while between coincidences. Have you ever gone days or weeks without writing a joke?

It can be deflating. You begin to wonder if you’re funny anymore… or if you ever were…

“Have I been kidding myself this whole time?”

So this one guy sitting in my class looked familiar. Then I looked at the roster at his name. He was a comedian I had started with back in my open mic days.
He was ahead of me back then (had more experience) and I was always a big fan of his and his clever material. It was all observational comedy.

At the lunch break he asked if he could buy me lunch (hint for anyone who sits in my 2-Day Writing Workshop) 🙂

We caught up a bit. He had been working full time as a cruise ship comedian. But what struck me was that he said,  that, sitting in my workshop, for the first time in years his head was buzzing with creativity and ideas.

He said he already wrote a ton of jokes this morning and has many more ideas that just need to be formed!

He was abuzz with energy and excitement.

He said to me, “All this time, I’ve been a coincidental comedian. And now I feel like I can write jokes any time I want, because I finely feel like I understand what makes a joke funny!

And this was day one of the workshop!

So what changed?

What changed with this comedian who had been doing comedy for 25+ years professionally that finally made him feel like he now had the ability to write jokes at will?

He finally understood WHY.

He finally understood why people laugh.
and what makes a joke “funny.”

Now some of you may read this and think, you can’t know what makes a joke funny! It either is or it isn’t. (Yes, I’ve heard that argument.)

I assure you you can. (at least with high odds). George Carlin said to me that he knew with 98 percent accuracy that a joke was funny before he took the stage. When I asked how he knew that he said, “because it contains all the elements necessary for a joke to be funny.”

Identifying the Laughter Triggers

I’ve spent my life identifying those elements Carlin spoke about and cataloguing them so they can be taught and people can learn to use them to apply in their stories and their jokes.

I call these elements “Laughter Triggers.” They are hard-wired into the human psyche. They are:

  1. Surprise
  2. Superiority
  3. Embarrassment
  4. Incongruity
  5. Recognition
  6. Release
  7. Configurational
  8. Ambivalence
  9. Coincidence

Many jokes use one of these laughter triggers. But most good jokes contain 2 or more of these triggers.

As an example, let’s take this Chris Rock joke:

You know the stripper myth? There’s a stripper myth, that’s being perpetuated throughout society. The myth is, “I’m strippin’ to pay my tuition.” No you’re not! There’s no strippers in college! There’s no clear heels in biology! S—, man. I didn’t know they had a college that only took one-dollar bills. And if they got so many strippers at college, how come I never got a smart lap dance? I never got a girl that sat on my lap and said, “If I was you, I would diversify my portfolio. You know, ever since the end of the Cold War, I find NATO obsolete.”

It’s a funny bit that get’s laughs both by him telling the story and in him “acting out” the stripper.

The laughter triggers included are recognition, embarrassment, incongruity, superiority, surprise and coincidence.

Let’s break that down a little bit.

But first, please understand that there’s not ONE way to deconstruct comedy. But this is one way that you can use to help you identify the stimuli necessary to get a laugh in a joke, even when told as a story, like with this example.

On with the deconstruction:

1. RECOGNITION is present in this joke because he’s talking about a stripper, most of us have seen a stripper (either in person or on TV) so we’re familiar with them and the image is in our heads.

2. EMBARRASSMENT is also present since we’re talking about a subject (strippers) that we probably don’t talk to everyone about, especially in public.

3. INCONGRUITY… by Rock introducing the concept of the stripper going to college, he’s revealed a contrasting element and that is the essence of incongruity. Once that second element is introduced you can now take elements from the subject of stripper and juxtapose them with the elements of college. Combining the two elements gives us the humorous premise of a stripper in college.

Keep in mind that incongruity is not just a laughter trigger it is also a comedy structure. (There are 13 Comedy Structures). And that’s the exact structure that Rock used to tell this story. Once he introduced the stripper being in college that incongruity structure makes the audience want the comedian to tell us how that is going to work.

In addition, because we don’t normally perceive a stripper going to college but in Rock’s scenario she says she is there is also…

4. SURPRISE that is present.

Since every joke is a veiled attack. Rock is attacking the concept of a stripper being in college. The audience not only recognizes the scenario and is a little embarrassed by it, but that means

5. SUPERIORITY is present because the audience feels superior to the stripper because the joke is on her.

6. COINCIDENCE is ever present in this scenario, as it is in most incongruous (or associative) jokes. Putting two ideas and stating what results and / or acting them out usually makes the audience saying something to themselves like, “Wow! I never thought about it that way that’s so true! What a coincidence!

This is what makes Chris Rock such an excellent comedian. In one joke he is using 6 stimuli to trigger the laughs in the joke.

There’s a ton of possibilities when you use this technique of incongruity to create a premise.

But this is only the beginning when it comes to making the jokes work. You also have to apply structure. That’s something I will cover in another article.

Or you can always take a class to learn or further develop your comedy writing skill set.

Learning these concept will help you put together jokes like the one above from Chris Rock.

Which is exactly what George Carlin meant when he said he knows a joke is funny because it contains all the elements necessary for a joke to be funny. When you have one laughter trigger in your joke it has the chance of being funny, when you have 6 laughter triggers present, it has a “98 percent chance”  of being funny.

3 Cool Ways to get Started Writing Your Comedy Act

how to write a stand-up comedy act

I get this question a lot. How do I write a stand-up comedy act? What’s the best way to start?

That’s a typical dilemma in comedy, isn’t it? Just getting started writing.

The big problem actually arises when people try to write something funny. I know that sounds weird, but it’s true. People have a skewed concept of writing funny.

A lot of times when people try to write funny, they wind up with something zany, whacky or implausible. What they should be shooting for is plausible but unexpected.

Now, I don’t know if there is a “best” way to start, but in nearly 30 years on the road and 8 years writing for the Tonight Show and others, I’ve learned a few things about getting started writing comedy for television and writing for my own stand-up act. So I will share some of my techniques for getting started.

Please note that this is by no means the ONLY way to get started, but it one way I’ve used successfully through the years.

This is also part of a concept I learned from one of the best, George Carlin. Carlin said, “I know with 98 percent accuracy that a joke is going to be funny before I step on stage.”  I said, “How do you know that?” He said, “Because it contains all the elements a joke needs to be funny.”

So when I write, I use those elements.
There are two primary ways you can write comedy. Internally and externally.

Internal is personal. It’s about you. External is not about you but everything outside of you.

For this article, I’m going to talk about the internal.

First I write down 50 facts about me.

I don’t prejudge the facts, I just write them down. They include who I am, where I’m from, my heritage (lineage), my parents, family, religion, politics, relationship status, my idiosyncrasies, flaws, failures, etc.

The facts also include what I’ve been doing the last few weeks, days, hours.

The general idea is that a comedian should be able to take any logical grouping of words and turn it funny using structure.

Applying Comedy Structure

Once I have the facts down on the page, I take each one and apply comedy structure by asking 3 questions:

  1. Is there a double-entendre play? (Is there a word that has an implied meaning that I can turn into a comedic meaning using cynicism, sexuality, or sarcasm)
  2. Reverse: Is there something assumed in the statement that I can shatter. Can I take the expected outcome and flip it at the last second.
  3. Incongruity: Are there two or more dissimilar ideas that I can turn into a joke using association or juxtaposition. (most common technique used in comedy; incongruity).

This is the simplified approach using 3 major comedy structures of Double-Entendre, Reverse and Incongruity.

Since there are 13 Major Comedy Structures, I will often see other possibilities in the sentence and use one of them.

For example. If I was to open my act by saying, “I have 5 kids.”
I could turn that into something like, “I have 5 kids…that’s right 5 kids… because I’m only half-Mormon. I have 5 kids from 3 different moms. (audience responds with audible surprise)… Oh, there’s the judgement. One part of you was going “Oh, 5 kids. That’s quite an accomplishment. The other part’s like, “5 kids from 3 different moms? That’s trailer trash…”

Then I might add an act-out… “If I was in an episode of Cops, it would be like, (AO: Cop pointing a gun) “Sir step down from that milk crate!”
ME: (Trailer trash me): “Milk crate? Shiiiiit, that’s my porch!”

There are a lot of different ways to go with that one fact but it all started from the fact “I have 5 kids.”

Keep in mind, that comedy material like this is not meant to be read, but spoken and acted out. It might not sound funny on the page, it has never failed on the stage.

Another way I like to start is by writing what’s happening in my life.

“Yesterday was my wife’s birthday so I bought her a gift certificate for a His and Hers Massage. She was like, (AO: My Wife’s voice): “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 particular structure is called Benign Retaliation. I call it the perfect joke structure because it automatically contains an antagonist and a protagonist. And when you have an antagonist and protagonist, the audience is compelled not to just listen to the joke, but to root for the protagonist to win.

Therefore, the audience is emotionally more committed than just laughing at a simple surprise-style joke.

Here’s another example of a benign retaliation joke:

My Ex–who cheated on me–called me on Halloween. She was like, “Jerry, I don’t know what to pretend to be for Halloween.” I said, “Why don’t you dress normally and pretend you’re in a committed relationship.”

Double Entendre Structure

If we look at a simple double-entendre style joke, I might take it and finesse it into a story so it’s more compelling:

“I used to coach soccer and I remember our team got into the playoffs one time—yeah “one time,” that’s how bad we were. But this one time we got pummeled. Afterwards, the local paper interviewed me. The lady was like, Coach Corley, how do you feel about the execution of the offense?” I was like, “I’m all for it… and while you’re at it, do me. We all need to be put out of our misery.” Yeah, that’s what I said. They quoted me on that.

Reverse Structure

Another way to get started is with a quick Reverse. That’s where the fact you wrote has a strong expectation. The human brain is programmed to anticipate and create an expected ending of a story. That’s why you have couples that often finish each others sentences.

So I might say something simple like, “So, I’m in love… don’t tell my wife.”
Or I might say, “Six months sober… thank you very much. (Then take a beer or flask out of my pocket, take a drink) I’m so kidding! But you guys wouldn’t have applauded if I said, “I’ve been drinking since I was 18 and I don’t punch my wife.”

Another reverse might be to talk about my kids.

I’m trying to teach my daughter how to tie her shoes… which is weird, cuz’ she’s twenty-two. I’m just kidding. She’s five. Five years old and I’m trying to teach her how to tie her shoes. She’s like “Dad, I can’t Dad. I can’t!” And I’m like, “How many times have I told you not to use that word. I am NOT your Dad.”

Incongruity Structure

The last technique (but most popular in comedy) is Incongruity or juxtaposing contrasting elements in a sentence by using free association.

Like if I opened with “I’m Irish and American Indian… that’s my lineage, Irish and American Indian.

Now I have two clearly identifiable incongruous ideas. Irish and American Indian. If  I was to list everything I could think about dealing with Irish and do the same with American Indian, I might come up with this simple joke.

I’m Irish and American Indian. That’s my lineage. Irish and American Indian. You know what that means; I pretty much have VIP seats waiting for me at any AA meeting. (Then I might add an act out) I walk into that meeting it would be like (AO: meeting proctor, greeting me walking in) Hey! Running Bear O’Reilly! We have a seat for you in the front row…”

Or something like that.

This is just a simple approach to getting started writing a stand-up act. It’s based in the science of what triggers human laughter, then uses the structures that pull those triggers.

Again there are endless ways to go about writing your comedy. Most people are what I call coincidental comedians. We just wait for something funny to happen then if we record it or write it down, we can remember to tell it to an audience. The problem is, you have to wait for that “coincidence” to occur in order to write an act.

I prefer to understand comedy at it’s intrinsic operational level so that I can write comedy at will.

IMPORTANT: One thing to keep in mind is that learning how to write the way we talk is a skill that has to be practiced. We’re taught to write prosaically, but we speak in broken sentences, use contractions and slang. Therefore, we have to learn how to write the way we talk.

When you write your jokes you have to now get up on stage and perform them by telling them to the audience, like you you’re just talking to your friends.

I hope this helps you get started!

Holidays Can be Stressful or They Can be Comedy Gold, Your Choice!

Stay funny during the holidays

First of all Merry Christmas to everyone.  And those who don’t celebrate Christmas, Happy Hanukkah! And let’s not forget Kwaanza, Boxing Day, Winter Soltice, Pancha Ganapati, Yule, Yalda and Dies Natalis Solis Invicti. Happy that to you too!

And the rest of you will probably burn in an eternal Hellfire.

Festive Huh?!

I try to include everyone because I’m a self-proclaimed Catho-Christi-Hinuistic-Musli-Morma-Jew. I am! I don’t want to miss out on Heaven because of a technicality!

I love the holidays, but every year we hear stories about how stressful the holidays can be.

Suicide rates go up, family arguments occur, anxiety and depression increases, crime increases and so do heart attacks.

That’s not fake news, those are facts and I know it sounds drastic, but as a comedian I say, “Comedy Gold, right?!”

This little blog post is just a friendly reminder that despite the chaos and heightened everything that trends significantly upward during the holiday season, remember that you are a jester and revel in it!

Keep your eyes out for funny nuances of family members. Remember that little squabbles that feel so stressful during the holidays can become hysterical bits of comedy for your stand-up, your columns or your tweets.

One way to be sure you’re keeping your sense of humor is to remember to keep your cynical glasses on. Every comic is a bit of a cynic. We look outside the situation to see the funny in the situation.

If you’ve followed this blog at all you know that I’m emphatic about looking toward the opposite of expected to find the funny. If the number one psychological human laughter trigger is surprise, then looking for the opposite of expected is almost a magical way to find the funny. Or a funny start to a bit.

One exercise that helps is to utilize a top 10 list as a punchline generator.

  • Top 10 Reasons you know it’s Christmas in Los Angeles, (or where you live)
  • Top 10 Reasons you know it’s the Holidays at your house.

I know a lot of people who are in mixed marriages or whose parents are two different religions. You could start with something like…

“My father was raised Catholic. My mother was raised Jewish…”

Then do a top 10 list related to how you know it’s the holidays at your house to generate joke ideas.

Remember the Top 10 exercise is not designed for you to create a Top 10 List for your act, per se. That was Letterman’s bag. It’s there for you to generate punchlines and joke ideas for you to finesse into stand-alone jokes or jokes to fit into an bit.

Whatever works for you, just remember that humor is everywhere and seeking it out during the holidays, may reduce the stress that can actually come from the holidays.

Making it your goal to find some funny will help you to actually keep your Happy Holidays, happy!

Trying to Write Jokes, but Feeling Stuck?

So you’re writing and you get a premise down on the page and then… it just doesn’t seem to go anywhere. Does this happen to you?

I was Skype-coaching with one of my students today and he said, I’ve been trying to write, but I keep feeling like I’m getting stuck.”

It can be super frustrating, especially when you’re just writing to put something, ANYTHING, on the page.

So how do you take that idea and make it into something?

First off, it’s important to understand WHAT you’re writing. Often you have an idea but you can’t figure out where to go with it.

Come up with an Angle

Sometimes it’s because you haven’t come up with an angle.

Writing comedy is much like journalism or script writing. You’re telling a story, but for the story to gain interest right at the setup, it must have an angle.

An angle in story writing is much like your opinion on the matter. It’s what starts to shape the premise. Without an angle there is no premise and without a premise, it’s usually not interesting.

Sometimes the angle is subtle. It’s stated in what’s called a topic statement or in script talk it’s often referred to as “theme stated.”

For example. I talk about having 5 kids. Then I say I have 5 kids from 3 different moms. Often, someone in the audience will emit an audible gasp, or a “Wow,” or “Ohhh…” That’s when I’ll laugh, point out and say, “There’s the judgement!”

I’ll follow that with a couple of tags. But it’s when I say, “I just couldn’t figure out relationships…” That’s when it becomes interesting to the audience. That’s something almost everyone can relate to. Also by saying “I just couldn’t figure out relationships…” Gives me an angle to approach the rest of the story.

Now I can talk about each relationship the curious craziness of my ex and my glaring failures.

Some times it’s easier to find the angle once you step out the idea…

I approach it like I’d approach writing a script from the seed of the idea. One of the first things you have to remember is a story isn’t a story without the Maxim of the 5 W’s being present.

Meaning Who? What? Where? Why? When? and How? Without answering all those questions, there’s going to be huge gaps.

In comedy, by answering those questions you start to clarify the imagery and enhance the idea by adding more specifics, more detail.

Sometimes the jokes are in the details

Sometimes the detail is what gets you to the jokes and the detail can change the direction of the joke, just like a screenplay or a story.

So my student said he went shopping for a washer/dryer with his wife. He was just looking at why he AND his wife need to go shopping for appliances. But as we stepped out the idea it began to shape up in a different way because he was inspired by a new angle.

We talked about the reasons why, answering one of the maxims. Then I asked “What?” As in what kind of washer did you wind up buying?
He said, “Samsung.”

To me, Samsung seemed like a weird answer. In my head I was thinking, Samsung doesn’t make washer/dryers!

Boom! That sparked an emotion. Which indicates a point of view or an angle. And that’s when when we started riffing on an idea that fleshed itself out to a decent first draft bit.

The premise started to flesh out like this:

My wife and I bought a Samsung washer/dryer combination. Yeah, Samsung is now making washer/dryers. (This is the angle)—->That’s not cool. There’s a time when a company starts making shit outside their specialty and you know they’re just starting to get out of control. <—- Like Samsung makes cellphones, computer screens, flat screens. I mean I have a Samsung phone. Now they’re doing Washer/Dryer combos? That’s great and all, but every time it goes into the spin cycle my phone drops a call. Samsung Washers just don’t make sense…

So that got it started. But I try to treat a premise like a wet towel and wring it out for everything I can find.

Use an analogy to open up the premise

Often in a premise it’s a good idea to find an analogy. An analogy will introduce a second element (a dissimilar idea). This gives you a chance to do a listing technique and come up with possible associative jokes. And since it’s comedy, we heighten the reality.

So you ask, “What’s it like?” Samsung, the smartphone manufacturer making cellphones is like… (Here I’m going to wildly exaggerate to see if the analogy works), so the bit continues…

…That’s like buying a Kotex Motorcycle. What would their slogan be? “Already comes with the girl riding it.” Come down and buy a new, 2017 Kotex V-Twin. We’ll make you a great deal. Swear to god, No strings attached.
Nothing handles like a Kotex Motorcycle. Accelerates fast, turns on a dime, and it can navigate in the tightest places. AND, you can tell when she needs an oil change because she gets really moody.

A good ‘first draft’ approach

Realize that this is just a first draft approach. I don’t even know if the jokes will stay in the set, but it’s a good effort, especially considering he felt like he was banging his head against the wall and his premises didn’t seem to be going anywhere at all.

So next time you feel like you’re stuck… start with an idea, step it out with the maxim of the 5-W’s, create an angle, drop in an analogy, look for the similarity between the dissimilar ideas and write the jokes.

It’s just one great way to keep yourself from banging your head against the wall.

The Most Powerful Tool for Your Joke Writing

comedy toolbox

Here is something I want to be sure you have at your disposal. It is what I would call the most powerful tool for your joke writing. It is something everyone who’s into writing comedy material should have in their toolbox.

Even if you’re naturally funny.

It is the incongruity listing sheet. This is what I use each time I want to write jokes using the incongruity technique by taking two dissimilar ideas and converging them. It helps you create associations between dissimilar ideas.

Read the following example then download the sheet at keep it handy. It is literally one of the most powerful ways to write jokes.

But first…

Understanding Incongruity in Comedy

Incongruity is when you have a setup that contains two or more dissimilar ideas. You turn it into a juxtaposition of two ideas and create jokes.

Not all joke setups are built with the two dissimilar or contrasting ideas present.

Example:

The news keeps showing us images of President Trump signing executive orders.

In that setup there’s isn’t a clear juxtaposition of contrasting elements present. No two contrasting ideas really stand out.

What I would do is take that image of the president signing the bill and list everything I see in the picture.

Without a doubt I would wind up listing “those black folders,” since they are so prominent in every photo.

Sometimes, if the obvious contrasting ideas are not there, I will remind myself to try to use an analogy.

One way to reshape the setup so that it does contain that obvious juxtaposition is by using analogy or “is like.”

The news keeps showing us images of President Trump signing these executive orders… he’s got those black folders. It’s like he’s holding up a menu; Insert an act out, like I’m at a restaurant ordering food: “… and the lady will have the Filet mignon, grilled asparagus and a ban on Muslims.”

And since we’ve created the menu (in a restaurant) as the second or contrasting element we could continue to tag the joke with something like,

“And when they’re done with that black folder at that signing table, do they just have the hostess wipe it off and use it for the next seating?”

When the Setup Already Contains a Second Idea

Sometimes the set up includes it’s own contrasting ideas, as in:

“The body of a 40-year-old woman was found in a processing plant for McDonald’s restaurants.”

In that statement, you clearly have two or more contrasting elements present in the setup; the body of a 40-year-old woman and McDonald’s. So you don’t have to use analogy as a device to create the contrasting element. You could just use your list and put McDonald’s in one column and Body of a 40-year-old woman in the other and look for ideas that could fit in the other column either literally or as a metaphor.

For example in the list for body of a 40-year-old woman, I would probably have the word “breasts.” Can “breasts” fit in the other column for McDonald’s?

Sure! They could use it as chicken breasts, right?

Where does McDonald’s use Chicken breasts? In Chicken sandwiches. Since McDonald’s always seems to be facing scrutiny on whether or not their sandwiches contain real meat, I could make the joke like this:

“The body of a 40-year-old woman was found in a processing plant for McDonald’s restaurants. A spokesman for McDonald’s put a positive spin on it saying ‘Now McDonald’s can claim that their chicken sandwich is made with REAL breasts… 40-year-old SAGGY breasts, but real breasts, nonetheless… would you like thighs with that?”

With that one setup and the toppers I added, I could get 3 to 4 laughs out of one joke idea. Booker look for a laugh every 18-20 seconds. You could easily hit that bullseye with one joke.

So you can see how powerful this particular technique is for writing comedy.

Try it yourself.

Download the worksheet for the listing technique, print it out and use it any time!

Hope this helps!

If you want to visit this concept more thoroughly, check out the 2-Day Comedy Writing Workshop in Vegas or my eBook “Breaking Comedy’s DNA.”