Comedy is all about taking people by surprise. When you can get your audience to think they have you figured out, then hit them with a left turn, the laughs can be more consistent and they can “pop.”
One of the most effective ways to create this kind of surprise is through the use of paraprosdokians. Sounds like something your doctor might find in your chest x-ray? Not quite.
Paraprosdokians are a type of wordplay that can turn a seemingly ordinary sentence into a crisp laugh.
In this post, we’ll take a look at what paraprosdokians are, how they work, and how you can use them in your own comedy routines.
What are Paraprosdokians?
To understand what paraprosdokians are, let’s break the word down. “Para-” means “against” or “counter to,” and “prosdo-” comes from the Greek word for “expectation.” So, a paraprosdokian is a sentence that goes against or ‘subverts’ your expectation.
You’ve heard me use the phrase “shatter the assumption,” or “shatter the expectation,” before? Well this is the same concept.
For example: The legendary Grouch Marx, at the end of a roast or a speech would often say something like, “I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it”.
When you hear “I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening,” you expect the sentence to end positively. But, that expectation is turned on its head when Marx adds “but this wasn’t it.”
Another example of a paraprosdokian can be found in the joke: “I used to play piano by ear. Now I use my hands.” The set-up leads you to believe you’re going to hear about how great this pianist is, but the punchline is not only a ‘simple truth’ play on the words, “play by ear,” but a clever subversion of the expectation created by that phrase.
Understanding the Power of Paraprosdokians in Comedy
Paraprosdokians can also be used to create a comedic twist in longer speeches or routines. For example, the famous Winston Churchill line: “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.” This sentence seems like a compliment but quickly turns into a dig at the American political system and its often chaotic decision-making.
Paraprosdokians work because they play with the audience’s expectations. We’re used to hearing certain phrases and ideas expressed in a certain way. When a comedian subverts those expectations, it catches us off guard and we’re more likely to be surprised, and find it funny.
Adding Laughs to Your Routine Using Paraprosdokians
If you’re looking to inject some left turns into your own comedy routine, paraprosdokians can be a great tool. Start by looking at common clichés, phrases and sayings and thinking of ways to subvert them. For example, “I have a 9-year-old girl” can become “I have a 9-year-old girl, in my basement.” A dark left turn that has the audience first believe I’m talking about my daughter, but then realizing I might be a kidnapper.
Paraprosdokians can be confused with Cliche Reformations, but like with the example above, you can see that is doesn’t start as a cliche.
The problem with labeling them as cliche reformations is that, when a student is first learning about this device, the student will often only limit themselves to statements that are actually categorized as cliches.
But looking back at Groucho Marx’s phrase: “I’ve had a perfectly lovely evening…” one wouldn’t call that a cliché. That phrase in English literature is known as a “saying.” And we have tons of regular sayings in American English.
Pulling off a Successful Paraprosdokian
One thing to keep in mind with paraprosdokians is that they have to be executed with precision. If the turn is too unexpected or doesn’t flow naturally, you risk confusing or alienating your audience. Practice your delivery and timing to make sure you hit the joke just right.
In a nutshell, paraprosdokians are unique figures of speech that turn expectations on their head. They take a phrase or sentence and flip it around to create an unexpected result, making them powerful tools for comedy and humor. Paraprosdokians have been used across many different forms of comedic media, from stand-up comedy to television sitcom.
Examples of Paraprosdokians
“He taught me housekeeping; when I divorce I keep the house.” –Zsa Zsa Gabor
“I haven’t slept for 10 days, because that would be too long.” –Mitch Hedberg
“I have the heart of a small boy… in a glass jar on my desk.” – Stephen King
“Standing in the park today, I was wondering why a frisbee looks larger the closer it gets…then it hit me.” –Stewart Francis
“I remember the night before I filed for divorce. I was laying in bed with my wife nake–wait, that wasn’t me…” — Jerry Corley
Research Your Own and Practice!
At its heart, comedy is all about making people laugh. While there are many different techniques and approaches to creating comedic moments, the power of paraprosdokians should not be overlooked. By using language and subverting expectations, comedians can create surprising and hilarious moments that leave audiences wanting more.
So what are you waiting for? Since paraprosdokians are a literary device used in English they are easy to research. Start Googling them now and collect your own.
When you do that, then practice writing your own.
“Sexually, my wife is a great communicator. Like when she’s completely satisfied in bed she’ll let me know she’s on her way home.“
See how in the above one-liner, it seemed like the statement was completed when I said, “she’ll let me know…” then I added the surprise ending. Practice this on your own. They are a lot of fun!
One of the best comedians to employ paraprosdokians was Groucho Marx, in my opinion. He made you feel like the saying was complete then he would add surprise ending.
Remember, however to effectively execute a funny paraprosdokian you have to use a saying that is going to create an expectation. The better or more acute the expectation, the better the surprise. And the better the surprise, the better the laugh.
“Behind every successful man is a woman, behind her is his wife” — Groucho Marx
“I belong to no organized political party. I am a Democrat.” — Will Rogers
Whether you’re a seasoned jokester or just starting out, try incorporating some paraprosdokians into your next routine and see how quickly you can add some crisp laugh points to your routine.
I hope this has helped because if I can just make one person laugh, one person chuckle, one person smile, then I pretty much suck because there are 15 thousand of you who read this every month.
Comedy is all about taking people by surprise. When you can get your audience to think they have you figured out, then hit them with a left turn, the laughs can be more consistent and they can “pop.” One of the most effective ways to create this kind of surprise is through the use of…