What Makes a Good Comedy Premise?
Several people on social media asked me this question recently. So I thought I’d put together a quick lesson for you.
One of the oldest definitions of a joke: “A joke is two dissimilar ideas converging.”
This definition is from Aristotle, then recounted by Plato (who thought comedy was so bad for society, he tried to outlaw it).
Then, the definition was reanimated in 1783 by James Beattie, a Scottish poet and philosopher.
But let’s explore further…
Two dissimilar ideas converging…
A joke is usually made up of a setup and a punchline.
The Setup usually contains the premise.
A premise, on the other hand is how the setup is formed.
A premise is what makes an audience decide if they should continue listening, so it has to spark interest or emotion.
Basic Elements of a Good Premise?
So what makes up a good premise?
Let’s start with the basic elements and build from there.
The basic elements of a premise are a topic + a condition.
A condition could be a setting, situation, or point of view.
The topic and condition that you present to the audience creates acute anticipation from the audience for you to provide an answer, solution or explanation.
The explanation can make sense, in an additional way way if it is filtered through your persona, state of mind, emotional state, physical ability or disability.
For example. I could say I’m Irish and Native American. That’s my lineage, that’s my ethnicity, Irish and Native American.
(It’s common knowledge that the Irish and Native American cultures have a history with alcohol).
So I could say, “I’m Irish and Native American. That’s my lineage, my ethnicity; Irish and Native American… so you know what that means, I have VIP seats waiting for me at any AA meeting… I walk into that meeting, they’re like “Hey Running Bear- O’Reilly, we have a chair for you in the front row.”
Here's the Secret
Here's the Secret: a good premise is the audience is waiting for you to resolve the information you gave us in the setup. So you can prompt them to desire a resolution.
Let’s look at that above joke
SETUP: I’m Irish and Native American (Two dissimilar ideas that are converging)
That’s a good setup but does the audience feel the desire for a resolution. A little, but not enough for a live performance. So I can add a prompt.
SETUP: I’m Irish and Native American. That’s my lineage, my ethnicity; Irish and Native American.
(The repetition helps the audience to be like, Okay… what’s point are you trying to make?—And that’s tension, right?)
MISDIRECTION: So you know what that means… (Boom. They really are forced to try to find their own answer, right? While the audience tries to fill in the blank… I say it in a way they would never say it and it also serves to resolve their piqued curiosity)
PUNCH: I have VIP seats waiting for me at any AA meeting.
In this case, I drew together the dissimilar cultures of Irish and Native American, but since I’m both I can ask what would happen? I could wind up being a 2x alcoholic.
What would that mean? I would have VIP seats waiting for me at any AA meeting.
That’s one way to tell a joke with a premise by introducing the two dissimilar ideas as part of a fact or a descriptive statement.
One of the simplest ways of imposing two dissimilar ideas is to use the device of analogy, (is-like). You could impose one idea onto the other by saying, “Going to the gym is a lot like sex…” or Marriage is a lot like going to Home Depot…”
Now you have the two dissimilar ideas converging.
That is a premise that feels like it needs a follow-up, a clarifier.
One of the reasons it needs a clarifier is that by using the analogy, you have take two dissimilar ideas and posited to the audience that these two different ideas are the same.
That, by definition is an illogical equation or statement. By stating this idea that can’t be true at first glance, the audience is on pins and needles waiting for you to provide the solution to this outwardly ridiculous statement.
This statement also creates tension. And in any story you NEED tension to give the audience a reason to pay attention.
So to break it down further, a good premise should:
- Be relatable
- Antagonize (create an emotion of excitement, frustration, confusion, fascination for the audience)
- Create imagery
- Create tension and a need for clarification, an answer, or resolution.
Don't Overthink It
Knowing this basic information in what makes a good premise should help you better identify opportunities to write better jokes.
Sometimes we overthink our approach to comedy. It’s actually more basic than we think it is.
Some of the best jokes are the simplest jokes. But when we are exposed to comedy and it makes us laugh we automatically assume that it must be super clever.
Sometimes it’s simply stating to the audience two dissimilar ideas, telling the audience they are the same then solving that statement for true.
There are many more ways to create a good premise, but I thought this quick lesson would be a good start!