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.

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