The Most Amazing Method for Writing Killer Jokes
Why Comedy Is the Most Effective Way to Advertise
We locked eyes. The next thing I knew a determined account executive was rushing me from across the room like I had just set her tabby cat on fire. My desk was centrally located in a cubicle jungle at the agency, so this was about to be a very public execution. I rifled through options in my head. Should I come out swinging? Run? Too late. Preemptively, I smiled and asked how the client liked the rewrite.
From 20-odd-feet away she hurled the bound script at me. It instantly exploded into a half-dozen separate pages. As she stormed through the sheets of paper raining down like snowflakes, I was half expecting her to surrender one of her pumps and fire it in for good measure. Instead, she shouted, “We’re screwed! He wants a whole new direction.” She picked up one of the pages and shook it at me. “Look. Just look. We’re completely off scope.” All work at the agency stopped.
After quickly scanning meticulous flow charts and diagrams in the client’s feedback, I completely understood how he wanted the case study restructured. It wasn’t the typical problem/solution/benefit format, but it made complete sense. I shrugged my shoulders and told her, “This is perfect. We’ll do it tomorrow, review it and submit for client review number two.” Everyone at the agency relaxed back into his or her glowing computer screen and returned to work. Shocked, she asked why this wasn’t a complete do-over.
Actually, my job had just gotten a lot easier, because I understood the structure and I had always known how to wordsmith jokes. If you’re gonna bake a cake you need flour, sugar and milk. If you’re gonna write a joke you need THREES: Target, Hostility, Realism, Emotion, Exaggeration and Surprise.
Whenever I have jokes that don’t quite work or I know they could be improved, I hearken back to the rule of THREES in a book called “Comedy Writing Secrets” by Mel Helitzer with Mark Shatz. Many consider it the textbook for anyone who wants to write comedy.
Jokes are made up of six elemental components: threat, hostility, realism, exaggeration, emotion and surprise. I increase or decrease the intensity of one component and then ask myself if the joke is better, worse, or am I just playing with my food. I then repeat this exercise with each component until I’ve mined all the comedic gold out of the joke. The following is the rule of THREES.
This is the person or thing the joke is directed at. It could be a person, a concept or an object. Always look for targets with universal appeal and then dive down into specific complaints. Some of the most common targets are yourself, sex, celebrities, places, products and ideas.
Does the target have broad appeal with your audience?
Is the target well defined?
Is there sufficient detail for the audience to relate to the target?
The hostility is usually directed upward toward someone or something (like technology) that occupies a superior position. When directed downward, you need to put the object of the hostility in a superior position. For example, “It’s not my house anymore. My 2-year-old runs the place.” The set-up is from the father’s perspective, but it puts the child in a superior position.
Change where the hostility is coming from.
Decide how much hostility is enough and how much is too much.
Acknowledge the audience if the hostility is unreasonable.
There should always be a nugget of truth in the joke, so the audience can associate with it. Humor is a paradox of exaggeration and truth. It becomes funny when the audience sees the contrast between how things are and how they should be.
If the joke involves fantasy, ground it in reality first.
Will only a small group of people appreciate this truth? And if so, does it need clarification for a wider audience?
Would it benefit from more detail rather than a nugget of truth?
A humorist’s tradecraft is hyperbole and out-and-out distortion. The perfect blend of exaggeration and realism is what gives the writer license to create surprise in the punch line.
Is there too much or too little exaggeration?
Does the exaggeration match the aesthetics of the humor?
Is there something different that should be exaggerated instead?
When working on commercials, a writer is forced to use the smallest units of comedy imaginable. It’s why many commercials use parody, stereotypes or celebrities to communicate quickly and effectively. The same principle applies to emotion. You need to create emotion as economically as possible. One famous example is the pregnant pause employed by George Burns. He would take a puff off his cigar before the punch line to create tension, while audiences salivated with anticipation. Johnny Carson chose a different approach and asked rhetorical questions to get the audience visualizing the story. It immediately threw them into the experience.
Should I add an underdog?
What are the best words to describe how someone is experiencing the emotion?
What gesture or stage direction should I add for more emotion?
Remember, as soon as you give the audience the set-up, everyone is trying to work out the puzzle in their head, so you must ensure the joke takes them where they didn’t expect to go. They can never see the punch line coming. And for bonus points, try to hide the set-up in an innocent moment that the audience will never suspect. The writers on the television show Seinfeld were particularly good at hiding set-ups.
Is there too much or too little information before the punch line?
Is it logical, or is there real surprise attached to it?
Can the punch line be rewritten in a way that the audience gets the joke only in the last word or two?
Humor needs to contain each of these six elemental components to be successful, but the real magic is in the fine-tuning. Standup comedians will test new material night after night in front of live audiences – adjusting each of these components up or down to see what plays out best. They’re always tinkering with the formula. Any voluble jokester can blurt out something funny, but professionals know how to work the craft.
Mike Johnston is a production executive and advertising creative in Seattle. He is available for freelance consulting, writing and directing. Contact Mike
Want to avoid the biggest mistake many comedy writers make? Read, "The Fatal Mistake Writers Make Creating Comedic Commercials."