Punchlines, simply put, are the payoffs to your setups. The audience (and the audience ALONE) decides if something is funny. You’re the writer, not the judge. The first time you perform, you’re giving the audience your best guess at what will work. As you gain experience you’ll learn how to get really good at guessing, but it’s still a guess.
You should give a joke several chances to get a laugh before deciding if it’s funny. Sometimes a joke doesn’t work for reasons other than how it’s written. Each joke is very unique, so use your best guess when deciding to keep or cut it. Let the audience be the judge. Writing is enough work already (and writing is the fun part anyway).
When writing punchlines make sure you keep your audience in mind. Age, sex, social status, political views, and the like all change the type of humor audiences enjoy. Keep in mind the audience you want to speak to. Clean comedy works in every market. Blue humor only works in bars and night clubs.
Finally, when you’re writing punchlines, don’t just stop at your first few ideas. There are dozens of great punchlines for any setup. The first one you find will most likely be the most logical and one of the least funny. Keep searching for something better. The audience will never know how many punchlines you went through to find the perfect one. All they care about is that you DID find the perfect one. Searching for another punchline CANNOT hurt your material. You always have the ability to ditch them and go back to your original. You have nothing to lose.
Like setups, punchlines need to be natural. If a punchline is unnatural or out of context the audience will sense how forced it is and your comedy will feel awkward.
The punchline is where you find the surprise. All of comedy is based on some type of surprise. I think of it as ‘playful surprise.’ It’s not enough for a line to contain a surprise. It has to please us in some way… and it usually does that by being playful.
Along with the surprise, a punchline will usually contain a keyword or phrase that defines the meaning of the line. These keywords are always located towards the end of the sentence.
Here’s an example from Louis C.K.
“I was reading about Bill Gates, the owner of Microsoft… He has 85 billion dollars. You know what you could do with 85 billion dollars? You could buy every baseball team and make them all wear dresses“
Keywords are the words in a sentence that define the meaning of the sentence. You can also think of them as “the word(s) in a punchline that make the punchline funny.” When C.K. said “…make them all wear dresses” the audience finally understood the entire meaning of the sentence. Before that they were all still waiting for more information.
Notice I say the keyword/s ‘define’ the line, not change it. Most comedy teachers preach that the keywords should change the meaning of the line in order to achieve the surprise. The punchline CAN, but doesn’t have to change the meaning of the setup.
Keep the keywords in the back of the punchline to avoid “stepping on the laughs” (talking passed the point where the audience would be laughing). If they’re laughing then they don’t need any more information.
WRONG KEYWORD PLACEMENT
“I was reading about Bill Gates, the owner of Microsoft… He has 85 billion dollars. You know what you could do with 85 billion dollars? You could make them all wear dresses by buying every baseball team.
Another characteristic of keywords is that they often end in a hard consonant such as “B (bu)”, “C (ku)”, “D (du)”, “F (fu)”, “J (ju)”, “K (ku)”, “M (mu)”, “N (nu)”, “P (pu)”, “T (tu)”, “W (wu)” instead of soft sounds such as “A (aa)”, “C (see)”, “E (ee)”, “G (gee)”, “H (hu)”, “I (eye)”, etc. There is a common belief that words with hard consonants are funnier than those with soft sounds. The reasoning behind this (as far as I can tell) is that the hard consonants have more definable endings. They are “sharper.” The hard-consonant theory seems well supported. So just know that, in general, hard consonants are generally thought of as funnier than softer sounds. But this is only a general rule. I would never reword an entire joke just so there would be a hard consonant ending. You’d likely lose more than you’d gain.
The longer it takes audience members to put together the pieces, the less humor there will be in the joke. Short click-points give audiences less time to head you off. If everything goes well, the click-point should occur around 0.3 seconds after the keyword (though physical laughter comes much later). Everything else being equal, the shorter the click-point, the bigger the surprise and the better the laugh.
Punchlines should be short and sweet. Think of the punchline like a whip. You want that extra snap in it to get the full effect. If your setup is too long, you’ll lose that extra snap to it. And the snap is what gives it its power. A whip works the same way a punchline does. It creates it’s energy with a quick movement- in then back out.
There are three ways you can alter a punchline to make it shorter.
First, if you have a punchline that is too long, try splitting the sentence up into 2+ sentences. A punchline can never be too short given that all the important information is still there.
Another option is to delete any words that don’t support the joke. These are extra words that were most likely left over from your first draft and no longer have any use. They were stepping stones. Leave them in the river and move on.
The last option you have is to abbreviate words in the punchline. The easiest way is to use contractions.
- Let the audience have the final say about whether a joke is funny or not
- Keep the audience demographics in mind (i.e., age, sex, religion, etc.)
- A punchline is a “playful surprise”
- Keywords define the meaning of a punchline and are usually at the end of a joke
- After the keyword, the audience should have all the information they need to understand the full joke
- Hard consonants, like “Fu” or “Nu” tend to be more useful in keywords, whereas soft consonants, like “Ahh” or “EE” tend to be less useful. Consider using them, but don’t “force” them into your material.
- A click-point is the amount of time it takes the audience to go from keyword to understanding (and then later to laughing). Faster click-points lead to bigger laughs.
- Keep punchlines short and sweet.