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How Conventional Jokes Work

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How Conventional Jokes Work

How Audiences Process Humor And What Every Comedian Must Do

As you’ll see, comedic conflict and joke-telling are not completely inseparable. A joke is simply a setup/punchline structure that is designed to create a comedic conflict. All jokes create comedic conflict, but not all comedic conflict is created from jokes. Understanding comedic conflict greatly increases your repertoire as a comedian.

The audience isn’t passive in stand-up comedy. As you’ll see in this chapter, it takes a lot of effort to get a joke. This is why comedy shows generally only last around 90 minutes or less. Beyond that, the audience will have more difficulty in keeping up, because they’ll be running low on mental energy.

When someone is “getting a joke” he or she goes through three steps, in order: constructing (understanding the setup), reckoning (recognizing a problem or inconsistency), and resolving (fixing the problem).

 

Constructing

Constructing is how the audience builds an understanding of a joke. As the audience listens to a joke, they take all the information (the comedian’s words, gestures, voice inflections, situation, etc.) and try to put it all together in a meaningful way. For example, take this setup (we’ll add the punchline later):

A woman gets on a bus with her baby.

The bus driver says:

‘Ugh, that’s the ugliest baby I’ve ever seen!’

The woman walks to the rear of the bus and sits down, fuming.

She says to a man next to her: ‘The driver just insulted me!’

The man says: ‘You go up there and tell him off.

Go on, I’ll hold your …

While you were reading this joke, you were “constructing” an understanding of it in your mind. You did this by picking out the information that seemed important. Since you (presumably) didn’t know what the punchline would be, you couldn’t be sure what information was actually going to be important until the joke ended. What you deemed important might have looked something like this:

A woman gets on a bus with her baby.

The bus driver says:

‘Ugh, that’s the ugliest baby I’ve ever seen!’

The woman walks to the rear of the bus and sits down, fuming.

She says to a man next to her: ‘The driver just insulted me!’

The man says: ‘You go up there and tell him off.

Go on, I’ll hold your…

Just by remembering the bold words in the joke, you could probably turn around and tell someone this joke yourself. You might switch around a few words, but the bold words carry all the important information for the joke.

As you constructed the joke, you started building predictions as well. It’s those predictions that allow for comedic conflict, which we’ll get to a little later. While you were reading the last line, you probably automatically filled in the last sentence to say “Go on, I’ll hold your baby” because that’s what we would expect the man to say.

 

Reckoning

Reckoning, the second phase of getting a joke, is what makes a joke into a joke. The audience recognizes an inconsistency or a problem with their original understanding of the story – their prediction was wrong. The incorrect prediction forces the audience to rethink the setup. For example:

A dyslexic man walks into a

bra

The word “bra” breaks your prediction. You’ve heard enough “A man walks into a bar” jokes in the past to know what should have been said. When you hear “bra” instead of “bar” you recognize a problem. It’s only after solving that problem (“Oh… He’s dyslexic.”) that you understand the joke.

A woman gets on a bus with her baby.

The bus driver says:

‘Ugh, that’s the ugliest baby I’ve ever seen!’

The woman walks to the rear of the bus and sits down, fuming.

She says to a man next to her: ‘The driver just insulted me!’

The man says: ‘You go up there and tell him off.

Go on, I’ll hold your monkey for you.’

The word (or words) that cause the shift are keywords. In these two jokes, the keywords are “bra” and “monkey.” If you replaced the word “monkey” with “baby,” then this is a pretty straightforward story. It doesn’t become a “bad joke,” it ceases to be a joke at all. The guy offers to hold the baby while the woman yells at the bus driver. At most, this story is mildly interesting, but certainly not funny.

But when you get to the word “monkey,” you have to figure out why the man said “monkey” instead of “baby.” This causes the shift. You must now search for a new way of understanding the story that makes sense.

Notice that if you go back through the dyslexic man joke or the ugly baby joke a few times and alter the way you say each line, nothing changes. It doesn’t matter if you deliver it as if you’re excited or sad. It doesn’t even matter if you or I say the joke. The keyword overshadows everything. The humor is entirely word-based.

Keywords are a make-or-break moment for the joke. There’s a very clear before and after. Once you get to the keyword, there’s nothing left to do. The audience has all the information necessary for the laugh.

You’ll notice that keywords almost always occur at the very end of a joke, often as the very last word. Keywords always go at the end because they cause the shift. Adding new information after hitting the punchline would kill the joke. Notice how continuing on after the keyword drains the humor from the joke.

 

A dyslexic man walks into a

bra to order a beer.

Or…

A woman gets on a bus with her baby.

The bus driver says:

‘Ugh, that’s the ugliest baby I’ve ever seen!’

The woman walks to the rear of the bus and sits down, fuming.

She says to a man next to her: ‘The driver just insulted me!’

The man says: ‘You go up there and tell him off.

Go on, I’ll hold your monkey for you

so that you can go up there

and tell that guy how rude he is being.

Technically, these are the same jokes. But when you continue on after the keyword, the audience’s attention moves with you. You hit the keyword, but instead of letting the audience put the pieces together to get the joke, the audience is still listening for more information. By the time the extra words in the punchline are finished, the word “monkey” is no longer a surprise.

 

Resolving

During the construction of a conventional joke, we gathered information about the joke and created a prediction. Moving into the reckoning phase, we learned that our prediction (or representation) was wrong. Resolving the joke is the last step. It answers the question, “If my first idea was wrong, then what’s right?” Think of it as the moment you think, “Oh! I get the joke.” During the resolution phase, you come to a second understanding of the joke.

‘I went to the zoo the other day,

there was only one dog in it,

it was a shitzu.’

Once again, you start by constructing an understanding of the story. You choose ideas that seem important…

‘I went to the zoo the other day,

there was only one dog in it,

it was a shitzu.’

The word “shitzu” is the keyword. You resolve by changing “shitzu” to “shit zoo.” Now the pun makes sense.

‘I went to the zoo the other day,

there was only one dog in it,

it was a shit zoo.’

Now all of the pieces fit together and your new understanding of the joke makes sense. If you didn’t shift to the new representation, you’d be very confused when the joke ended. Once you realized that there isn’t another line, you’d think, “Wait, what did I miss?”

 

Click-Points

The amount of time it takes the audience to leave the construction stage, go through reckoning, and end at the resolution stage is known as a “Click-Point.” It’s the time it takes for everything to “click together.” 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.

A long click-point creates less surprise than a short one. Have you ever had to have someone explain a joke to you? You hear a joke the first time but don’t quite understand, then your friend slowly explains it. However, there’s never anything funny about a joke once it’s explained. This is because the click-point is far too long. Instead of putting everything together in 0.3 seconds, it might take you three full seconds… And that’s plenty of time for your brain to jump ahead of you and kill any surprise.

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