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How to Write a Joke

I used to be a funny offi ce lady. Actually, I still am, but now I get hired to be funny outside of my cubicle, too. What started as a secret dream turned into a hobby turned into a budding career. Maybe you have similar comedy aspirations or maybe you just simply want to add some levity to your Facebook timeline. Either way, the best place to start is getting your pen to paper or Calibri font to Google doc and writing your ideas down. It can feel daunting at first, but I am here to help! The following is a step-by-step guide to get you started on your joke writing journey.

Step 1: Sharpen your observation skills. Comedic material is all around you, whether it be personal anecdotes, news stories or awkward social situations. So put down the Candy Crush and start paying attention to the little things as much as the big things.

Try It Out: Make a list of everything you did today. Do not worry if the topics are not funny, we will get there. A few things on my list might include:

  • Woke up late.
  • Drove to work.
  • Checked emails.

Step 2: Embrace your point of view. Your point of view includes everything from the opinions you hold to simply how you experience the world. The greatest comedic tool you already possess is your own set of personal experiences.

Try It Out: Get more specifi c about how you experienced each item on your list. Specifi city often yields comedy nuggets. Using my list, I’ve added the following:

  • Woke up late. Showered in the dark to a night light.
  • Drove to work: Listened to a mixed CD.
  • Checked Emails: Unsubscribed from three email lists.

Step 3: Find the Funny. Humor comes from the unexpected. We laugh when our expectations are met with a delightful or shrewd surprise. When searching for the funny, look for a clever recognition of a universal experience.

Try It Out: Create a stream of consciousness for one of the items on your list. Write down all the associations, thoughts and comparisons you have about that experience. I chose the topic of unsubscribing for my stream of consciousness.

Unsubscribing: No more emails. Am I hurting a Marketer’s feelings? What if I want to come back? Ending a relationship. Breaking up. Breaking up with a computer.

Step 4: Craft your joke. Basic joke structure leads the reader to assume one thing (this is called the “Set Up”) then through a reveal, offers a different surprise ending (this is the “Punchline.”).

Crafting the joke is often the hardest part of the writing process, so I want to give you a bonus example of solid joke structure from Comedian Kaira Williams. Williams writes, “I’m gonna start a diet, but fi rst I need to go through all the junk food they still have at stores and restaurants.”

Notice how she uses a universal experience to set the joke up then offers a delightful surprise at the end.

Try It Out: Select a thought from your stream of consciousness that amuses you and start working your joke premise.

Going back to my example, I begin to play around with comparing unsubscribing to hurting someone’s feelings, and after a dozen premises I come up with:

My West Michigan niceness makes breaking up hard to do. It took me three years to click unsubscribe from Dunkin’ Donuts’ email list.

Step 5: Edit your joke. Conciseness is crucial and will maximize the punchiness of your joke.

Try It Out: After you write your joke, take another look to see if any unnecessary words can be removed or rearranged. Generally, the funniest words should go at the very end. I edited my joke down to:

I’m so West Michigan nice, I can’t break up with anybody. It took me three years to click unsubscribe from Dunkin’ Donuts.

Step 6: Add a tag. A tag is optional and is any joke you put after the punchline. It is a way to heighten the joke.

Try It Out: If you keep your stream of thinking going after your punchline, can you think of any other jokes to tag on? In my example I wanted to play with Dunkin Donuts so I added:

I’m so West Michigan nice, I can’t break up with anybody. It took me three years to click unsubscribe from Dunkin’ Donuts. And I’m gluten free.

So there you have it. Of course there is not just one way to write a joke and not every joke will be a winner, but this is a good place to start. I hope to retweet or see you at an open mic soon.

Amy Gascon is a local comedy performer and sketch writer. She is a founding member of The Comedy Project and a graduate of the Second City Conservatory.

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