November 18, 2010
I’ve been reading a book by Sigmund Freud called Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious. In it the Austrian Psychoanalyst attempts to explain and qualify what makes a joke. Unfortunately, the criteria that make a joke funny are completely subjective. Some people like Larry the Cable Guy’s jokes, some like David Cross’. Therefore it is literally impossible to scientifically formulate any equation that will always result in a good joke. It’d be like trying to prove Pythagorean’ Theorem when no one agrees that 2+2=4.
Freud’s analysis is too academic to be useful for a normal comedian. So I put together my own list of what I think makes a successful joke.
1) Does it make logical sense?
Have you ever heard a comic tell a joke and your response after he/she hits the punchline is, “Huh?” A joke should have a logical progression at its core making it possible (not necessarily easy) for the audience to follow along. From my experience you can expect that the audience will make one leap of logic for you. They will not make two. You can find this rule in Mitch Hedberg-type jokes.
Mitch Hedberg: “A severed foot is the ultimate stocking stuffer.”
On its surface this makes no sense, but the audience can logically follow the comedian’s train of thought. Feet go in stockings usually. We hang stockings for Christmas. A foot would be a bad Christmas present. There is only one leap in logic here. A severed foot being in a Christmas stocking is absurd, but it makes sense.
2) Does it paint a picture?
If you pay attention to strong comedians, they can tell a story with lots of detail. Dave Chappelle will describe the scene of the joke with lots of cues about the environment. This way an audience member won’t get lost. They all have the same image in their heads. When the punchline is delivered the whole crowd goes along for the ride.
Make sure that you are painting the picture with the right words. There are some words that are inherently funnier than others. For me, the word “slap” is funnier than “strike.” “Loafer” is funnier than “shoe.” “Pavement” is funnier than “ground.” Look at the common thread between those two examples. The more specific word elicits a better response. It paints a picture.
Another rule of thumb when selecting words, especially for punchlines, is to use words with a hard consonant sound. A hard consonant sound is made by completely stopping the flow of air, usually by blocking it with the tongue or lips. The main stops include b,p, t,d, k and g.
You can paint a picture with more than words too. An image can be established through motions or sounds. Bill Cosby’s classic bit about going to the dentist wouldn’t be nearly as great if it wasn’t for the sound effects. He scrapes the microphone with his fingernail to paint a picture of a dental cleaning. This puts the audience right in the moment with him.
3) Is it economical?
Brevity is the soul of wit. However, not all jokes are meant to be short one-liners. The joke/story needs to be as economical as possible while still painting an effective picture. If it takes you 1 minute to set up a joke, only to get a small laugh after the joke’s punchline, then you need to shorten the set-up or strengthen the punch. There are times where I catch myself giving the audience completely unnecessary information. It might just be a transition sentence here and there. Believe it or not, those pauses in the action can make an audience lose focus. This will dilute your laughs.
4) Does it shine a flashlight on something?
Jeff Foxworthy once said, “There’s a lot of stuff people see in day to day life that they think is weird. But they just forget about it after two seconds. A comedian’s job is to take that obscure thing that nobody really pays attention to and shine a flashlight on it. Hold it up to the audience and say, ‘Isn’t this weird??’” It can be something about society or something about you. But a good joke should take an unnamed thing and name it. The TV show Seinfeld was great at this. Shrinkage, close-talker, man-hands. All of these things are insignificant pieces of minutia that we’ve all seen at some point. Seinfeld just called it out.
5) Is it playful?
The heart of laughter is playfulness. So if a joke comes from a mean or condescending place, then it won’t be received well. Most of this will be based on the comedian’s stage personality. I’ve seen vulgar, racist, and offensive jokes work well because the comedian is still being playful about it. They don’t really want anyone to get hurt.
6) Is it “you”?
If a joke doesn’t match the comedian performing it, it’s already dead in the water. I’ve seen people who are very timid in real life try to go on stage and talk about the beating people up. I’ve seen very nerdy comedians try to talk about how many women they’ve slept with. It just doesn’t work. The audience can tell if a person is being “real” with them or not.
Jim Gaffigan used to do a number of sex jokes. But it wasn’t really him. “I found that I liked doing jokes about the really mundane. So if you’re doing sex jokes it’s hard to then talk about bacon or hotel pools.”
I’m no Freud, but I think this is a good checklist to follow for other comics.