You might think you clicked on this guide to learn how to write a joke, but I’m here to tell you that’s not the case. What you’re actually here to learn is how to write a good joke. The kind of joke you’ve seen your favorite comedians delivering throughout their hilarious careers.
Those people have so much experience writing jokes for standup comedy that they can make it look impossibly easy. But while most of us can’t ask Jerry Seinfeld how to write a joke, the advice he’d probably give is that it’s all about structure, efficiency, tension, and reps.
With just those four simple ingredients, you can learn how to write a funny joke on your own. So read on for the secrets—and mentally prepare yourself for your tickled friends and family members to demand the secrets to your success.
The 3 Elements of a Joke
Joke-writing can feel intimidatingly specific. But it isn’t. If you start thinking of joke-writing as a pared down version of storytelling, you’ll be on the right track in no time.
Just like a story, a good joke arcs its way through a beginning (set-up), middle (conflict), and end (punch-line), introducing its characters, placing them in conflict, and then resolving that conflict within a few well-chosen sentences.
An introduction to the who, what, where of your joke: we meet the characters, get some information about the environment, and figure out what kind of interaction we’re going to see.
To use some common examples: “why did the chicken cross the road?,” “knock knock,” and “so-and-so and so-and-so walk into a bar” are all quick, efficient set-ups.
Tension or Conflict
With your characters introduced, it’s time to hold them and the listener in limbo while you throw obstacles their way. This is often the meatiest section of the joke, because the longer you toy with your audience’s emotions, the bigger the pay-off.
The tension of a knock-knock joke is in the “who’s there?”part of the call and response, while for the bar joke, it’s the interactions of the first two members of the trio. The chicken crossing the road is one of the rare formats that doesn’t have written tension or conflict; the only way to inject it is to add a pause between the set-up and the punchline.
If a joke is a story, the punchline is a plot twist. It’s the deviation from what we expect; the breaking of the pattern that we built during our conflict portion.
We learn what lured the chicken across the road, who’s at the door, and what funny thing the third bar character has to say. Without the punchline, a joke is just a disjointed thought. But with it, a good joke can help forge connections between friends, ease the tension at work, or help win over a date.
5 Types of Jokes
It can be difficult to categorize any given joke, given all the overlap between categories, but here are five main types to practice writing.
Jokes based on shared experiences that you’ve observed and are instantly familiar to your audience. Jerry Seinfeld is pretty much the poster child for this format, exemplified in the following joke:
“A two-year-old is kind of like having a blender, but you don’t have a top for it.”
Even if you don’t have a toddler yourself, you likely have a blender and can imagine the mess if you turned it on without a lid—that’s a universal experience.
One-liners are short, sweet, and require almost no context or knowledge of your audience, making them perfect to drop into interviews or as comebacks. Phyllis Diller is the reigning queen:
“I’m at an age where my back goes out more than I do.”
Diller plays with language here, using the dual meanings of “go out” to surprise her audience in just 13 words.
These jokes are told at the expense of the comic, who invites the audience to laugh along with them at topics that might not be funny in another context. From Rodney Dangerfield:
“I went to my doctor and told him, ‘Hey, Doc! I just took an entire bottle of sleeping pills. What should I do?’ He said, ‘Go home, have a couple of drinks, and get some rest!’”
Dangerfield jokes that he’s such a repulsive person that even his doctor doesn’t want to help him, and in his capable hands, the thought is somehow hilarious.
These are the kinds of jokes issued from behind the desk of a late night host, or at awards shows. Introducing the movie Gravity at the 2014 Golden Globes, co-host Tina Fey joked:
“It’s the story of how George Clooney would rather float away into space and die than spend one more minute with a woman his own age.”
These jokes are quippy, they’re quite often political, and they’re always based on current events.
More like a story studded with different jokes than a single joke category, anecdotal jokes have the most freedom to play with tension. Garry Shandling was a known adherent, once noting in a GQ interview:
“What I want to happen is that I talk for an hour and the audience doesn’t realize it is funny until they’re driving home.”
Sometimes a good anecdote can ramble on for long, rapt minutes without a single laugh, but that doesn’t mean its structure is any less carefully planned than that of a one-liner.
How to Write a Joke in 7 Steps
Step 1: Choose a Comic to Study
Watch them as much as you can, and every time you laugh, make a note of it and ask yourself what you found funny. After a while, patterns should emerge that teach you about your own comedic sensibilities.
Step 2: Brain Dump of Ideas
Think of a topic you’d like to write a joke about, and then jot down every single connected idea you can think of.
Step 3: Add Structure
Plug your best ideas into the set-up, tension, and punchline structure explained above. Some comics start with the punchline and work backward, but do what works best for you.
Step 4: Trim Down
Drop all unnecessary words or elements so that your joke flows smoothly from start to finish.
Step 5: Build Tension
Add peaks and valleys in your joke before the punchline so that you have the audience in the palm of your hand. No peak higher than your ultimate punchline though—that one should stand out from a mile away and be the monster laugh.
Step 6: Polish That Punchline
Things might have changed or shifted during the writing process, and your punchline could need to be adjusted. It’s the most important part of the joke, so give it its due.
Step 7: Find Yourself Some Guinea Pigs
Hunt down a captive audience and practice your joke on them until you’re satisfied it can’t get any better. (Note: choose someone whose feedback you trust and who isn’t just going to blow smoke up your butt.)
And there you have it! You’ve written your first joke. May your next always be better than your last.
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