How to Write a Joke

14.09.2021 |

Episode #7 of the course Humor: Science of how to be funny by David Urbansky


After learning so many humoristic tools, let’s give joke writing a try! A joke is anything written or said that is meant to elicit laughter. The typical joke pattern consists of two sections: a setup and a punchline. The setup builds tension and expectations, while the punchline releases the tension and usually breaks the expectation. Remember the humor theories we discussed earlier? The punchline uses relief (“ahh” humor) and incongruity (“a-ha” humor) to trigger laughter.

Question / Setup: “Don’t you hate it when someone answers their own questions?”

Answer / Punchline: “I do.”

There are many methods you can use to write a joke, but in the end that’s something that everyone has to tune to their own liking. I will provide you with a blueprint and an example that you can read through and tweak to fit your personal humor style.


Joke Writing Blueprint

Step 1. Find a writing prompt. This serves as our setup. Any short sentence that creates assumptions works.

Step 2. Identify implicit and explicit information. This helps us to play around with breaking expectations.

Step 3. Create a list of concepts related to the ones mentioned in the prompt.

Step 4. Go through your humor toolkit and try to apply its techniques to the setup to come up with multiple punchlines.

Step 5. Select your best punchline and rewrite the setup and punchline so that they flow nicely together. Cut any unnecessary words; the more concise your joke is, the better.


Joke Writing Example

Let’s see this blueprint in action! Since this is a creative process, it is crucial that you turn off your inner judge. Just come up with ideas without judging them. This is about raw output; only in the last step should you judge your punchlines and pick your favorite.

Step 1. We have to find a writing prompt. You can come up with something off the top of your head or open a news website and use a headline. I did the latter and found this headline for a prompt:

“Four-Time Fittest Man on Earth, Rich Froning, Swears by Optimized Breathing”

Step 2. We can ask the 5W1H questions to find what information is explicitly stated versus what is assumed when reading the prompt:

Step 3. Now we need to gather some related material. This will help us in the next step when we want to use comedic tools to break an assumption. Simply find two or three concepts in the prompt and look for related words and ideas. One helpful tool is word association. In our current prompt, the two concepts are fitness and breathing. Here are the related concepts I found:

• Fitness: dumbbell, gym, healthy eating, push-ups, weights, muscles, strong, protein, salad

• Breathing: breath holding, suffocation, covid, lungs, asthma, mouth breathers, out of breath, oxygen, exhalation

Step 4. Now let’s go through our toolkit and come up with some possible punchlines using the information from steps 2 and 3.

Questions to ask ourselves:

Irony/Contradictions: Is there any irony we can use? Can we create some contradiction?

• “Interestingly, the least fit man also thinks breathing is important.”

Misdirection: Can I misinterpret it? Can I misplace focus?

• The focus is that optimized breathing leads to fitness (explicit information in step 2). Now let’s look at what implicit information is assumed when reading the prompt and change that.

• Breaking assumptions as to:

• Where? Earth: “He’s still not fitter than Martians, though.”

• Where? Earth: “Fittest man on moon still trying to understand the concept of breathing air.”

• Why? To become fit: “He takes one inhalation, goes shopping, and exhales. No N95 mask needed.”

• How? Breathing pattern: “He breathes in through the nose and out through his ass. The competition still thinks that method stinks.”

Hyperbole: Can I exaggerate it?

• “He breathes so deep and fast, the competitors suffocate.”

Shock: Can I make it dark or shocking?

• “Proves that exercising without breathing was a dead end.”

• “The competition that used breathless methods? All dead.”

Analogy: Can I make a fun analogy?

• “Well sure, it’s like saying ‘Fattest Man on Earth Swears by Butter on Cake.’”

Step 5. Now that we have picked out a couple of punchlines, let’s select one and tweak it so it flows well with the setup. For example, I removed “Four-time” and “Rich Froning” from the original setup as they don’t add anything to the joke. My selection would go like this:

Setup: “Fittest Man on Earth Swears by Optimized Breathing”

Punchline: “He breathes in through the nose and out through his ass. The competition still thinks that method stinks.”



Once you have a joke you like, you can make it or break it by the way you deliver it. Remember the clip from the clownfish I showed you? That’s how not to do it!

Delivery depends on your humor style; you can tell a joke with a serious face or be totally animated, there is no right or wrong. Just a couple of pointers that are independent of your humor style:

• Speak loudly and clearly. Your audience can’t laugh if they don’t understand you.

• Practice your pauses and breathing. Group words together and separate them with small pauses. That is to say, do not speak like a monotonous robot (unless this is intentionally part of your act).

• Leave some time for your audience to “get” the joke. A joke combines two different ideas and resolves them. This takes time. Only start your next joke at the climax of your audience’s laughter.

Tell jokes often and evaluate your audience’s feedback to get better every time. When you see a stand-up comedian on Netflix, you only hear the polished versions of their jokes that they have practiced thousands of times. They have failed thousands of times in front of smaller audiences, which is just part of the process.

Today you’ve gotten a blueprint for writing a joke! Try coming up with your own by going through the steps. It’s fun and you’ll be proud of yourself when you write something even remotely funny. Tomorrow, we’ll learn how you can hold on to those jokes!

“Satire is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.” —Josie Long


Recommended book

The Serious Guide to Joke Writing: How to Say Something Funny about Anything by Sally Holloway


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