Punch It Up (Without Using Boxing Gloves)

27.09.2020 |

Episode #4 of the course Humor boosters: Lighten and tighten your writing by Gay Merrill


As you learned in Lesson 3, using super-specific words can liven up a sentence. Add more details to create a mini-story, try several variations, and choose the funniest.

The comedian’s key tool, the joke, is an ingredient for crafting humor. And today, you’ll learn how to use the joke structure to punch up your writing along with tips on how to practice “safe humor”, so you don’t offend your audience.


Joke Structure

The basic structure of a joke consists of a setup, a punch (or punchline), and sometimes a tag (or tagline), also known as a topper.

The setup is an informative statement that’s not funny, and it creates an expectation that leads the audience in a certain direction.

The punch, which follows the setup, contains the comedic element of surprise that takes the audience in a different or unexpected direction.

A tag is an additional punch that continues the joke. Often the tag will be a short phrase that appears spontaneous and witty.

A joke results in laughter when the setup and punch are linked in a way that makes sense and the punch delivers a surprise. If these conditions don’t occur, well, expect eye rolls, puzzled looks, or hecklers.

In certain types of jokes, such as the double entendre, the setup contains a connector. The connector is a punch word or phrase that has a double meaning. The key to this humor device is that the connector has the potential for different interpretations.

As an example, take the classic Rodney Dangerfield joke:

My wife and I were happy for twenty years. Then we met.

In Dangerfield’s joke, the connector phrase is “happy for twenty years”. We assume he means he was happily married for that length of time. Then we learn through the punchline he was referring to the time before they met implying they were happy until they met and got married.



Fun fact: The term double entendre is a French term that literally translates to double meaning. Listen to Google say double entendre in French and English here. By definition, a double entendre is an ambiguous word or phrase that allows for a second interpretation. The double entendre often has a spicy connotation, so use it carefully.


Why Is This Joke Structure Important?

The setup and punch are the basis for adding humor to your writing. To add the punch, you always want the funny, surprise element to be at the end. Comedians use different types of jokes to create humor, but they all involve the setup followed by a punch to create the surprise or misdirection. What’s different among various types of jokes is how each type creates the punch, which you’ll learn about in the lessons that follow.

To demonstrate the joke structure, let’s go back to Celeste’s granny, Erma, from Lesson 2. Here’s that mini-story again:

Celeste’s granny, Erma, drove her 2013 Fiesta hatchback to her favorite auto repair shop. The car had been sounding strange ever since her highway altercation with the beaver. She knew if Grease Monkey Mechanics couldn’t silence her rattling lug nuts, nobody could.

In this mini-story, the setup is in the first two sentences. The funny bit or punch comes in the last sentence with the words rattling lug nuts.

Other examples in this course where I’ve used the joke structure are the lesson titles and subtitles. The titles are setups and the subtitles are punchlines. While the lesson subtitles are not laugh-out-loud funny, and some might even cause you to raise an eyebrow in puzzlement, my aim is to add a playful element to each lesson.

To create my subtitles, I looked at the words in the title to make some associations. For example, the title for Lesson 1 is “Find Your Funny Bone”. The term funny bone can mean a sense of humor, which is what I am implying with the title. But the funny bone also refers to the ulnar nerve, which can give you a jolt if you whack it the wrong way. So the punch in my subtitle comes from using the second meaning instead of the implied one.


How to Practice Safe Humor

Writing humor can feel risky. What if your reader doesn’t get your joke? Or worse, sometimes you risk offending. Some people are easily offended (Celeste’s grandmother, for example), and might even take delight by throwing a tantrum about it. You can’t let these people dampen your creativity, but you do need to consider your audience.

Here are some points to keep in mind when creating humor:

• The safest way to include humor is to be the brunt of your own joke. Self-deprecating humor is poking fun at yourself in a light-hearted way—playful joking with a sense of humility. You’re admitting to some character trait you own, a quirky habit, or a disadvantage you’re comfortable with. The key is to highlight a trait you acknowledge. Using a touch of self-deprecation makes you relatable to your audience.

• Avoid sarcasm or put down humor.

• Be yourself and use your own brand of humor. Think about what makes you laugh. Avoid forced humor, and don’t try too hard to be funny. Never use other people’s material.

• A little bit of humor goes a long way. Like adding garlic to pasta sauce without a recipe, finding the right humor dose takes practice. Better to err on the low side while you adjust to your audience’s taste buds.

To add humor to your writing, use the joke structure. Look at your sentences for possible setups and see whether you can add a sentence to create a punch. To extend the humor, try adding another sentence to create a tag.



1. Look at your sample piece of writing and add a punchline to one of your sentences. If you’re stuck working with your current sentences, add a new setup sentence and punchline instead.

2. Keep an eye out for setups and punches in the material you find funny. Take note of how the writer creates humor using the joke formula.

In the next lesson, you’ll look at a common, effective, and odd-numbered technique called the rule of three (no math skills required).


Recommended reading

How And When To Use Humor In Content Writing

How to Attract Devoted Readers by Using Humor Like Ellen


Recommended book

The NEW Comedy Bible by Judy Carter


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