Comedy Writing Secrets
Comedy Writing Secrets 36
secret s 2nd edition
the best-selling book on
how to think funny, write funny,
act funny, and get paid for it
with Mark Shatz
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Comedy writing secrets: the best-selling book on how to think funny, write
funny, act funny, and get paid for it / by Mel Helitzer with Mark Shatz.
ISBN 1-58297-357-1 (pbk.: alk. paper)
1. Wit and humor—Authorship. I. Shatz, Mark. II. Title.
PN6149.A88H445 2005 2005014368
808.7-dc22 CIP ABOUT THE AUTHORS
MEL HELITZER, a former Clio award-winning Madison Avenue ad
agency president, is now a distinguished, award-winning journalism pro¬
fessor at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. He was one of the first to teach
humor writing at any university in the world. His course led to the publica¬
tion of Comedy Writing Secrets in 1987, and the book is now the largest
selling text on humor writing in the country.
Helitzer has written humor for print and broadcast productions as
well as comedy material for such stars as Sammy Davis, Jr., Shari Lewis,
Art Linkletter, Ernie Kovacs, and presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson.
Many of his students are now professional comedians or humor writers
for national publications. He is the author of seven books, including a
bound-for-Broadway musical, Oh, Jackie! Her Father's Story.
MARK A. SHATZ is professor of psychology at Ohio University,
Zanesville. In addition to teaching humor writing, he has extensive inter¬
national experience as a teacher, speaker, and seminar leader on various
topics such as motivation, death education, and interpersonal communi¬
cation. Dr. Shatz has published numerous academic papers, including
how to use humor to enhance instruction and learning. He is the author
of KISSing Golf: The Keep It Simple (Stupid) Instructional Method, a
humorous instructional book for beginning golfers. TABLE OF CONTENTS
PART I: THE BASICS OF HUMOR WRITING
The Importance of Humor Writing 7
Why We Laugh 19
The Recipe for Humor 36
PART II: HUMOR WRITING TECHNIQUES
POW: Play on Words 61
More POW: The Simple Truth and the Take-Off 89
POW Brainstorming Techniques 109
The Next Giant Step: Reverses 125
The Harmony of Paired Elements:
Phrases, Words, Statistics, and Aphorisms 138
Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered: Triples 150 Chapter 10:
Realism, Exaggeration, and Understatement 163
Funny Words and Foul Language 181
PART III: WRITING HUMOR FOR
Testing, Testing, One, Two, Three: Writing Humor for Speeches . . .199
Stand-Up or Sit Down: Humor for Live Entertainers 223
Print Humor: Columns, Articles, and Fillers 252
Saw the Picture, Loved the Gag:
Humor for Cartoons and Greeting Cards 268
The Scarce Comedy: Writing for TV Sitcoms 287
We Mean Business 303
Teach, Learn, and Laugh 315
That's a Wrap 327
Index 337 FOREWORD
And Now a Word From the Prof
Comedy is a lot like professional sports. Past successes are history. You
get paid for today's hits. One difference is that in baseball, a .300 hitter
gets paid a million dollars and the fans are deliriously happy all season.
But a .300 batting average in comedy would get professional performers
to go from boos to booze in a week.
With that kind of failure rate, you'd think any person who had reached
the age of reason would take up plumbing. But the facts are that writing
and performing humor is rising in popularity. And if you're successful,
the money in comedy is so abundant that professional practitioners are
like well-endowed actors in a porn movie—"You mean I get paid for
The biggest change in the humor industry in the last ten years has been
the need for professional writers. There are just not enough qualified writ¬
ers today to fill the increasing need. Besides the standard venues, more and
more markets are begging for humor material: speeches, business newslet¬
ters, advertising, columns, talk shows, sales presentations, and everything
from high-tech computer attachments to Hi, Mom greeting cards.
Comedy clubs had a ten-year fireworks display. While the worst ones
closed from bad management and bad acts, the remainder are solid busi¬
nesses, and the "I'll do anything to get on stage" neophytes are
now secure enough to be unionized.
TV sitcoms also had their vicissitudes of popularity.
The great ones lasted into syndication, and the worst
ones were pulled after one or two seasons. In the mean¬
time, the number of humor talk shows from Leno and
Letterman to Jon Stewart and Conan O'Brien increased. And
now every presidential candidate needs to make a guest
appearance, not only to be toasted but also to increase
his popularity by being roasted.
And Now a Word From the Prof The formal study of humor in colleges has grown in geometric propor¬
tions despite the doubting colleagues who associate facetiousness with
frivolity. The president of my university once told me he disdained
humor, because he feared failure. "I've heard some of your speeches,"
I told him. "And I agree with you."
It's the fear of failure, however, that continues to be the biggest draw¬
back. While 90 percent of us claim we have a sense of humor, the number
of critics is 100 percent. "I didn't think it was funny."
Milton Berle ended his years appearing before senior citizens in
Miami Beach. Once, a little old lady in the front row kept shouting,
"That stinks. I've heard it before."
Exasperated, Berle said, "Lady, do you know who I am?"
"No," she said, "but if you'll go up to the desk, they'll tell you."
The net result of all this is that if you really want to take the time and
effort to learn how to write (and perform) humor, you've got to have a
thick skin to go along with a nimble brain. Learn how to live with people
throwing dirt at you.
One day a donkey fell into a well. The farmer couldn't get him out, so
he knew he had to cover him up. He called in his neighbors, and they all
started to throw dirt down the well, but instead of burying the animal,
the donkey would shake the dirt off and take a step up. Pretty soon, the
pile of dirt got so high that the donkey stepped over the edge of the well.
Moralists use this story to preach that all our troubles can be stepping
stones, that we shouldn't give up; instead shake it off and take a step up.
Comedians, however, note that as soon as the disdained donkey got to
the top he ran over and bit the farmer. Their moral is that if something
goes wrong, try to cover your ass. It can come back and bite you.
We hope you'll enjoy this book. It can make you rich in more ways
than one. And that's no joke.
Professor Mel Helitzer
Comedy Writing Secrets INTRODUCTION
You Can Do It!
HEY! IS THIS THING ON?
Out of fear that discovery of their superficial tricks will be
evaluated rather than laughed at, many famous humorists
have sponsored an insupportable fiction that comedians
must be born funny. According to Mel Brooks and Woody
Allen, for example, you can't teach anyone to be funny.
They either have the gift or they don't. Hogwash!
You can teach literate people anything, from
Einstein's theory of relativity to how to play shortstop. And compared to
humor writing secrets, playing the piano's eighty-eight keys or speaking
Greek is a lot harder to learn and a lot less fun. (Which is more beneficial
to humanity is debatable.) What is universally accepted, however, is that
comedy, a flash of intuition, is more art than science.
Since Eve first admonished her pooped-out partner to be "up and
Adam," entertainment has been our kingdom's social pastime, and come¬
dy is the coin of the realm. Theater traditionalists like to point out that
one side of their coin is the embossed mask of humor, and the other side,
the mask of tragedy. They're wrong again. Humor is tragedy and tragedy
is humor. As Mel Brooks once said, "Tragedy is if I cut my finger. Comedy
is if you drop into an open sewer and die." As this book will prove, if you
can't learn to write humor, kid, that's tragedy!
HOW THIS BOOK HELPS YOU
Humor style changes dramatically almost every twenty years. This
new edition of Comedy Writing Secrets has been updated with con¬
temporary methods and formulas. Here are some of the key points
the book covers:
You Can Do It! 1 • The three Rs of humor
• The secret of the MAP theory
• The beauty of What if?
• The THREES theory of humor structure
• Why we laugh at some forms of humor and groan at others
• The natural hostility of humor
• Why humor must ridicule a target
• Why hard-core humor is more shock than funny
The book is divided into three sections. The first part covers the founda¬
tions of humor writing, including the theories and principles of humor and
why we laugh. The second section describes various humor-writing tech¬
niques, such as plays on words, reverses, pairings, triples, and exaggeration.
The final section explains how to write humor for popular markets such as
greeting cards, speeches, articles, newsletters, and stand-up comedy. This
revised edition also includes chapters on humor writing in advertising and
the use of humor in education.
Integrated throughout the book are sections titled Showtimes that
provide quick exercises that can refine your writing skills. Humor writing
demands practice, and it is critical to take the time to complete these
writing assignments. If you're not funny by then, demand your money
back and don't ever get married.
While this book is an introduction to humor writing, we don't promise
it will instantly transform you into a professional. Learning the funda¬
mentals of humor is easy compared with the dedication required to be a
successful writer. A woman once rushed up to the famous violinist Fritz
Kreisler and cried, "I'd give my life to play as beautifully as you do."
Kreisler replied, "Well, I did."
NO DEGREE REQUIRED
Since there is no official humor certification organization, there is no
such thing as a certified professional humor writer. If you can sell your
material or get paid for performing it, you're a professional. But humor
writing is commanding more and more attention in higher education.
2 Comedy Writing Secrets Approximately sixty universities, including the University of California,
Los Angeles, and The New School in New York, offer humor-writing cours¬
es and degree-granting programs in humor studies, and more such courses
are on the horizon. Many colleges use this book as their primary text.
The first college credit writing course was taught by Mel Helitzer at
the Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University in 1980. Within three
years, it had become such a smash hit that the twenty allotted seats were
assigned a year in advance. Students for the class are as diverse today as
they were more than twenty years ago and range from fellow faculty
members to adults from the community—including lawyers, doctors,
accountants, homemakers, and even one mortician. (We asked him if,
when trying out his material, he killed the audience, and he said, "No,
they're already dead when I get there.")
The largest group of current comedy writers for major TV shows
and films comes from Harvard, which ironically does not have a humor-
writing course. For some reason, there has never been a famous come¬
dian who graduated from Yale or Princeton, that is if you don't count
two recent U.S. presidents.
In Chicago, Second City is the country's leading school for improvisation-
al training. Numerous comedy clubs and individual professional writers, par¬
ticularly in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, offer small clinics.
THE BIG-PICTURE BENEFITS OF HUMOR
Humor's impact is far reaching. For example, when the editors of Fortune
Magazine queried human resource directors of Fortune 500 companies as
to what qualifications they looked for in middle management executives,
the top three answers were: (1) knowledge of the product; (2) respect for
the bottom line; and (3) a sense of humor.
Since everyone claims to have a sense of humor, except for an expec¬
tant mother in a delivery room, the editors double-checked, "Why a sense
of humor?" And the replies were consistent.
A sense of humor indicates leadership. When we smile, it's a sign of
confidence, because fear and paranoia are signaled by frowns, not smiles.
You Can Do It! 3 Subordinates, associates, customers, and clients like to work with someone
with a sense of humor.
JOINED AT THE LIP: HUMOR AND COMEDY
Academicians, especially English professors, often attempt to draw dis¬
tinctions between humor and comedy. Humor is considered the broader
term that encompasses all types of humor material, such as satire, sar¬
casm, irony, and parody. Comedy is the performance of humor. The per¬
ception is that clever writers write humor while glib comedians do jokes.
Men say the most important thing in another person is a sense
of humor. That means they're looking for someone to laugh at
It's true that jokes in isolation are just that—jokes. However, any form
of humor writing uses jokes to produce the humor. We take a less elitist
position and do not make arbitrary distinctions between humor and
comedy. If the result is laughter, then the label is insignificant. Our goal
is to help you write funny.
WHOSE JOKE IS IT, ANYWAY?
Contemporary humor-writing methods are an extension of past techniques.
We focus on contemporary humorists, but since today's comedians rip off the
greats, knowledge of humor history is not a sometime thing. This book, there¬
fore, includes examples and advice from scores of contemporary comedians
such as Jon Stewart, Tina Fey, Billy Crystal, Jay Leno, Chris Rock, David
Letterman, Robin Williams, and Rita Rudner, and from humor hall of famers
such as Erma Bombeck, Milton Berle, and George Burns, and even from such
early American humorists as Mark Twain, Elbert Hubbard, and John Morley.
Unfortunately, credit lines for humor are a researcher's nightmare,
like this pairing.
If you can't join them, beat them.
4 Comedy Writing Secrets If you can't beat them, arrange to have them beaten.
There are many standard jokes, and they have thousands of variations.
No one can swear that any one was his creation. In Oh, the Things I
Know!, Al Franken stated, "I am not a member of any organized religion.
I am a Jew." Franken later noted that he "first heard that joke from a
Catholic, who had substituted the word 'Catholic.'" Will Rogers used that
same premise—but he substituted the words "political party" and
"Democrat"—nearly one hundred years ago.
It's also been proven that such famous lines as Horace Greeley's "Go
west, young man," Marie Antoinette's "Let them eat cake," Joseph Addison's
"He who hesitates is lost," W.C. Fields's "Any man who hates dogs and
babies can't be all bad," and his oft-quoted tombstone inscription, "I would
rather be here than in Philadelphia," Mark Twain's "Everybody talks about
the weather but nobody does anything about it," Will Rogers's "I never met
a man I didn't like," and Franklin D. Roosevelt's "The only thing we have to
fear is fear itself," were all previously written by someone else.
If scholars have this problem with historic lines, then giving proper
credit for similar jokes, anecdotes, and witticisms can be a never-ending
dilemma. So the best we can offer for identification is to list the name
that was published in someone's joke collection, but don't bet on its
accuracy. Of course, some jokes came to us creditless, and some we
wrote ourselves. The ghost of Marlowe will always haunt the library
of Shakespeare—and that's not an original line either.
Now, let's get started.
You Can Do It! 5 The Basics of
Humor Writing CHAPTER 1
The Importance of Humor Writing
What is comedy? Comedy is the art of making people laugh
without making them puke.
Humor has tremendous value. It's an art form. But
it's not a mystery—it has structure and formula.
You can learn this creative art for your own
personal enjoyment or for financial gain.
Admittedly, some widely known authors feel
that humor-writing skills (let alone the sense
of humor) are mystically inherited rather than
learned, and likely molded by such factors as
ethnic characteristics, early childhood mater¬
nal influence, and insecurity.
Humor is one of the things in life which defies analysis—
either you have it or you don't, either you enjoy it or
Nobody can teach you humor writing. The secret is passed on
from one generation to another, and I will not tell mine, except
to my son.
But the truth is that anyone can learn to write humor. Although some
individuals are naturally funnier than others, just as some individuals
are more athletic or more musically gifted, humor writing can be
taught and humor-writing skills can be acquired. Humor is not a mys¬
tery, because (like stage magic) it is possible to demystify it.
The Importance of Humor Writing 7 BUT I AIN'T FUNNY
Let's use a simple humor exercise to illustrate that humor writing is
accessible to everyone. Consider the possible uses of two round bar stool
cushions. Other than stool cushions, what can they be? For five minutes,
use your imagination and plenty of exaggeration. Without being restrained
by practicality, scribble down as many possibilities as you can.
Your list of possible uses for two stool cushions might include
• elephant slippers
• oversized skullcaps
• eye patches for a giant
• hemorrhoid pads for a really large person
• Frisbees for the athletically challenged
This humor Rorschach test illustrates the first step in humor concep¬
tion—imagination. Creativity is the key to comedy's engine, which won't
turn over without unbridled imagination. Look at any other common
object—an ashtray, a beer bottle, furniture in a room, or parts of the
human body. Train your mind to constantly ask What if? and brainstorm
all the possibilities of what else these objects could be. Don't worry if
your ideas seem absurd. The exercise is to get your imagination in gear.
To write funny, you must first think funny.
Imagination is intelligence having fun.
What if? imagination allows you to realign diverse elements into new
and unexpected relationships that surprise the audience—and surprise
makes people laugh.
What if mother's milk was declared a health hazard? Where would
they put the warning label?
What if you actually saw McNuggets on a chicken?
What if alphabet soup consistently spelled out obscene words?
8 Comedy Writing Secrets What if the leaning tower of Pisa had a clock? (After all, what good
is the inclination if you don't have the time?)
Humorists have one cardinal rule: Don't be inhibited. It's better to
take a nihilistic attitude toward sensitive subjects than to pussyfoot
around taboos. When writing, write freely. Make uninhibited assump¬
tions. Editing and self-censorship are second and third steps—never
We'll describe later how to fit your ideas into the basic formulas of
humor writing. If your internal critic limits your imagination by saying
This stinks, then you will be left with nothing. Your goal is to tap the full
potential of your comedic imagination by remembering this mantra:
Nothing stinks. Nothing does stink!
The whole object of comedy is to be yourself, and the closer you
get to that, the funnier you will be.
Imagination drives comedy, and just about everyone has an imagination—
or no one would never get married. So just about everyone can learn the
fundamentals of humor. How well you learn them depends on how much
effort you're willing to expend.
THE BENEFITS OF HUMOR WRITING
The Importance of Humor Writing 9 The benefits of humor writing are the three Rs: respect, remembrance,
and rewards. The skillful use of humor can
• earn you respect
• cause your words to be remembered
• earn great financial and personal rewards
Respect: Get Up and Glow
We use humor primarily to call attention to ourselves. Notice how you
react when you tell a joke to a small group of friends and, just as you get
to the end, someone shouts out the punch line. That person gets the
laugh. You don't. You feel victimized. Your glare might be the physical
limit of your anger at first—but the second time this happens, you'll try
to kill the jerk, and no jury will convict you.
Laughter is to the psyche what jogging is to the body—laughter
makes your psyche healthy and bright and vigorous. But unlike jogging,
humor (at least in live performance) offers immediate gratification—
more so than any other art form. You know within a half-second when
your audience is appreciative, because this jury's decision is impulsive
Comedy is very controlling—you are making people laugh. It is
there in the phrase "making people laugh." You feel completely in
control when you hear a wave of laughter coming back at you that
you have caused.
There are other ways that you can attract attention: You can achieve
something outstanding, criticize somebody, or be unconventional, for
instance. But you can increase the impact of these things with humor.
Humor is more than entertainment or joke telling—it's a powerful social
lubricant that eases and enriches communication, interpersonal rela
tions, and education. Humor is a universal speech opener because it
immediately earns the speaker respectful attention. It's psychologically
impossible to hate someone with whom you've laughed.
10 Comedy Writing Secrets When we laugh we temporarily give ourselves over to the person
who makes us laugh.
Humor can also help you gain success and respect in nearly every profes¬
sion (unless, perhaps, you are a mortician). For example, teachers facilitate
instruction with humor, advertising executives use humor to sell products,
and politicians rely on humor to promote their candidacies. Humor doesn't
just get you attention—it gets you favorable attention, and respect.
Remember: Everlasting Memories
When we're successfully humorous—live or in print—people remember.
Our best lines are retained and repeated. An impressive number of say¬
ings in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations are witticisms.
There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy
and tragedy, humor and hurt.
On one issue at least, men and women agree: They both
Humor promotes learning and makes it memorable. Studies have found
that students who attend lectures that include witticisms and anecdotes
achieve higher test scores than students who attend the same lectures
minus the humor. When learning is fun, everybody benefits.
When the mouth is open for laughter, you may be able to shove in
a little food for thought.
In and out of the classroom, jokes are probably our best opportunity for
immortality—for being remembered.
I don't want to gain immortality by my humor. I want to gain
immortality by not dying.
The Importance of Humor Writing 11 Reward: Show Me the Money
Humor is important in every facet of commercial life. More and more fre¬
quently, big-business executives are hiring speechwriters able to make
them gag on every line (and you can read that line any way you want to).
Many political candidates—in fact, every president since Franklin
Roosevelt—have had in-house humorists on their speech-writing teams.
It really gets me when the critics say I haven't done enough for
the economy. I mean, look what I've done for the book-publishing
industry. You've heard some of the titles. Big Lies, The Lies of
George W. Bush, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. I'd like
to tell you I've read each of these books, but that'd be a lie.
—George W. Bush
Comedy can also be a springboard to lucrative TV and film roles. Robin
Williams, Alan King, Chevy Chase, Chris Rock, Billy Crystal, Ellen
DeGeneres, Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray, Mike Myers, Rosie
O'Donnell, Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandier, and Roseanne Barr are just a
few major film and TV stars who started out as comedians. Woody Allen,
Mel Brooks, and Carl Reiner began their careers as gag writers for Sid
Caesar's TV shows, and David Letterman, Conan O'Brien, and Garry
Shandling were TV staff writers before hosting their own TV shows.
A former girlfriend remembers Bill Gates as having bad breath.
He remembers her as not having $100 billion.
The demand for humor writers far exceeds the supply. One reason for
this is that more people want to tell jokes than write them. Opportunities
abound for humor writers, who can seek careers as syndicated colum¬
nists, speechwriters, greeting card writers, stand-up comedians, Internet
and advertising copywriters, and screenwriters for TV sitcoms and film.
Another reason for the high demand for humor writers is that television
is a joke-eating shark. It chews up more humor material in a month than
all other markets use in a year. Johnny Carson once remarked that televi¬
sion is the only medium that eats its young, because young writers are the
12 Comedy Writing Secrets ones most frequently hired to feed the shark day after day. Many young
humorists are attracted to the eye-popping financial rewards of a career
in TV humor writing, but writers are only as good as their last joke, and
fatigue causes many of them to burn out after a year. Whatever humor-
writing endeavors you choose, you can be financially and personally suc¬
cessful if you develop good humor-writing skills—and staying power.
The road to success is always under construction.
THE MAP TO BEING A SUCCESSFUL HUMORIST
The two qualities shared by all successful humorists are (a) consistency
and (b) targeted material. If you are consistent, you can make people
laugh repeatedly—the ability to write funny isn't a one-time thing.
Once you can consistently make people laugh, it's essential to target
your material so you don't waste precious time preparing the wrong
material for the wrong performer, to be delivered to the wrong audience.
This is as true in print and broadcast humor as it is for stand-up.
What if you tell a joke in the forest, and nobody laughs? Was it a joke?
The acronym MAP sums up this second point rather efficiently. MAP stands
for material, audience, and performer. MAP is a triangular comedic con¬
stellation. Each star in the constellation must relate to both the other stars.
The Importance of Humor Writing 13 Successful humor requires all three MAP elements.
1. Material. The material must be appropriate to the interests of the
audience, and it must relate well to the persona of the performer.
2. Audience. The audience must complement both the material and
the presentation style of the performer.
3. Performer. The performer must present the right material to the
right audience in the right way.
Audience: Resisting a Rest
The reason the MAP theory is illustrated by a triangle is that—of the
three points—the audience is the most important. Every time writers
forget this simple piece of advice, they lose the game—and soon the job.
You and the audience have the same goal line. You score when you
reach it together. Others can keep score, but ten laughs a minute can
be a failed effort if the audience doesn't participate. The first responsi¬
bility of every humorist is to evaluate the majority of the audience,
whether it's one person or a thousand. (In the next chapter, we'll dis¬
cuss why people laugh.)
Unless you're prepared with material that obviously and vocally
works for a specific audience, you're facing impossible odds of suc¬
cess. There's a distinct audience for every specialized group. They are
categorized by hundreds of special interests: color, religion, education,
financial and social standing, acumen, geography, politics, fame, and
sex. The same material that works for a college audience will not work
for a group of lawyers, doctors, or bankers. Dumb-blonde jokes may
work for a blue-collar men's audience, but humor that ridicules men's
habits and body parts are more popular than ever with women's
groups. Youth audiences feel uninhibited language is expected, and
senior citizen groups feel young comedians' material should first be
exorcized with mouthwash.
Most audiences are more interested in subjects that involve their
activities than they are in humor that is all about you, your friends,
your pets, and your bar buddies. From the very first day, humor writers
are urged, figuratively of course, to throw away the capital letter I on
14 Comedy Writing Secrets their computer. It's true that greats like Ray Romano, Rita Rudner, and
Woody Allen talk about themselves, but until you become the equiva¬
lent of Ray, Rita, or Woody, it's best to wait. More astute are performers
like Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno, Chris Rock, and Billy Crystal, who fire
round after round of observations of the audience's interests. The best
example of all is Jeff Foxworthy's "You know you're a redneck if ..."
material, and although he demeans them, his redneck southern audi¬
ence howls all night.
Hey, Look Me Over
Once the profile of the audience has been established, the second most
important point of the triangle is performer. Whether you're writing
for someone else or you're the presenter, the audience needs to know
who you are in the first thirty seconds. It's in this short window of time
that they're going to decide just how comfortable they feel with your
Certain characteristics are mandated by your physical appearance:
size, color, accent, sex, and beauty. Performers can enhance their per-
sonas with costumes, props, and theatrical projection, but it's best to
take advantage of these physical confinements rather than fight them.
Michael Richards, of Seinfeld fame, looks goofy, and every time he tries
to change his character, he fails. Comedian Yakov Smirnoff has main¬
tained a Russian accent even though he lived all his formative years in
Cleveland. Red neck comedians wear blue jeans, Las Vegas comics
wear suits, and young girls wear black leather pants.
It's All Material
Only after you know your audience and the characteristics about the
performer's persona that need to be consistent, are you ready to start
writing the material.
And that's the heart of this book. But learning the fundamentals of
humor is easy compared with the dedication required, and you're going
to need it.
Throughout the book, we'll show you how to follow the MAP to suc¬
cessful humor writing.
The Importance of Humor Writing 15 HUMOR WRITING IS A 24/7 GIG
Writing humor is an all-day—and all-night—assignment. New ideas can
(and should!) pop into your head anytime, anyplace. In an issue of
Advertising Age, journalist Bob Garfield described the idea-collection
practices of Marty Rackham, then a beginning comic.
[Marty Rackham's wallet] is stuffed with miscellaneous business cards, on
the back of which he jots random ideas. One says, "Pulling words from a per¬
son who stutters." Another, "Jumper cables." Right now, he's working on a bit
about continental hygiene: "Did you ever smell a European?" The ideas mate¬
rialize constantly, in varying degrees of hilarity and sophistication.
The humorist's mind is a wonderful thing to watch. Sometimes you
can even see humorists' lips move as they silently try out different
ideas. Meet them during off-hours at a social gathering; every fact
reported, every name mentioned, every prediction made is grist for
humorous association. At the end of a party, if you ask how they
enjoyed themselves, they might answer positively only if they've been
successful at collecting new material, which they'll write and rewrite
all the way home.
A humorist tells himself every morning, "I hope it's going to
be a rough day." When things are going well, it's much harder
to make jokes.
To keep track of ideas and potential material, the humorist's toolbox typi¬
cally includes the following items: a note pad, index cards, a tape recorder,
and a computer with Internet access. If you hope to sell your writing, you'll
need a copy of Writer's Market, the bible of the publishing industry.
Regardless of the tools you use, you'll need to devise a system for
organizing your writing. The traditional method is to organize jokes by
topics using some type of filing system. Milton Berle and Bob Hope
each had a vault containing more than six million jokes on index cards
sorted by topic. The digital alternatives to index cards are database or
16 Comedy Writing Secrets If you plan to write more elaborate humor (such as columns, arti¬
cles, or scripts), there are a variety of software programs that can aid
your writing. One of the most useful writing development programs is
Inspiration. The program allows you to visualize your material and
easily manipulate ideas, and its integrated diagramming and outlining
environments facilitate brainstorming, concept mapping, organizing,
The following activities will help you develop your comedy-writing foun¬
dation through listening, observing, reading, and exploring. It's critical
that you complete these exercises now, because they will be used
throughout the next few chapters.
•List your ten favorite comedians and humorists, and use the Internet to
search for jokes or quotes by each of these individuals.
• After you amass twenty jokes, write each joke on an index card. On the
back of each card, identify the subject or target of the joke, and explain
why you think the joke is funny. This exercise will help you become
aware of the format of successful jokes and provide you with insight into
your own comedic preferences.
• Collect ten to fifteen cartoons or comic strips and tape each one on
a separate piece of paper. As you did with the jokes, identify the target
of the humor and describe why the cartoon is funny to you. You may
find it helpful to continue building a file of jokes and cartoons that
appeal to you.
• In addition to building a joke and cartoon file, you'll need to find new
material to use as the building blocks for your humor writing. Most pro¬
fessional humor writers begin each day by reading a newspaper, watch¬
ing news on TV, and/or surfing the Internet for incidents and situations
that might provide joke material. As you read this book and complete the
The Importance of Humor Writing 17 exercises at the end of each chapter, form a daily habit of recording the
odd news events that tickle your fancy.
• Everyday life is the main source for humor, so you need to keep some
type of personal humor journal. To facilitate psychoanalysis, Sigmund
Freud had patients complete a dream diary, and he encouraged them to
associate freely during therapy. To be a successful writer and tap into the
full potential of your comic persona, you should follow an analogous
approach. Record everyday events, ideas, or observations that you find
funny, and do your journaling without any form of censorship. The items
you list are intended not to be funny but to serve as starting points for
18 Comedy Writing Secrets CHAPTER 2
Why We Laugh
The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and
sharpen my tongue.
Aristotle studied it, and Socrates debated it. Such famous histor¬
ical figures as Charles Darwin, Thomas Hobbes, and Henri
Bergson wrote papers on their humor theories. In the twentieth
century, Sigmund Freud, Max Eastman, and even Woody Allen
tried to formulate clear explanations of the purpose of humor.
In fact, there's been more research on humor in the last decade
than in all previous centuries combined. Humor has played an important
part in our lives for thousands of years, but scientists and philosophers
are still working to understand what laughter means, why we tell jokes,
and why we do or don't appreciate other people's humor.
Despite the prowess of the minds that have considered the subject,
answers are far from definitive. Like rabbis in the eternal debate over the
meaning of the Talmud, every scholar of comedy interprets its subjective
phenomena in terms of his own discipline. Today, there is more diversity
of opinion than ever.
So much remains to be done that the student of humor has a real
opportunity to make a significant contribution to the field.
—Jeffrey Goldstein and
The only common denominator among the theories is an agreement that
humor is so subjective that no one theory can possibly fit in all instances.
For those interested in creating humor, there is good news and bad
news. The good news is that if humor has so many tangents, it may have
an unlimited variety of benefits. Most of them have yet to be discovered.
The bad news is that those who create comedy are not sure they know
Why We Laugh 19 exactly what they're doing. "I work strictly on instinct," Woody Allen
admitted. Humor writers therefore have to live with the fear that they
won't be able to continue producing humor consistently.
After being an established writer for fifteen years, I remember
staring at the typewriter every morning with a desperate, ran¬
dom groping for something funny, that familiar fear that I could¬
n't do it, that I had been getting away with it all this time and I
would at last be found out. [It was] a painful blundering most of
us went through.
There are few artists more insecure than humorists. They are tradi¬
tionally suspicious of any attempt to analyze their creative techniques.
That's because they develop their formulas through trial and error.
They discover comedy batting averages; some techniques work more
often than others.
I think I did pretty well, considering I started out with nothing but a
bunch of blank paper.
Before we discuss how humor works, let's examine your theory of humor.
Take out your joke and cartoon collections, and rank each item in terms
Next, review the explanations you wrote for the top-rated items to
determine common patterns or themes.
Finally, with these patterns or themes in mind, write down at least five
answers to the question Why do people laugh?
20 Comedy Writing Secrets REASONS FOR LAUGHTER
Few contemporary humor craftsmen agree on any comedic philosophy,
except: If it gets a laugh, it's funny. If you want to write funny, however,
you must first understand how audiences respond to humor. In short,
you must understand why we laugh.
Noted psychologist Patricia Keith-Spiegel identified two primary
reasons why we laugh.
• We laugh out of surprise.
• We laugh when we feel superior.
Keith-Spiegel identified six additional motivations for laughter, each of
which supports the two main reasons, surprise and superiority.
• We laugh out of instinct.
• We laugh at incongruity.
• We laugh out of ambivalence.
• We laugh for release.
• We laugh when we solve a puzzle.
• We laugh to regress.
The theories of humor discussed in this chapter will provide you with a
starting point for analyzing why humor does or does not work. Over time,
your personal theory of humor will evolve and influence your writing.
Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. They both die in the process.
Be forewarned—the application of humor theories does have a downside.
As you shift into an analytical mindset, you'll spend more time thinking
about why something is funny and less time laughing. As we take jokes
apart, we must be as unemotional as a coroner during an autopsy.
We laugh most often to cover our feelings of embarrassment. This can be
a result of either having unintentionally done or said something foolish,
or having been tricked. If we have been tricked, we have been surprised.
Why We Laugh 21 Surprise is one of the most universally accepted formulas for humor. A
joke is a story, and a surprise ending is usually its finale.
The guys in strip clubs think because they got a pocket full of dol¬
lars they got the power—but the chicks got the power. They spin
around the pole and you guys are hypnotized. That's how I look at
a dessert case, but at least I get to eat mine.
Appreciation of any piece of humor decreases rapidly through repeated
exposure, or when the ending is predictable. Clever wordplay engenders
grudging appreciation in your peers, but surprise wordplay gives birth to
laughter. We smile at wit. We laugh at jokes.
The techniques that most often trigger surprise are misdirection
(when you trap the audience), and incongruity (which is most effective
when the audience is fully aware of all the facts, but someone they are
observing is not).
The universe has come to an end in Houston, where there's
a Starbucks across the street from a Starbucks. Is this for
Alzheimer's suffers? You finish your coffee and walk out the
door and go, "Oh, look, a Starbucks."
If laughter is the electricity that makes a comedy writer's blood start
pumping, then surprise is the power generator. The need for surprise is
the one cardinal rule in comedy.
In West Virginia yesterday, a man was arrested for stealing several
blow-up dolls. Reportedly, police didn't have any trouble catching
the man because he was completely out of breath.
According to playwright Abe Burrows, the best way to define the construc¬
tion of surprise is to use baseball terms: A joke is a curve ball—a pitch that
bends at the last instant and fools the batter. "You throw a perfectly
straight line at the audience and then, right at the end, you curve it. Good
22 Comedy Writing Secrets jokes do that," said Burrows. To achieve the unexpected twist, it's some¬
times necessary to sacrifice grammar and even logic.
He may not be able to sing, but he sure can't dance.
A key word sets up the surprise. It gets the audience to assume they know
the ending. Notice how the word half works in the following example.
My wife and I have many arguments, but she only wins half of
them. My mother-in-law wins the other half.
There are many ways to achieve surprise. What's important is to remem¬
ber that you really can't be funny without it.
There appears to be a strong and constant need for us to feel superior.
In many ways, humor satisfies this most basic of needs.
If you can't laugh at yourself, make fun of others.
"Humor is a reaction to tragedy. The joke is at someone else's expense,"
wrote anthropologist Alan Dundes. We even laugh when the baby falls
down and goes boom. We defend this sadistic release by saying, "That's
cute." It's not cute—especially from the baby's perspective. Humor often
ridicules the intelligence, social standing, and physical and mental
infirmities of those we consider inferior to ourselves.
You know, you're never more indignant in life than when you're
shopping in a store that you feel is beneath you and one of the
other customers mistakes you for an employee of that store.
But those we consider superior to ourselves are not spared. We delight
in publicizing and mocking every shortcoming—perceived or real—of
people who are in positions of authority, who are richer, more famous,
more intelligent, physically stronger, or more admired. The greater the
prestige of the victim, the greater our desire to equalize.
Why We Laugh 23 TYPOS: AN ART FULL OF SUPERIORITY
Nothing allows someone to feel superior more than
mocking another person's mindless mistake, which is
perhaps why typos are such a rich source for contem¬
porary humor and witticisms. Both the original expression
or word and the expression or word created by the typo
must be so familiar (in other words, part of universal
knowledge) that there is no doubt that everyone in the
audience can be in on the gag.
My public relations course had a typo in last semester's course
catalog. It was listed as "Advanced Pubic Relations." The regis¬
tration was 1,500 ... and those were only the faculty wives.
In the 9/11 commission report, they say it was Iran—not Iraq—
that was helping Al-Qaeda. So apparently we invaded the
wrong country because of a typo.
Humor is social criticism. The object is to deflate. Humor has been an emo¬
tional catharsis for every American ethnic minority: Irish, Germans, Arabs,
Jews, Blacks, Latinos, etc. There are few joke books on WASPs—but that
doesn't mean there aren't jokes about them.
In a study, scientists report that drinking beer can be good for the
liver. I'm sorry, did I say "scientists"? I meant "Irish people."
I'm a WASP, a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, and actually, a lot of
my people are doing really well.
Humor also reassures the insecure. Even if we believe ourselves to be
the "haves" (having power, money, knowledge, or prestige), there is
24 Comedy Writing Secrets tremendous insecurity about how we got it and how long we're going to
keep it. Americans have a tremendous sense of inferiority. We mask it
with jokes about our superiority.
I've been to Canada, and I've always gotten the impression
that I could take the country over in about two days.
There are two ways to feel superior. The first is to accomplish exemplary
work that receives public acclaim. That's difficult. The second (and easiest)
way to feel superior is to publicly criticize the accomplishments of others.
This diminishes their prestige and focuses attention on us. Regardless of
how much the second method might be deplored on ethical grounds, the
amount of time and effort exerted to belittle the work of competitors is usu¬
ally far greater than the amount of time and energy expended to improve
our own abilities.
The penalty for laughing in a courtroom is six months in jail.
If it weren't for the penalty, the jury would never be able to
hear the evidence.
Our spark of laughter is always ignited by the misfortunes of those we
fear. "Humor is the weapon of the underdog," wrote psychologist Harvey
Mindess. "We must look for avenues through which we can disgorge our
feelings of inferiority by discovering the blemishes of our superiors."
In short, we feel superior because their image has been tarnished and
because we aren't in the same predicament.
As individuals (regardless of our status), our humor is generally
directed upward against more authoritative figures.
In a group setting, our humor is directed downward toward groups
that don't conform to our social, religious, national, or sexual mores.
I worked some gigs in the Deep South ... Alabama. You talk
about Darwin's waiting room. There are guys in Alabama who
are their own father.
Why We Laugh 25 Sigmund Freud's explanation of this phenomenon was that "a good bit of
humor is oriented to maintaining the status quo by ridiculing deviant
social behavior and reassuring the majority that their way of life is proper.
It is used as a weapon of the 'ins' against the 'outs.'"
If you're Black, you gotta look at America a little bit different. You
gotta look at America like the uncle who paid for you to go to college
but molested you.
The comic is no El Cid on horseback. If anything, comics are guerrilla
fighters—hitting and running, bobbing and weaving. With this kind of an
act, they've got to keep moving.
The professional humorist must always be aware that audience mem¬
bers are happiest when his subject matter and technique encourage them
to feel superior. The target of a roast smiles only because he knows
everyone is watching for his approval. Despite being the guest of honor,
he would rather have stayed home with his wife—where he would also
have been insulted, but at least he could have saved a clean, white shirt.
Now that we've discussed the two main reasons why people laugh—
surprise and superiority—let's examine the six other reasons. These six
minor theories overlap one another and either function within or support
the two main theories.
Laughter is a born and bred instinct, a phenomenon of evolution. It
appears to be a function of the nervous system that stimulates, relaxes,
and restores a feeling of well-being. Primates, with little verbal commu¬
nicative ability, show friendship with a closemouthed smile. They show
anger and hostility with an open mouth, exposing all their teeth—despite
the fact they could all use orthodontics.
Scientists believe that monkeys can be taught to think, lie, and even
play politics within their community. If we can just teach them to
cheat on their wives, we can save millions on congressional salaries.
26 Comedy Writing Secrets For human beings, laughter has evolved as a substitute for assault. Triumph
is often coupled with an openmouthed smile followed immediately by a
roar of laughter. Watch a pro football player after he scores a touchdown.
If laughter is biologically instinctive, the old adage of never trusting
someone who laughs too loudly should be amended to include those who
laugh with their mouths open. We laugh and joke not when we need to reach
out and touch someone, but when we need to reach out and crush someone.
It's an attempt to vent our hostility when physical aggression is not practical.
According to the dictionary, something is incongruous when it is incon¬
sistent within itself. For example, whenever someone behaves in a rigid
manner that is suddenly ill-suited to the logic of the occasion, these
incongruous antics result in a ridiculous scenario. This comic effect can
arise from incongruity of speech, action, or character.
According to philosopher Henri Bergson, one type of comedic incon¬
gruity is an unconventional pairing of actions or thoughts.
There are only two kinds of money in the world: your money and
There seems to be more than a Latin semantic root shared by the words
ridiculous and ridicule. And in humor, we ridicruel. Many incongruous
situations provoke laughter because they allow the observer to feel supe¬
rior. Some of the best illustrations of this type of comedic incongruity are
the practical jokes on such television shows as Candid Camera and
Punk'd. These television programs, by design, encourage us to laugh at
people trying to maintain dignity in bizarre circumstances. The audience
laughs the hardest when it knows all the facts of the situation—and
therefore feels superior to the perplexed victim of the joke.
Allen Flint, the creator of Candid Camera, claimed that the talking
mailbox gag—a man is mailing a letter when suddenly the mailbox starts
to talk to him—was the show's top laugh-getter. The incongruity of a
mailbox talking to someone is funny on its own, but the apex of laughter
comes when the man calls over his friend and asks him to listen to the
Why We Laugh 27 amazing conversation. He starts talking to the mailbox. At this point, the
mailbox doesn't say a word. As the victim gets more and more exasperat¬
ed and starts shouting at the mailbox, the camera cuts to a close-up of
the friend—who is plainly questioning his buddy's sanity.
Incongruity may take the form of an entire comic plot, rather than a
single joke. A common example of an incongruity-based plot in TV sit¬
coms is when one character hides in the closet moments before someone
in authority (a spouse, boss, police officer) unexpectedly enters the room.
This plot has a hundred variations, and it's always popular because the
audience knows all the facts, and therefore feels superior.
This theory is similar to incongruity in its dependence on incompatible
experiences. Nervous laughter covers our recognition of rigid conven¬
tions that make us appear foolish when held up to a humorist's strobe
light. In a dishonest world, honesty is amusing.
They say you should videotape your baby-sitter, but I don't think
you should involve your kid in a sting operation.
Whereas incongruity is the clash of incompatible ideas or perceptions,
ambivalence is the simultaneous presence of conflicting emotions, such as
the love/hate relationships in families. Holding our ambivalent feelings up
for comedic inspection is the powerful shtick of humorists like Bill Cosby,
who often played upon the antagonism a parent may often feel for a child.
Listen to what I'm telling you, damn it, 'cause I brought you into
this world, and I can take you out of it.
Another common topic under the theme of ambivalence is the mother-
son relationship (which makes analysts wealthy).
My mother never saw the irony in calling me a son of a bitch.
Ambivalent humor covers up our guilt feelings or our foolish errors; it's
28 Comedy Writing Secrets an attempt to maintain dignity. Self-deprecating humor is just a device to
set the audience at ease, so you can be in control.
We laugh in embarrassment when we drop a glass in public or an innocent
error of ours has been discovered. In these situations, laughter relieves
tension. But laughter as release can also be a planned event, a conscious
effort to unlock life's tensions and inhibitions. We attend a Neil Simon play
or a Robin Williams concert because we want humor to help us laugh
away our anxieties.
A drunk driver's very dangerous. Everybody knows that. But so is
a drunken backseat driver—if he's persuasive.
This release is fortified by group approval. Comedy works best when an
audience is not only prepared to laugh, but anxious to participate in a
shared social experience.
For release humor to work, the audience must be clued to every plot
from the beginning. If the audience and the actor don't know what's
behind the door, that's mystery. If the audience knows, but someone else
doesn't, that's release comedy.
Did you ever wonder why we sing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame"
when we're already there?
One theory of laughter as relief is that, if we feel the need to laugh, it's
because we've been whipped by the day's battles and we'd like to hear or
see a few others get smacked around. Misery loves company, but only if we
can laugh at them and they can't laugh back at us. We'll even laugh wildly
when a catcher chasing a foul ball wipes out seven guys in wheelchairs.
I hear blind people are complaining that seeing-eye dogs are
expensive, difficult to train, and hard to get. I say, let 'em use
midgets. They can use the work.
That's sadism—and superiority.
Why We Laugh 29 Puzzle Solving
We frequently laugh when disjointed bits of information fall into place:
Oh, so that's the way it works!
I learned about sex the hard way—from books!
We smile, frequently even laugh aloud, when we experience that sudden
insight of having solved a mystery, finished a crossword puzzle, or con¬
quered a difficult assignment. Theorists refer to this type of scenario as
configuration humor. In configuration humor, we laugh when a riddle
encourages us to instantaneously discover some missing—and unexpect¬
ed—piece of information. If we're successful, we congratulate ourselves
by laughing out loud. We are delighted by the solution to the puzzle (sur¬
prise), and we want the world to know we're very smart (superiority).
Sigmund Freud's theory of humor contended that humor, like sleep, is
therapeutic. But even more importantly, he argued, wit can express—in a
relatively appropriate way—urges and feelings that can't otherwise be let
loose, such as the desire to act on regressive infantile sexual or aggres¬
sive behavior. More to the point, Freud believed that a lack of humor can
be a sign of mental illness.
My theory is that women don't suffer from penis envy. Every
man just thinks his penis is enviable. Maybe Freud suffered from
Psychologist J.C. Flugel wrote, "We laugh in order to socially accomplish
childish regression without feeling foolish. We adopt a playful mood,
excusable as relaxation." This may explain why comic strips are the most
universally accepted format of humor among adults, regardless of nation¬
ality or culture.
We're young only once, but with humor, we can be immature forever.
30 Comedy Writing Secrets Psychoanalysts learn a great deal about patients by listening to their
humor. And you can learn a great deal about your own psychological
makeup by constantly asking yourself (and answering truthfully), Why
did I laugh at this joke and not at others?
Every man is a damn fool for at least five minutes every day;
wisdom consists of not exceeding the limits.
Our regression into an infantile state of mind through humor, as sug¬
gested by psychoanalysts, is most often experienced in large settings.
For group approval, we subjugate our humor preferences to those of
authority figures. If the group leaders approve of the humor, we laugh.
If the group leaders disapprove, we groan. We rarely enjoy humor if we
feel we're laughing counter to the crowd. If we are the first to laugh,
we will stifle a hearty ha-ha in mid-ha if no one joins us. Even when
acting childish, our desire is to maintain social approval.
One of the most difficult humor audiences is a room of
corporate executives when the big boss is present.
Every time the speaker tells a joke, everyone in the
room first checks the CEO. If the CEO doesn't laugh, no one
else laughs. If the CEO has a good sense of humor and laughs
easily, business associates then consider themselves to
have permission to laugh. Even though this check for
approval only takes a second, it can throw a comedian's timing way off.
Let's not camouflage our true intentions. We don't use humor just to
entertain the world. The value of humor in attack is incomparable,
because humor is a socially acceptable form of criticism, a catharsis that
combines memorability with respectability.
But the only way you'll survive as a humorist is if the audience
equally disfavors your target. Understanding what motivates a particular
Why We Laugh 31 audience is one of the secrets of writing humor. You must maintain
surprise and superiority.
THE SCIENCE OP HUMOR:
A MATTER OF WIFE OR DEATH
In 2001, Richard Wiseman, a British scientist and the creator of LaughLab
(www.laughlab.co.uk), conducted a global online study to discover the
world's funniest joke. He constructed a Web site that allowed visitors to
submit jokes and rate the offerings of others. More than forty thousand
jokes were received from seventy countries (though two-thirds were
deemed inappropriate for posting). Based on several million critiques,
the world's funniest joke is:
A couple of New Jersey hunters are out in the woods when one of
them falls to the ground. He doesn't seem to be breathing; his eyes
are rolled back in his head. The other guy whips out his cell phone
and calls the emergency services.
He gasps to the operator: "My friend is dead! What can I do?"
The operator, in a calm, soothing voice, says: "Just take it easy.
I can help. First, let's make sure he's dead."
There is a silence, then a shot is heard.
The guy's voice comes back on the line. He says: "OK, now
The LaughLab joke survey revealed other interesting data. Germans
rated jokes the funniest overall, while Canadians gave the lowest ratings.
If you like talking-animal jokes, use a duck—it was considered the funni¬
est talking animal. And the most submitted joke was: "What's brown and
sticky? A stick." No one found the joke funny.
With the advancement of brain-imaging tools, scientists can now
study how the brain processes humor. The typical experiment requires
subjects to view, read, or listen to a humorous stimulus, such as an
episode of The Simpsons or Seinfeld, while researchers record brain
functioning. Although this type of research is still in its infancy, there is
an emerging consensus concerning the brain's reaction to humor. The
32 Comedy Writing Secrets language-based portion of the brain (the left frontal cortex) "gets" the
joke by recognizing the ambiguity, incongruity, and surprise of the
humor. The emotional areas of the brain (such as the amygdala) appre¬
ciate the humor and trigger laughter.
Eventually, science will be able to explain humor's neural underpin¬
nings. However, the mystery of what, exactly, is "funny" will never be
solved. One person considers the Three Stooges to be comic savants,
while another finds no humor in Moe's abuse of Curly—this illustrates
the individual differences in the perception of what's funny. A sense of
humor is as unique as a fingerprint.
DOES SICK HUMOR MAKE US FEEL BETTER?
Morbid humor arises out of every tragic situation. Within hours after
the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, the airwaves were filled with such
QUESTION: What has feathers and glows in the dark?
ANSWER: Chicken Kiev
Do sick jokes, frequently tasteless and insensitive, serve an important
purpose? The consensus is that humor is one way of coping with tragedy.
The more we're scared, the more we have to create jokes to laugh away
Many of the most offensive jokes derived from current tragedies are
entre-nous humor, told by one person to friends or co-workers, but rarely
performed in public.
Jesus walked up to the registration desk of the Hilton hotel,
threw three nails on the counter and asked, "Can you put me up
for the night?"
Psychologists have always been interested in explaining human behavior
through humor. Humor is an important manifestation of what society
really believes, but dares not speak or teach. "We can't confront tragedy
directly," suggests Joseph Boskin of Boston University, "so we try to ease
ourselves in a humorous way."
Why We Laugh 33 Laughing at misfortune frequently replaces negative feelings with pos¬
itive feelings. This is true whether we're laughing at someone else's mis¬
fortune or our own. Sigmund Freud, who studied humor (but not for the
fun of it), theorized that jokes allow us to express unconscious aggres¬
sive and sexual impulses, to substitute words for what we may not be
able to accomplish in deeds.
But when it comes to sick humor, the real reason people tell such
jokes is much simpler—to make themselves feel better by getting
respect, or at least attention. When we were young, we discovered that
we could always get a laugh by dropping our pants or saying some taboo
word. We may have grown older physically, but the desire to attract
attention and gain approval through audacious humor remains.
Many comedians believe that they don't need sick humor once they've
become established. Said motivational speaker and humorist Larry
Wilde, "It's mainly done by the young comics anxious to be noticed. As
you get older, you find that material on death and disease makes the
audience feel uncomfortable."
In other words, a comic has to be brave enough to be clean. It may be
coincidental, but a rather significant acronym results from the first letter
of the three elements used by those who depend upon sick humor to
attract attention: audaciousness, shock, and surprise. Put them all
together, they spell ASS. Wonder what Freud would have had to say
The following activities reinforce the importance of examining why some¬
thing is funny.
• Return to your joke and cartoon collections, and reanalyze each item
using the two most important humor principles, surprise and superi¬
ority. Identify how the element of surprise is used and the ways in
which the audience feels superior.
34 Comedy Writing Secrets • Select a favorite humor article or column and highlight the funny
sections. Examine the writing for how the author uses surprise to
deliver the punch.
• Watch a tape of your favorite comedy. Pause after funny scenes and
write down how and why the humor worked. Pay particular attention
to the two most important principles, surprise and superiority.
• Examine the funny personal stories and anecdotes that you share
with your friends to confirm how surprise and superiority play a role
in the humor.
Why We Laugh 35 CHAPTER 3
The Recipe for Humor
Instead of working for the survival of the fittest, we should be
working for the survival of the wittiest, and then we can all die
There are six essential ingredients in any recipe for humor. With few
exceptions, the absence of any one ingredient so disturbs the formula
that the humor might not just taste "off," but might deflate like a ruined
souffle. Whether the humor is a one-liner, a lengthy anecdote, or a three-
act theatrical piece, these six elements are required.
Although the prescribed order may be challenged, in this configuration
the first letter of each element forms a memorable acronym: THREES.
The THREES formula focuses on the what and why of humor. The
what is the target, and the why is the hostility, realism, exaggeration,
emotion, and surprise contained in the humor.
36 Comedy Writing Secrets TARGET: AIMING YOUR HUMOR
Our instinctive perception is that humor is fun. It isn't! Humor is criticism
cloaked as entertainment and directed at a specific target.
If there's no corpse, there's usually no joke.
The proper selection of humor targets is not just
important—it's arguably the most critical factor in writing
commercially successful humor. The MAP theory—material,
audience, and performer—postulates that the material must fit
the persona of the writer (or performer) and the interests of
the audience. A humor target can be almost anything or
anybody, but you need to be sure you've focused on the
right target for your particular audience.
You can't target an entire audience any more than you can shame the
whole world. Humor is an attempt to challenge the status quo, but target¬
ing must reaffirm the audience's hostilities and prejudices.
This means that humor is always unfair. Like editorial cartoons, jokes
take a biased point of view. There's no room in one joke for a balanced
argument or explanation. As H.L. Mencken put it, "My business is diagno¬
sis, not therapeutics."
I hate phone solicitors. I'd rather get an obscene call; at least they
work for themselves.
A neophyte writer often selects humor targets with limited appeal, such
as a girlfriend or boyfriend. Here's the problem: Your companion may be
the most bizarre or humorous person in the history of the human
species, but no one else cares about your partner other than your family
members (and even that is questionable). Unless members of the audi¬
ence can vicariously share your experiences, you might as well perform
your material in a bathroom. It will be safer.
Successful humorists select targets with universal appeal. Erma Bombeck
wrote about the struggles of being a mother and did not focus on the
The Recipe for Humor 37 specific eccentricities of her family. Because she invoked common experi¬
ences, Bombeck's humor was appreciated by legions of devoted readers.
Another common mistake when selecting a target is to use general top¬
ics rather than specific premises. For example, the way people drive is a
broad subject that will not readily lend itself to humor. The target must be
more specific, such as how women are able to multitask (put on makeup,
talk on a cell phone, etc.) while driving. By narrowing a general target to a
specific premise, you increase the likelihood of surprising the audience
with the punchline.
Picking a good target isn't a crapshoot. It takes thought, skill, and
precision to MAP your way to the right target. Strong targets, as noted
above, can range from people to personal beliefs. Let's take a closer
look at some of the most common targets: yourself, sex, celebrities,
places, products, and ideas.
Self: Pick on Somebody Your Own Size
By far the least offensive (but most effective) target is yourself. As writer
and director Carl Reiner observed, "Inviting people to laugh with you
while you are laughing at yourself is a good thing to do. You may be the
fool, but you're the fool in charge."
I'm always getting screwed by the system. That's my lot in life.
I'm the system's bitch.
Many comics open by ridiculing their shortcomings: their physical charac¬
teristics, finances, intelligence, and even their success. People are always
willing to laugh at someone else, so it's a safe way to warm up an audience.
. Once the audience is laughing, it's time to move on to hotter issues.
I plan to become so famous that drag queens will dress like me in
parades when I'm dead.
Sex: Talk Dirty to Me
Sex is the topic of close to 25 percent of all humor, making it one of the
most popular targets. All of us—male or female, young or old—are more
38 Comedy Writing Secrets ambivalent about sexual activity than about any other single subject. It
isn't that we're fascinated by exaggerated acts of sex; it's that we're frus¬
trated by exaggerated reports of adequacy.
An elderly patient said to his doctor, "Why can't I have sex five
times a day?"
"But you're seventy-five, Sam," said the doctor. "Physically
you just can't do it anymore."
"But my friend Bernie says he has great sex. He says he can
have it five times a day, and he says the most beautiful girls in
town are all after him. That's what he says."
"So, Sam," said the doctor, "you say!"
Studies have shown that men's greatest sexual concerns generally
center around size, the ability to get an erection, performance, the
amount of sex they're having, premature ejaculation, and impotency—
pronounced in West Virginia as im-PO-tan-cy, because it's real impo¬
tent to me! (However you pronounce it, it still means having to say
I'm not a good lover, but at least I'm fast.
In The Hite Report on Male Sexuality, Shere Hite reported that while
men treasure sexuality, "they also dislike and feel very put upon by it."
Her report suggests that men feel trapped by sexual stereotypes. They
find themselves unable to speak openly about their sexual angers, anxi¬
eties, and desires. Many complain about the escalating pressures to initi¬
ate sex, to achieve and maintain frequent erections, to control the timing
of ejaculations, and to understand (let alone satisfy) their partner's
orgasmic needs. Since the introduction of Viagra, erectile dysfunction
jokes have been in sitcoms like Seinfeld and Friends.
Cialis warns that if your erection lasts for more than four hours,
you should tell your doctor. Hey, at my age, if I have an erection
for more than four hours, I'd want to tell everybody!
The Recipe for Humor 39 Research on sexual humor indicates that beginning joke tellers are more
likely to select sexual themes that discriminate against males regardless
of the gender of the performer or the audience, and that their preferred
subjects are those that belittle body parts and sexual performance.
I once dated a guy who drank coffee and alcohol at the same time.
What a prince. Bad breath, limp dick, and wouldn't go to sleep.
Many comics use humor based upon deviance from the sexual norm.
You know you're gay when you bend over and see four balls.
Women are also intrigued by ribald humor about sexual activity, because
they're as sexually insecure as men about performance and satisfaction.
I'm just a huge fan of the penis, and they're all different—like
During sex, men confuse me. They suddenly start shouting, "I'm
coming. I'm coming." I don't know whether they want me there as
a partner or a witness.
Celebrities: Humor Fodder and Mudder
Celebrities are also popular targets. Celebrity service is a cheap shot, but
our appetite for a dash of vinegary gossip about our heroes, icons, and
villains is insatiable. Because the public almost indiscriminately idolizes
the famous and the infamous, the American media love to create new
celebrities in entertainment, sports, politics, and letters. Paradoxically,
no sooner do the idol rich reach the apex of their media hype than we
begin to humble them with gossip and humorous digs.
This Halloween the most popular mask is the Arnold
Schwarzenegger mask. And the best part? With a mouth full of
candy you can sound just like him.
40 Comedy Writing Secrets Places: Living in a Crass House
Our need for superiority is the motivating factor whenever we ridicule
places: We ridicule countries (France, North Korea); states (West
Virginia, New Jersey); cities (New York City, Washington, D.C.); and local
spots in the news (a neighborhood, a street, a bar, lover's lane). Every
humorist has a favorite dumping ground.
I moved from New York City to Athens, Ohio. Talk about culture
shock. From the city that never sleeps to the city that never woke up.
Products: Malice in Wonderland
There's a veritable eBay full of products that are favorite humor targets.
They run from buildings and automobiles to sports equipment, jewelry,
and junk food. The basic rule, again, is that your target be an object of
annoyance shared by the entire audience. It's easier to start backwards.
Begin with the punchline, but don't finalize your position until you've
decided it's their position as well. If the audience includes a large contin¬
gent of hunters, forget about quoting either of these Ellen DeGeneres bits.
Stuffed deer heads on walls are bad enough, but it's worse when
you see them wearing dark glasses, having streamers around their
necks, and a hat on their antlers. Because then you know they
were enjoying themselves at a party when they were shot.
I say to a gun owner who owns an AK-47, that if it takes a hundred
rounds to bring down a deer, maybe hunting isn't your sport.
Ideas: Fools of the Game
The list of controversial ideas that can be humor targets is lengthy.
Audacious ideas can include subjects such as religion, the meaning of
life and death, and politics. Trash-talking politicians is the meat and pota¬
toes of a late night host's opening monologue. Idea topics are the most
likely to backfire, because a person's politics and ideologies aren't visible
on the outside, like clothes. That's why David Letterman carefully
screens requests for his show tickets—to eliminate potential audience
members who may not appreciate his sadistic wavelength.
The Recipe for Humor 41 There are no perfect parents. Even Jesus had a distant father and
a domineering mother. I'd have trust issues, if my father allowed
me to be crucified.
Although feelings of superiority are essential to humor, you can nonethe¬
less be funny by coming out for a topic or idea, rather than against it.
"Comedy was born of anarchism," said political humorist Mark Katz, "and
now it's moved into advocacy."
Bisexuality immediately doubles your chances for a date on
As you've just seen, the list of potential humor targets is nearly endless.
Take a moment and list seven to ten possible subjects, topics, or targets
of humor. That is, identify things that you want to make fun of.
As noted in the discussion of the MAP theory in the first chapter, the
humorist's material must fit the persona of the writer or performer. Each
humorist feels more comfortable attacking some targets over others.
Return to your list of potential humor targets and identify the three tar¬
gets that you would feel most comfortable making fun of.
The second ingredient in the THREES recipe for humor is hostility. Humor
is a powerful antidote to many of the hostile feelings in our daily lives. All
of us have hostility toward some target. That is why, in humor, ridicule is
spelled ridicruel. Comedy is cruel. The words cruel and ridicule appear
together frequently—where there is one, there is also the other.
42 Comedy Writing Secrets All of us have hostility toward some person, thing, or idea—unless we
are saints. Did you ever hear a joke about two perfect, happy people? But
when a beer-bellied, blue-collar worker walks in the front door and says
to his battle-ax of a wife, "Can you spare a few minutes? I need to be
taken down a peg"—now, that works as great humor.
Let's discuss some common sources of hostility (and therefore humor):
authority, sex, money, family, angst, technology, and group differences.
Authority: Sock It to Me
While hostility against authority is international, in America, it is a
national heritage. Since the Revolutionary days, we've enjoyed pricking
the bloated arrogance of authority and watching it bleed. Humor is a
great catharsis because it gives the public an opportunity to blow off
indignant steam at authority figures both major and minor.
I looked up the word politics in the dictionary, and it's actually a
combination of two words: poli, which means "many," and tics,
which means "bloodsuckers."
One characteristic of this hostility is that invariably we ridicule upward,
attacking those we perceive to be superior (or in a superior position).
The Senate decided they will be smoke-free. They ordained that
all public areas in the Senate are now smoke-free. However, the
senators themselves will still be allowed to blow smoke up each
Richard Pryor's audiences were easily defined: mostly young black mili¬
tants, with a fair percentage of young liberal whites. Both the black and
white members of the audience held white authority as a common
enemy. In the following memorable bit, Pryor shrewdly used this shared
hostility to explain his arrest—a front-page story—for shooting his wife's
car one night after she threatened to leave him. (Note that Pryor chose
the police as representative of white authority.)
The Recipe for Humor 43 I don't want to never see no more police in my life, at my house,
taking my ass to jail, for killing my car. And it seemed fair to kill
my car to me, right, 'cause my wife was goin' leave my ass in it.
"Not in this motherfucker, you ain't. If you leave you're goin' be
drivin' those Hush Puppies you got on. 'Cause I'm goin' kill this
motherfucker here." And I had one of them big ol' Magnums, you
know the noise they make when you shoot something. I shot the
car... boom! And the car went, "Ahhhhhhh." It sounded good to
me. So I shot another one ... boom. "Ahhhhhh." And that black
car said to me, "Go ahead. Shoot somethin' else." I shot the
motor. The motor fell out. The motor say, "Fuck it."
Some readers may view Pryor's work as vulgar, but from the perspective
of his peers, he was a comic genius—Pryor was the first recipient of the
annual Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.
Hostile humor is usually directed upward. Freshmen ridicule upper-
classmen but have little interest in writing humor about their younger
brothers or sisters. Faculty spend very little effort on humor directed at
students and much more on material satirizing the administration. In the
military echelons of command, noncoms gripe about junior commis¬
sioned officers, who ridicule the major support staff, who in turn snicker
about the general's idiosyncrasies, until—so the story goes—General
MacArthur's wife once asked him to convert to a religion in which he no
longer believed he was God.
This necessity for hostility bred what is called nihilistic humor—
humor based on the theory that there is no person or thing so sacred as to
be beyond ridicule. Humorists, protected by the First Amendment, enjoy
the admiration of audiences that laugh and applaud their unbridled criti¬
cism of gods, political leaders, and celebrities. Marty Simmons, who pub¬
lished National Lampoon, credited the antiestablishment climate of
Vietnam and Watergate with the birth and success of his magazine. But this
freedom to criticize must be accompanied by perspective. As one comic
admitted, hostility can be nothing more than intellectual masturbation.
"There am I criticizing the President of the United States. He lives in the
White House, and I'm telling dick jokes in some comedy club basement."
44 Comedy Writing Secrets When easily caricatured leaders run for reelection, humorists don't
know whether to vote their conscience or their profession. When colum¬
nist Art Buchwald was asked when he was going to retire, he said, "Not
now, when humor's so easy."
As they say around the [Texas] Legislature, if you can't drink their
whiskey, screw their women, take their money, and vote against 'em
anyway, you don't belong in office.
Money and Business: The Loot of All Evil
Men admit they think more about sex than about any other subject, but
studies throughout the years have indicated that women worry more
about finances than sex. There's little doubt, however, that money is a
constant source of irritation and hostility among both sexes.
Someday I want to be rich. Some people get so rich they lose all
respect for humanity. That's how rich I want to be.
If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the
people he gave it to.
Perversely, financial worries only increase as you get wealthier: The
more money you have, the more problems. Just buying a new product
can multiply anxiety four times: First, you must debate whether you real¬
ly need the product. Then you must decide on a brand, which means you
have to read comparison literature, evaluate alternatives, and physically
shop to find the product. Finally, you must haggle over price and agonize
over how to finance the purchase. Even after you've acquired a product,
you'll be exasperated by breakdowns and the need for repairs.
The concern about financial matters starts with your first cry for
someone to give you candy and continues to your last cry—for someone
to give you oxygen. Since everyone has personal money problems, focus¬
ing hostility on financial matters is one of the best (and least controver¬
sial) ways to show the audience you share their problems.
The Recipe for Humor 45 Business practices are more frequently becoming targets of financial
hostility. But jokes about business practices actually direct hostility
against two subjects at the same time: economics and authority.
The budget problems with Medicare and NASA could be solved if
the country began firing the elderly into space.
Financial humor targets are countless: Executive shenanigans, wages, taxes,
investments, gambling, lottery awards, and credit cards are just a few.
My VISA card was stolen two months ago, but I don't want to
report it. The guy who took it is using it less than my wife.
Family Affairs: Coming Home Soon
Hostility against family responsibilities, restrictions, and competing
interests needs little explanation as a target of humor. Family members
and household affairs like cleaning, paying bills, and cooking have all
become popular targets.
My theory on housework is, if the item doesn't multiply, smell,
catch on fire, or block the refrigerator door, let it be. No one cares.
Why should you?
The day I get excited about cleaning my house is the day Sears
comes out with a riding vacuum cleaner.
I left my wife because she divorced me. I'm not going to live with
somebody under those kinds of pressures. But I still love my ex-
wife. I called her on the phone today. I said, "Hello, plaintiff..."
I wanted to be an actress. I said to my mother, "I want to cry real
tears. I want to show great emotion for someone I don't really care
for." She said, "Become a housewife." She always wanted me to
46 Comedy Writing Secrets be married all in white—and all virginal. But I don't think a woman
should be a virgin when she gets married. I think she should have
at least one other disappointing experience. One woman friend of
mine told me she hated her husband so much that when he died
she had him cremated, blended him with marijuana, and smoked
him. She said, "That's the best he's made me feel in years."
Children, especially teenagers and preteens, are common family targets.
Even toddlers are targets (they're not just cute but, according to Bill Cosby,
exhibit signs of brain damage). Parents are unburdening themselves wittily,
even if they can't do it in reality.
Having a family is like having a bowling alley installed in your head.
And children are reciprocating, which means let's give it to our saintly,
gray-haired mother and revered father!
Mother's Day card: Mom, you're the greatest. At least that's what
all the guys at the construction site say!
Children are the most desirable opponents at Scrabble, as they are
both easy to beat and fun to cheat.
Angst: The Ecstasy and the Agony
Angst is the intellectual observation that fairy tales aren't true—that
there is an unhappy end to every happy beginning. Angst has pointed a
devil's finger at anxieties so personal that, in the past, we carefully avoid¬
ed discussing them even in private: A long list of such topics includes
fear of death; coping with deformity; deprivations; and neurotic symp¬
toms such as paranoia, insecurity, narcissism, and kinky sexual urges.
Have you ever dated somebody because you were too lazy to
The Recipe for Humor 47 Woody Allen popularized angst. "I merchandise misery," he wrote.
"When I named my movie Love and Death, the commercial possibilities
were immediately apparent to me: sight gags and slapstick sequences
about despair and emptiness; dialogue jokes about anguish and dread;
finally, mortality, human suffering, anxiety. In short, the standard ploys
of the funnyman."
They say such nice things about people at their funerals that it
makes me sad that I'm going to miss mine by a few days.
Technology: Now Fear This
Charlie Chaplin exploited frustrations and fears about rapidly growing
automation to make people laugh. It's ironic that IBM once used his tramp
character as an implied advertising testimonial for computers, because
Chaplin's character didn't promote machines—he ridiculed them.
Computers operate on simple principles that can easily be under¬
stood by anybody with some common sense, a little imagination,
and an IQ of 750.
The sense of hopelessness that comes from our apparent inability to
control the environment is now a universal hostility. Industrial chemi¬
cals can lead to pollution, drugs can lead to suicide, and the advertising
drum beats for nonsensical fads. Humor may be our only rational way
of coping with the fear of terrorism, an invasion of spooks from outer
space, or the chemical mutation of our planet.
They asked John Glenn what he thought about just before his
first capsule was shot into space, and he said: "I looked around
me and suddenly realized that everything had been built by the
Group Differences: Us vs. Them
Mocking the beliefs or characteristics of social groups is one of humor's
most controversial subjects because it caters to our most primitive
48 Comedy Writing Secrets instincts—prejudice and insecurity. We hope to maintain some sense of
superiority by ridiculing abnormal characteristics of others. We're
responding to a primitive form of group therapy.
Sophisticated people have retirement plans. Rednecks, on the
other hand, play the lottery. That's our plan. And when we hit the
'pick six," we're going to add a room on to the trailer so we don't
have to sleep with Grandpa no more.
We fear control and intimidation by people of different colors or religions;
and so, by derision, we attempt to stereotype their physical appearances,
ethnic mannerisms, colloquial speech—any unique characteristic we find
odd. We feel the same way about people with different social attitudes
about drugs, sex, education, professions—even music, literature, and
humor. As long as we're in the majority, humor can criticize.
I had a cab driver in Paris. The man smelled like a guy eating
cheese while getting a permanent inside the septic tank of a
Do you know how the Amish hunt? They sneak up on a deer and
build a barn around it.
Humor is often sin without conscience. (A conscience doesn't prevent
sin; it only prevents us from enjoying it.) It used to be the blue-collar
whites that regurgitated the most hostile ethnic humor. Today, comedi¬
ans of all backgrounds are sensing both an increasing freedom for public
humor and an increasing audience who'll pay to hear it.
Mexicans don't go camping in the woods, especially during hunt¬
ing season. Some redneck would say to the judge, "Your Honor, I
saw brown skin and brown eyes. He had his hands up. I thought
they were antlers. I shot his ass."
The Recipe for Humor 49 It's time that African-Americans and Korean-Americans put aside
their differences and focus on what's really important: hating
This is how Cheech and Chong, whose financial successes outstripped
that of every other comedy team in film history, described their type
Our jokes may be fifty years old, but our audience, the youth, ain't
seen shit. To them, it's brand new. If you're white, you can be afraid
of people of different color, religious fanatics, but if you're black or
brown, you're afraid of other things, like starvation and not having
a place to live. By incorporating the basic humor of drugs and
poverty into our appeal, it makes it universal—the underdogs
against the world. We know the humor of the rough and ready ...
we pander to the worst instincts in people—caricaturing swishy
gays, dumb blondes, illiterate Mexicans, greedy Jews. We're
Redd Foxx bragged about his material being "as outrageous as possible.
That's the humor I hear in the ghettos. We don't pull punches, and we
don't want to hear about Little Blue Boy and Cinderella—and if they
don't like my shit, they can fuck off!" The following story, which often
reappears as an urban legend, illustrates how ethnic humor can be
turned against the majority.
Four doctors' wives from a small Midwestern city decided to brave
a weekend shopping trip in Manhattan. Their husbands were appre¬
hensive about city crime. "If someone wants your pocketbook or
jewelry, don't put up a fight. Just do what they say. Promise?"
On their very first morning, as the four were descending in the
hotel elevator, a well-dressed black man got on leading a large
Doberman pinscher. He looked at the women for a moment, and
then commanded the dog, "Sit!" Immediately the four women sat
on the floor.
50 Comedy Writing Secrets Each writer has his own definition of humor. Shakespeare said, "Brevity
is the soul of wit." Somerset Maugham wrote, "Impropriety is the soul of
wit." But the soul of wit may just be hostility. When we all think alike,
there will be a lot less humor.
Sigmund Freud described depression as anger turned inward. Humor
might be viewed as anger turned into profit. Hostility underlies humor, so
tapping into your anger is an excellent tool for generating ideas for jokes
(and it's less expensive than therapy).
Make a list of people, things, and topics that you feel hostile about.
Freely associate, don't censure yourself, and write down why each target
is frustrating. Exaggerate your emotional state to the point of being PO'd
and fully vent your anger about the target. This exercise can narrow the
focus of each target to a specific premise that will be a springboard for
writing humor (not venting hot air!).
REALISM: RAISE YOUR SITES
The third component in the THREES formula for humor is realism. "Most
good jokes state a bitter truth," said scriptwriter Larry Gelbart. Without
some fundamental basis of truth, there's little with which the audience
can associate. But jokes also bend the truth, and the challenge is to learn
how to tell the truth (be realistic) while lying (exaggerating).
Since it appears that exaggeration is the logical antithesis of realism,
it may seem ludicrous to have both within the framework of one piece of
humor. But good humor is a paradox—the unexpected juxtaposition of
the reasonable next to the unreasonable—and that creates surprise.
Think of the combination of realism and exaggeration as an exercise in
lateral thinking, a technique commonly used by business gurus to solve
The Recipe for Humor 51 problems and generate new ideas. It's defined as an interruption in the
habitual thought process, a leap sideways out of ingrained patterns.
Comedy has been doing this for thousands of years.
Supreme Court Justice Sandra O'Connor went with the other jus
tices to a restaurant for lunch. The waiter asked for her order first.
"I'll have a steak sandwich and coffee."
"What about the vegetables?" asked the waiter. O'Connor said,
"Oh, they'll have the same."
The basic two-step in humor is to (a) state some common problem, fre
quently with a cliché, and (b) create an unexpected ending or surprise.
If you've never wanted to kill your mate, you've never been in
love. If you've never held a box of rat poison in your hand and
stared at it for a good long while, you've never been in love.
Incongruous humor, as you may remember from chapter two, is based on
the premise of two or more realistic (but contrasting) circumstances unit
ed in one thought. Humorist Stephen Leacock wrote, "Humor results from
the contrast between a thing as it is and ought to be, and a thing smashed
out of shape, as it ought not to be."
If the world is normal, then how come hot dogs come in packages
of ten and hot dog buns come in packages of eight?
Dorothy Parker once wrote, "The difference between wit and wisecrack
ing is that wit has truth to it, while wisecracking is simply calisthenics
with words." (So, realism fathers truisms, those witty bits of philosophy
based upon self-evident and generally accepted facts of life.)
To entertain some people, all you have to do is listen. But there is
nothing quite so annoying as having someone go on talking when
52 Comedy Writing Secrets The value of realism becomes even more evident when you consider the
humor of children. Their combination of truth and simplistic naïveté
delights grown-ups because it gives us a feeling of benevolent superiority—
if, as is said about benevolent dictatorship, there is such a thing.
A grandmother was babysitting her four-year-old granddaughter.
They both had hazel eyes, so the grandmother proudly asked,
"Debbie, do you know where your eyes came from?" The child
thought for a moment and answered, "Yes, Grandma, they came
with my head."
To be most effective, the "facts" of humor should be logical—the rela¬
tionship between people should be clear and predictable, the time and
the locale of the story should be familiar, the hostility should be com¬
mon to all the audience members and commensurate to the irritation.
Major deviations from reality don't prevent humor, but they may reduce
the payoff of uninhibited laughter. In essence, then, humor should be as
realistic as possible.
A priest in New York City was arrested on gun possession. These
days, you better be happy that the bulge in his pocket is a .38.
EXAGGERATION: TALKING UP A STORM
We've already begun discussing exaggeration, the fourth element in the
THREES formula for humor. How does realism relate to exaggeration?
As we accept poetic license, let's accept a humor license that grants per¬
mission to expand on realistic themes with soaring imagination and
unabashed metaphors. Audiences rarely counter a joke that the per¬
former has made personal with an admonition "You don't expect me to
Only for humor is the public willing to suspend disbelief and skepti¬
cism. We permit humorists to utilize hyperbole, blatant distortion, and
overstated figures that signal (since the absurd subject matter can't pos¬
sibly be true): Hey, it's only a joke. Therefore, the audience laughs at
The Recipe for Humor 53 exaggerated banana-peel acrobatics because the clown will certainly get
up. That's comedy! If he doesn't get up, that's tragedy!
An example of the likely next to the unlikely is the classic story about
the newspaper that ran two photos: one of a gray-haired matron who'd just
been elected president of the local Women's Republican Club and the
other of a gorilla who was a new addition to the local zoo—but the cap¬
tions got switched. That's likely. The second stage of the humor comes
from the unlikely: The newspaper got sued for defamation—by the gorilla!
EMOTION: BURST THE BUBBLE
The fifth element in the THREES formula is emotion. Hostility, over- or
understated, is not enough. There must be a buildup of anticipation in
the audience. This is really nothing more than the writer's skill in using
emotion to produce tension and anxiety. It's a trick. Think of hostility as
an inflated balloon. When you create tension in your audience, you are
effectively adding more and more air to that balloon, building the audi¬
ence's anticipation over when the balloon will burst. They can hardly
keep their eyes off the stunt. The writer's goal is to see that the balloon
bursts with laughter, not hot air.
Each performer has a stage personality, called a persona or shtick.
While others can steal material, they can't steal the nuances that make
one individual funny. (And an ineffective persona can make a per¬
former unable to tell even a well-written joke). Humorist Larry Wilde
said, "There is a melody and cadence to all comedy that is as stringent
and disciplined as music."
A great comedic performer must be an actor with boundless energy.
The qualities that make a good comedian are over and above those that
make a good actor. Many comedians have become good actors in films
and sitcoms, but you rarely hear of a good actor becoming a great come¬
dian. In the movie The Entertainer, Sir Laurence Olivier played the part
of a small-time comic. It was a brilliant, award-winning performance, and
when Olivier was asked how he managed to make the comic look so
inept, he replied, "I didn't try to do him badly. I played the role as well as
I could." Even the best actor may be a flop as a comedian.
54 Comedy Writing Secrets The ability to generate emotion is the ability of the speaker to trans¬
late the writer's material into entertainment through voice, enthusiasm,
and action. The ability to create emotion is also experience: knowing
when to pause and for how long, creating a rhythm with inflection, and
sometimes nothing more grandiose than making a gesture—called a take,
because it takes the right gesture.
Woody Allen discovered that "stand-up is a funny man doing material,
not a man doing funny material. The personality, the character—not the
QUESTION & ANSWER
HOW DO YOU BUILD EMOTION?
1. The first and most common technique for building
emotion is also the simplest—pausing just before
the payoff word. This pause is called a pregnant
pause because it promises to deliver. Even in Henny
Youngman's classic, "Take my wife—please!" the slight
pause indicated by the dash is essential to the reading
of that line. (Try to read it any other way!) The preg¬
nant pause creates tension, which is relieved by
the surprise ending.
I know you want to hear the latest dope from Washington.
Well—here I am.
—Senator Alan Simpson
Would you be so kind as to help a poor, unfortunate fellow out
of work, hungry, in fact someone who has nothing in this
world—except this gun!
2. The second technique for generating emotion is asking the audience
members a question, thereby encouraging them to become involved. This
was one of Johnny Carson's favorite devices.
The Recipe for Humor 55 Anybody see this commercial on TV last night? It claims you
can send a letter from anywhere in the country to New York for
seven dollars and fifty cents, and it promises next-day delivery.
The Post Office calls it Express Mail. I remember when it used
to be called the U.S. Mail.
Remember how hot it was yesterday? Well a dog was chasing
a cat, and they were both walking.
A common technique used by novice stand-up comics to infuse tension is
to ask the audience, "How many here have ever...?" It's become its own
cliché, and the take-offs are even more fun.
How many here went to grade school?
How many here paid to get in?
3. The third technique is called a build, which is a joke that leads to a joke
that leads to another joke. Ultimately, the jokes work together to prepare
the audience for one big blast.
4. The fourth way to build emotional tension is by working the
audience—a favorite device of today's stand-up comedians. The per¬
former walks out into the audience and throws questions at (what
appear to be) randomly selected members. Tension builds in each audi¬
ence member not from amazement that the comic is able to come up
with toppers to every answer, but from the fear that he or she may be
the next victim of the performer's ridicule.
Every playwright builds emotion into a scene. A humor writer
does the same thing, but because you're working with much smaller
units—sometimes just a joke of a few words—you must be able to
accomplish more with less. Good humor writers are like professional
card cheats. They know how to palm the joker and insert it only when
it's needed. When their act is too evident to the audience, they fail—
and it ain't pretty.
56 Comedy Writing Secrets SURPRISE: NOBODY KNOWS THE
STUMBLES I'VE SEEN
The final element in the THREES formula is surprise. In the previous
chapter, we discussed surprise as one of the primary reasons why people
laugh. It's no wonder then that it's also one of the primary building
blocks for a successful joke. Charlie Chaplin defined surprise in terms of
a film scene in which the villain is chasing the heroine down the street.
On the sidewalk is a banana peel. The camera cuts swiftly back and forth
from the banana peel to the approaching villain. At the last second, the
heavy sees the banana peel and jumps over it—and then falls into an
It's easy to tell if your surprise works, because a live audience's
instant laughter is the most honest of emotions. You can give a bad
speech, a poor theatrical or musical performance, and the audience will
still politely applaud. If you perform bad humor, you'll get nothing but icy
silence (just a preliminary to unsolicited post-show advice).
No matter how well written, jokes don't come off in performance if
the comedian telegraphs the surprise. Many performers tip off the audi¬
ence to the funny line with a lick of their lips or a gleam in their eyes.
They hold up their hands and stop the audience from laughing all out
("Hey, listen to this!"), and they prime the audience for a big topper. But
then there's no surprise, and no laughter. This can have a domino effect:
The performer loses confidence in the material, then starts to press, then
loses other laughs because the audience has a sixth sense about flop
sweat—when a performer is trying too hard.
"Comedy is mentally pulling the rug out from under each person in
your audience," wrote Gene Perret. "But first, you have to get them to
stand on it. You have to fool them, because if they see you preparing to
tug on the rug, they'll move."
Two roads diverged in a wood and I took the road less traveled
by ... state troopers.
The Recipe for Humor 57 SHOWTIME
Let's see how the entire THREES formula (target, hostility, realism, exag¬
geration, emotion, and a surprise ending) works in a story. Identify which
parts of the story below correspond with each component of the THREES
formula. (At the end of the story, you can rate your answers).
An elderly truck driver was eating lunch at a roadside diner
when three shaggy young hoodlums, sporting black leather
jackets garishly decorated with swastikas, skulls, and cross-
bones, parked their motorcycles and came inside. They
spotted the truck driver and proceeded to taunt him, taking
his food away, pushing him off the seat, and insulting his
old age. He said nothing, but finally got up from the floor,
paid his bill, and walked out. One of the bikers, unhappy
that they hadn't provoked a fight, said to the waitress,
"Boy, he sure wasn't much of a man, was he?" "No," said
the waitress, looking out the window, "and he's not much
of a truck driver either. He just backed his truck over three
Did the THREES formula work for the above story? Yes, because the
humor contained each of the major components.
T = TARGET: The hoodlums, carefully described.
H = HOSTILITY: The story exploits public frustration at the escalation
of juvenile crime.
R = REALISM: There's little doubt that the aggressive actions of the
bikers could happen.
E = EXAGGERATION: One motorcyclist would have worked, but an ele¬
ment of exaggeration is achieved by including three. Their crude
behavior is exemplified not just once, but with three incidents of
hostile action. Exaggeration is also present in the truck driver's
final action—not a simple thing to do quickly.
58 Comedy Writing Secrets E = EMOTION: The joke is carefully written to squeeze out every drop
of audience hostility: the stereotypical fascist appearance of the
bikers, their childish aggression meant just to provoke a fight with
an outnumbered, aged opponent. We even feel disappointment
when the truck driver appears—for a moment—to be a coward.
S = SURPRISE: The climax of the story is withheld until the last
The Recipe for Humor 59 Humor Writing
Techniques CHAPTER 4
POW: Play on Words
My wife made me join a bridge club. I jump off next week.
Where do jokes come from? Well, funny
things do happen to us every once in a while.
If we're extroverts, we dramatically
recount the bizarre experiences with
exaggerated overtones. We get laughs.
And we think we're funny.
But professional humorists can't wait for
absurd things to happen. They have to produce
every day. Two popular ways of doing this are
by revamping old material, and by creating
new humor from ideas sparked by local, national, or world news.
As a beginner, you can't depend on joke files even if you've got a copy
of every joke book written—and dozens of new ones come out every
year. Other comics' jokes will rarely fit you. You have to subscribe to the
second method: creating jokes from scratch. You start by watching the
antics of people in public, on TV, and in films, and you read about them
in news stories. You imagine what-if situations, and you play with words.
I just broke up with someone, and the last thing she said to me
was, "You'll never find anybody like me again." And I was think¬
ing: I should hope not. Isn't that why we break up with people? If I
don't want you, why would I want somebody just like you? Does
anybody end a bad relationship and say, "By the way, do you
have a twin?"
More than 50 percent of all humor is based on plays on words (POWs).
The POW acronym is reminiscent of a sound effect in superhero
POW: Play on Words 61 comics, and a POW does pack a punch—and a punchline. A POW is a
twist on a familiar cliché; aphorism; book, movie, or song title; famous
quote; national ad slogan—in fact, any expression widely known by the
public. It can make use of double entendres, homonyms, or puns. A
humorist twist to the aphorism The way to a man's heart is through
his stomach is:
The quickest way to a man's heart is through his chest.
Unlike slapstick humor (which is strictly physical and therefore appeals
across cultural and linguistic boundaries), the success of written and
performed comedy based on POWs depends on the performer's manner¬
isms and inflections and the audience's knowledge of the nuances of the
language. Punchlines in one language are rarely effective in another.
The POW is a device used by all humor writers, and any successful
work of humor will contain a significant number of POWs. Plays on
words are the basis of practically all puns, limericks, and clever
witticisms. They run the gamut from childish idioms to erudite double
entendres. POW practitioners have included S.J. Perelman ("One
of our stage-craft is missing," and "Stringing Up Father") and Tom
Stoppard ("I have the courage of my lack of convictions"). Writing
POW comedy lines is as second nature for humorists as tying
A common misperception is that plays on words are "old-school"
humor. But while POW humor may be considered classic, it certainly
can't be considered stale. The successful Austin Powers movies (one of
the most successful comedy film franchises in recent years) rely heavily
on POWs for character names like Alotta Fagina and Random Task
(spoofs of Goldfinger's Pussy Galore and Oddjob), Fook Mi, Fook Yu,
and Robin Spitz Swallows.
In George Carlin's three best-selling books—Brain Droppings,
Napalm & Silly Putty, and When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?—
POWs account for a large percentage of the humor. Carlin is one of the
most serious linguists in comedy. Examples of Carlin's POWs include:
62 Comedy Writing Secrets UNNECESSARY WORDS
emergency situation (emergency alone is sufficient)
boarding process (boarding can be used alone as a noun)
uniforms = career apparel
prostitute = commercial sex worker
MOCK SELF-HELP AND ADVICE BOOK TITLES
Where to Hide a Really Big Snot
I Suck, You Suck
Mock Punk Band Names
Tower of Swine
Warts, Waffles, and Walter
Over the next few chapters, we'll explain some of the most important
1. A double entendre is the use of an ambiguous word or phrase that
allows for a second—usually racy—interpretation.
2. A malaprop is the unintentional misstatement or misuse
of a word or phrase, or the accidental substitution of an
incorrect word for the correct one, with humorous results.
Malaprops are effective in part because they allow the audience
to feel superior. Malaprops can incorporate clichés and double
3. An oxymoron is a joining of two incompatible ideas in one phrase.
It can also be called a contradiction in terms.
4. A pun is a word used in such a way that two or more of the
word's possible meanings are active simultaneously. A pun may
also be a reformation of a word to a like-sounding word that is
not an exact homonym.
5. Reforming is a process that adds a twist or a surprise ending
to a cliché (a predictable, hackneyed phrase) or a common word,
phrase, or expression. Other POW techniques, such as double
entendres and puns, rely heavily on reforming.
POW: Play on Words 63 6. The simple truth is the opposite of a double entendre. It plays on
the literal meaning of a key word in an idiomatic phrase (and will
be discussed in the next chapter).
7. The take-off is a statement of the standard version of a cliché or
expression, followed by a realistic but highly exaggerated commen¬
tary, frequently a double entendre. (Take-offs will also be discussed
in a later chapter.)
CLICHÉS IN HUMOR
A cliché is an expression that was clever once but has lost its original
impact through overuse. Some people salt every dish, whether it requires
salt or not. Clichés are used just as frequently (and indiscriminately).
They are sprinkled liberally into every conversation, every letter, every
political speech, and (unfortunately) in too many major literary efforts.
They're shortcuts to comprehension that we use when we are creatively
lazy or mentally bankrupt. But the humor writer uses audacious and sur¬
prising interpretations of clichés to shock an audience into laughter.
I've heard that dogs are man's best friend. That explains where
men are getting their hygiene tips.
Laugh, and the world laughs with you. Cry, and the world
laughs at you.
A cliché can be reformed with homonyms—words that look or sound the
same but have different meanings. In the one-liner below, the humor
works when vein is aptly substituted for vain in the cliché in vain.
However, it only works in print.
I tried to give up heroin, but my efforts were all in vein.
Clichés are perfect launch vehicles for the neophyte humor writer
because one-liners are the most salable humor form today. Simple cliché
64 Comedy Writing Secrets humor can be put to immediate use in a wide variety of formats, includ¬
ing photo and cartoon captions, greeting cards, news and advertising
headlines, bumper stickers (a rear view of pop culture), titles of books
and articles, and monologues.
Frequently, a cliché is used to set the audience's train of thought in
motion—so the humorist can derail it. Since the ending phrase of a
cliché is predictable, the audience's thoughts head in a predictable direc¬
tion. The key word here is predictable. The easiest way to achieve sur¬
prise is to use a vehicle that takes the audience for a ride in a predictable
direction—a direction you will change at the last possible moment. It's a
last-second switch in the anticipated verbal conclusion. The result is sur¬
prise, which produces laughter, the payoff of all comedic effort. As you'll
see shortly, there are a number of formulas for altering a cliché so that
its final direction surprises the reader or listener.
Every night I had a strange girl. Same girl—she was just strange.
In the above example, the audience initially interprets strange to mean
"different." The surprise comes when the comedian reveals that the literal
meaning of strange is intended.
When people ask me if I see too much sex in the movies,
I tell them, how should I know? I watch the film, not the audience.
Sex and violence in film and TV is a sensitive topic, so the audience
naturally assumes this is what is under discussion in this example. The
surprise comes by interpreting the phrase "in the movies" to mean "in
the movie theater."
THE DOUBLE ENTENDRE: AWAY WITH WORDS
Double entendre is the French term for an ambiguous word or phrase
that allows for a second—usually spicy—interpretation. Double enten-
dres are 40 percent of all cliché humor because they're so easy to con¬
struct. Consider these names and slogans.
POW: Play on Words 65 Tennis store advertisement: What's Your Racquet?
Sign over urinal: Look before you leak.
Art supplies advertisement: Honest, I Was Framed!
The logic behind double entendre humor is as basic as its English trans¬
lation: two meanings. The audience assumes one meaning; the comic
sneaks in another.
Irving made a lot of money one year in the garment business and
decided to buy a racehorse. One day he brought all his friends to
the stable as the vet was laboriously working on the horse.
"Is my horse sick?" asked Irving.
"She's not the picture of health," said the vet, "but we'll pull
"Will I ever be able to race her?"
"Chances are you will—and you'll probably beat her, too!"
In the above example, the success of the joke relies on the double inter¬
pretation of the word race. Irving wants to know if the horse will be able
to race other horses. The vet comments that Irving himself would win a
race against the horse.
Three of the four words in the expression wire ahead for reserva¬
tions have multiple meanings. (This phrase has been replaced in com¬
mon usage by call ahead for reservations, but most people would still
instinctively understand its meaning.) By imagining what-if scenarios
and performing mental calisthenics, the humor writer can recast this
common phrase with double entendres.
The Sioux tribe sent one of their brightest young men to engineer¬
ing school. After graduating, he returned home and was immediate¬
ly assigned to install electric lights in all the latrines, so he became
famous for being the first Indian to wire a head for reservations.
As new expressions come into the vernacular, the professional humor
writer looks for every opportunity to play around with words—the most
socially acceptable form of playing around.
66 Comedy Writing Secrets We call our maid a commercial cleaner, because she cleans only
Be forewarned! Amateurs make the mistake of thinking that, since dou¬
ble entendres are so plentiful, they are easy to cultivate. But you must
evaluate them as you would plants at a nursery—if you don't choose
carefully, you may wind up with a garden of crabgrass. And there is a
second danger to the use of double entendres: They are so often used in
humor that even unsophisticated audiences can predict a punchline if it
has been telegraphed by the comedian. If the double entendre isn't well
hidden, there's no surprise.
Creating Double Entendres: A Dime a Dozen
The most popular double entendre is the word it, which can be used to
mean a hundred different things, but is used most often in humor as a
synonym for intercourse. For example, Librarians do it with books, or
Lawyers do it in their briefs.
MC, after bombing with a sexist joke: Boy, am I going to
get it when I get home. Or maybe I'm not going to get it
when I get home.
The second most common double entendre is the word in, which also
has an obvious sexual connotation.
"Isn't it great to be in June?"
"Yes, but her sister, Barbara, was even better."
KEEPING IT CLEAN
Since the second meaning of a double entendre is frequently considered
risque, broadcast censors examine every word in a script. Mel Helitzer
once spent six months arguing with a representative of the National
Association of Broadcasters' TV code department for permission to use
the jingle line "Two in the bathtub is more fun than one" for a washable
doll called Rub-a-Dub Dolly. The censor, an attractive twenty-five-year-
POW: Play on Words 67 old (who, unfortunately, had a five-second broad¬
cast delay built in to her mind), tried to nix the line
with a challenge to its veracity: "Can you prove that
two in the bathtub is more fun than one?" Helitzer
looked at her for a moment and then said, "You
know, I have a wonderful idea!"
The second meaning of the key word or phrase of a double entendre
does not have to be racy or sexual.
He was a millionaire golfer, so he used his chauffeur as his driver.
One man walking his dog met a friend on the street who admired
"I just bought him for fifteen hundred dollars," said the owner.
"Isn't that a lot of money for a mutt?" his friend asked.
"Why, he's not a mutt! He's part Airedale and part bull."
"Yeah, what part is bull?"
"The part about the fifteen hundred dollars."
More sophisticated forms of double entendre make use of irony and sar¬
casm. Irony is notoriously difficult to define (though there seems to be a
general agreement that, despite Alanis Morissette's words to the con¬
trary, rain on your wedding day is not ironic). For the purposes of the
current discussion, irony is a statement that is the opposite of what is
intended. Sarcasm is defined similarly, but sarcasm usually has more of a
bite, the sting of open ridicule. In an excellent example of irony, Bob
Hope once walked into the ward of a military hospital and shouted to the
wounded GIs, "Please, don't get up!"
Irony can be expressed in many ways, but it's often the result of evok¬
ing an absurd meaning from a standard phrase.
Hillary Clinton said she once got a dog for Bill. She said it was the
best deal she ever made.
68 Comedy Writing Secrets EVERYBODY SHOULDN'T DO IT:
OBSCENE LANGUAGE AND
Many funny double entendres are made up of words
that have a sexual connotation. There are endless
possibilities—all obvious. Through frequent use,
some double entendres that were originally shock¬
ing—such as he sucks—have become acceptable.
Richard Pryor popularized making mother half a word
in an act that still represents one of the greatest
creative performances in contemporary comedy.
And often, a play on the double meaning of a word can lead to
powerful spontaneous humor, as illustrated by a classic interview
on The Tonight Show.
Zsa Zsa Gabor appeared as a guest while holding one of her
prized felines. As she was sitting there, she suddenly turned to
Johnny Carson and asked, "Would you like to pet my pussy?"
"Sure," said Carson, "but first move the cat."
Given the abundance of double entendres with sexual connotations,
beginning humor writers often abuse them through overuse. The profes¬
sional humorist recognizes that the problem is not to find them but avoid
them. They're just too easy a joke. Many audiences think they are adoles¬
cent and cheap—a sign of an amateur.
We'll take a closer look at obscenity in humor in chapter eleven.
As a warm-up exercise, let's do it: Practice the art of double entendres
with the word it. Complete the following sentences, then compare your
responses to those at the end of the chapter.
POW: Play on Words 69 •Comedians do it...
•Dancers do it...
•Bankers do it...
•Math teachers do it...
•Publishers do it...
•Carpet layers do it...
•Bowlers do it...
MALAPROPS: AN ERROR OF THEIR WEIGHS
A malaprop (sometimes called a malapropism) is an unintentional mis-
statement or misuse of a word or phrase, or an accidental substitution of
an incorrect word for a (similar) correct one—to humorous effect. These
examples of twisted language only qualify as malaprops if the person
speaking them is unaware (or appears to be unaware) of the mistake.
Malaprops were the staple of George Burns and Gracie Allen's comedic
act for more than thirty years and were used abundantly by various sit¬
com characters from Archie Bunker of All in the Family to Joey of
Friends. Today, entertainment columns are good sources of celebrity
witticisms-turned-malaprops. Publicity agents, when they can't find
something positive to say about their clients, create modified clichés that
turn into malaprops. Movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn was quoted in the
entertainment columns so often with examples of mistaken grammar
that a malaprop became known as a Goldwynism.
A verbal contract isn't worth the paper it's printed on.
Every Tom, Dick and Harry is named William.
Include me out.
Baseball managers Casey Stengel and Yogi Berra were credited with
malaprops that helped to cemented their immortality in reference books.
You wouldn't have won if we had.
70 Comedy Writing Secrets If people don't want to come to the ballpark, nobody can stop them.
Baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical.
That restaurant is so popular, nobody goes there anymore.
Humorists bless politicians who make their jobs easy by fracturing the
English language, as did former Vice President Dan Quayle. His mala¬
If we do not succeed, then we run the risk of failure.
What a waste it is to lose one's mind. Or not to have a mind is
being very wasteful. How true that is. (A malaprop based on the
United Negro College Fund slogan A Mind Is a Terrible Thing
It isn't pollution that's harming the environment. It's the impurities
in our air and water that are doing it.
President George W. Bush's habit of misspeaking spawned several books'
worth of malaprops known as Bushisms. They include:
Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning.
They misunderestimated me.
I promise you I will listen to what has been said here, even though
I wasn't here.
A time-honored rule in comedy is never to do more than three jokes on
one topic, and some comedy writers will argue that two is plenty. The
same rule applies to using the same technique several times within one
joke, as in the next example. The following radio commercial for City
National Bank in Los Angeles uses the malaprop technique seven times,
holding the audience's interest through the cute twist at the end.
POW: Play on Words 71 [PHONE RINGS]
YOUNG DAUGHTER: Smith residence.
FATHER: Hi ya, sport. Let me talk to Mom.
DAUGHTER: Hey, Mom! It's Dad.
MOTHER: Ask him what he wants, hon. I've got my hands
DAUGHTER: What do you want, Dad? Mom's got her hands
in fish water.
FATHER: Just tell her I've been to City National.
DAUGHTER: He's been pretty bashful, Mom.
MOTHER: What about?
DAUGHTER: What about?
FATHER: About the trust.
DAUGHTER: About the truss.
MOTHER: Truss? What truss?
DAUGHTER: Which one?
FATHER: The life insurance trust, kiddo. The one from
DAUGHTER: The lighting shirt's truss, Mom.
MOTHER: The lighting shirt's truss?
FATHER: The one that keeps the tax man from being one
of my beneficiaries.
DAUGHTER: The one that keeps the Pac-Man from eating
MOTHER: Ask him what in the world he's talking about, honey.
DAUGHTER: What in the world are you talking about, Dad?
ANNOUNCER: Come in and talk to a City National trust officer.
We'll show you how a truss can protect your lighting shirts.
DAUGHTER: That's "life insurance."
Note that malaprops give the audience a chance to mock the speaker's con¬
fusion with English, and thereby feel superior. As you remember, the feeling
of superiority is a prime motivator for laughter.
72 Comedy Writing Secrets OXYMORONS: PRETTY UGLY
Another category of incongruous expressions goes by the suggestive
name of oxymoron—an oxymoron is a contradiction in terms that pro¬
vides a gold mine of humor material, particularly for greeting cards and
T-shirt copy. Consider the following.
• found missing
• living dead
• good grief
• working vacation
• larger half
• soft rock
• extinct life
• Microsoft Works
• plastic glasses
• alone together
• exact estimate
• taped live
• small crowd
• even odds
Words are the instruments or humorists, and mastering the subtleties of
language is a necessary step to becoming a successful humor writer.
Use the following exercises to practice your POWs.
• Search a dictionary for ten words that you do not know the definitions
for. Don't look at the definitions! Write each word on an index card,
and on the back of the card, create a logical but whimsical definition.
• Search the Internet for clichés, proverbs, or common phrases that
relate to the potential humor targets you identified in the last chapter.
Compile a list of ten items. Using the techniques described in this
POW: Play on Words 73 chapter, reform the clichés into jokes by changing the original ending
or adding on to the phrase.
Writing humor starts with an audience of one. If your goal is to write
commercially successful humor, you must expand your audience. To
begin testing your writing, use e-mail to showcase your material. Many
people attach to their e-mail messages something called a signature,
which contains contact information, a quote, or a "thought of the day."
Instead of relying on the words of others, you can punch up your e-mail
messages using the exercises you just completed.
• Use your fictitious definitions for a "word of the day."
• Attribute your reformed clichés to a celebrity to create a "quote
of the day."
• Reform famous quotations and credit new authors for the quotes.
For example, transform Freud's famous line Sometimes a cigar
is just a cigar to a Bill Clinton quote: Sometimes a cigar is more
than a cigar.
• Create a series of fictitious names (I. M. Sane, Anita Prozac) to use
as the authors of your clichés, definitions, or quotes.
A BARREL OF PUN
A pun is created from the intentional confusion of similar-sounding words
or phrases. Puns, which overlap with double entendres and homonyms,
can be used as the basis for a joke or to reform an expression or cliché.
They work better when spoken or heard than they do in print, because
the ear transmits to the mind the most familiar interpretation of each
word. (Actually, here is one of the most popular words to use, because it
can sound like hear, hair, and hare: An adolescent rabbit is a pubic
hare. Hair today, gone tomorrow.)
Puns are very versatile and can be used in a number of formats. They
can take the form of riddles.
74 Comedy Writing Secrets What do you call a smelly chicken?
A foul fowl.
What does a grape say when you step on it?
Nothing. It just gives a little whine.
Or they can be simple quips.
Asphalt, another word for rectal problems.
With friends like you, who needs enemas?
She was chaste, very chaste. Of course, sometimes they
caught her, too.
Often, several puns can be made around the same topic. Here's how
Halloween-themed puns would sound in a dialogue between two phantoms.
"Witch way ghost thou?"
"Howl you go?"
"May I ghoul along?"
"Sure. Always broom for one more."
"What'll I wear?"
"Because behind every shroud is a shiver lining."
"Sounds frightfully expensive."
"Ya' gotta take scare of yourself, Halloween."
Notice that, in the above example, the puns were based on near
homonyms, reformed words that sound similar to the original, but are
not exact homonyms: howl for how will, broom for room.
Puns can also be used to create "daffy definitions."
POW: Play on Words 75 What's a Fahrenheit? A moderately tall person.
What's an ICBM? Eskimo doo-doo.
What's an infantry? A very young sapling.
What's fireproof? A tenured professor.
Content: Where prisoners sleep while on a camping trip.
Detail: The act of removing a tail.
Arbitrator: An Arby's cook who leaves to work for McDonald's.
Eyedropper: A clumsy ophthalmologist.
Some puns can seem pretty obvious, but they're not easy to create from
scratch. It is said of second-rate comedians that they know a good joke
when they steal one. If you practice enough, it becomes instinctive to
look for words that can form double entendres or that have homonyms
or near homonyms.
For example, try reforming words using homonyms from one subject
group (like fish names), just for the pun of it. Next, use your puns to cre¬
ate reformed clichés or standalone jokes. (Did you hear about the
Norwegian who brought his harpoon to Israel because he knew he'd be
visiting the Wailing Wall?) Or string all the puns together in one sentence:
I got a haddock herring that tuna blow "salmon chanted eel-ing" and,
upon my sole, he did it on porpoise.
Many newspapers, magazines, and Web sites hold POW contests in
which readers are asked to submit entries. The Washington Posts annual
contest requires readers to select any word from a standard dictionary;
change, add, or delete only one letter; and then provide a new definition.
(This type of construction, popularized in books by Rich Hall, is often
called a sniglet.)
Here are some submissions from the Washington Posts contest (with¬
out accompanying definitions). Change, add, or delete one letter in each
of the following words, then write a definition for the new word. (The
76 Comedy Writing Secrets reformed words and definitions originally submitted by Washington Post
readers are listed at the end of the chapter.)
An invaluable POW technique, reforming is the process of altering a
word, expression, phrase, or cliché to arrive at a twist that cleverly
changes the point of view. There are several ways to reform a cliché
1. TRANSPOSE WORDS. The first way to reform a phrase or cliché is
to transpose the words to create a new, related thought. Drama critic
Walter Winchell did this in a review of a season opener: "Who am I to
stone the first cast?" Then there's the classic drug joke: "I'm not as think
as you stoned I am."
2. REPLACE A PEW LETTERS IN A KEY WORD. The second and
most frequent type of reforming is replacing one or two letters in a key
word of an expression in order to achieve a surprise turn of phrase.
I will not cut off my nose to spite my race.
3. USE A HOMONYM. The third way to reform a cliché is to use a
homonym, a similar-sounding word with a second possible interpreta¬
tion. Reforming with homonyms often creates double entendres or puns,
as in restaurant names like Wok 'n Roll, Mustard's Last Stand, Blazing
Salads, and Aesop's Tables.
POW: Play on Words 77 That restaurant inspired the TV show That's Inedible!
The things my wife buys at antique auctions are keeping me baroque.
—Peter De Vries
Homonyms and Fractured Clichés
Homonyms are strictly defined as words that are spelled and pronounced
alike, but that are different in meaning (bore a hole vs. bore someone to
death). However, homophones (words pronounced alike but spelled dif¬
ferently, like bough and bow) and homographs (words spelled alike that
differ in meaning or pronunciation, like bow in tie a bow and bow and
arrow) often fall under the rubric of homonym.
Homonyms are particularly popular in print advertisements, T-shirts,
signs, and store names. The bumper sticker "I owe. I owe. It's off to work
I go!" uses a homonym effectively, as do the following store names.
Fishing supplies: Master Bait and Tackle
Towing service: Dyno-Mite Hooker
Glass repair: A Pain in the Glass
Here are some homonyms as signs.
Boats for Sail
Lenten Special—Filets of Soul
Your Money Tearfully Refunded
In skits and humorous short stories, you'll often find homonyms and
puns in character names.
Air traffic controller: Ulanda U. Lucky
Customer care representative: Kurt Reply
Funeral director: Hadley Newham
Compassion coordinator: Ophelia Paine
Copyright attorney: Pat Pending
Dessert chef: Tyra Meesu
Dry cleaner: Preston Creases
Loan officer: I.O. Silver
78 Comedy Writing Secrets There's no limit to the number of POWs you can have in one sentence.
In fact, the paired word humor form (which will be discussed in greater
detail in chapter twelve) requires two homonyms in one joke.
Then there's the overweight jogger who ignored advice and panted
himself into a coroner.
Definition of a stockyard: flesh in the pen.
Do under others as you would have them do under you.
No nukes is good nukes.
Some newspaper bloopers—known as typos—form serendipitous puns.
Our paper carried the notice last week that Mr. Herman Jones
is a defective in the police force. This was a typographical error.
Mr. Jones, of course, is a detective on the police farce.
—The Ootlewah Times
One common reform process using homonyms is called split-reforming.
Split reforming involves separating—or fracturing—one word into two to
get a surprise double meaning.
An eighty-six-year-old lady was being interviewed by the quizmas¬
ter on TV. "You look wonderful," he said.
"Yes," said the old lady, "I've never had a sick day in my life."
The MC was astonished. "You've never been bedridden even
once?" he asked.
The old lady said, "Oh, many times. And three times in the
One of the most common split-reforms begins with a word that starts
with the letter a (alone, around, abreast, abroad, apparent, apiece,
ahead). The initial a is detached, and the second half of the word is
allowed to stand alone.
POW: Play on Words 79 Two partners on a sinking boat are thrown into the sea.
"Can you float alone?" one asks the other.
"I'm drowning," says the other partner, "and he's talking
This example not only illustrates split-reforming but also uses loan
as a homonym of lone. Note that the success of the joke depends on
the audience, when it hears alone, interpreting the word to mean on
your own. In writing, this joke succeeds because you read alone, and
the alternate meaning doesn't occur to you until the last few words
of the joke.
"Would you like to play around?" the young man asked
"Are you asking that as a lover or as a golfer?" she replied.
The first line in the above example could be written as it appears
here, or with a split-reform as Would you like to play a round? If you
were already talking about golf or were addressing an audience of
golfers, the audience would probably infer that you meant a round.
In that case, you might want to reverse the order of the words lover
and golfer in the last line. Outside the context of golf, however, the
audience would probably assume you meant around, and the meaning
of the split word would not occur to them until after the girlfriend's
mention of golf.
One actor to another: I was abroad myself for two years, but fortu¬
nately a psychiatrist fixed me up.
This joke depends on the audience assuming that abroad means
overseas. The split-reform occurs when the audience mentally separates
a and broad after the punchline.
Other common types of split-reform are the addition, deletion,
or separation of a prefix (such as a-, an-, pre-, un-, and in-)
from a word.
80 Comedy Writing Secrets An elderly man and a woman meet for the first time at a Miami
Beach social: "And how's by you the sex?" asks the woman.
"Infrequently," replies the old man.
"Tell me," demands the woman, "is that one word or two?"
An atheist is someone who has no invisible means of support.
At Ohio University, students owe so much money they changed
the initials of the college from OU to IOU.
Plagiarism: the unoriginal sin.
—Roy Peter Clark
Split-reform can include changing suffixes or interpreting suffixes as
homonyms (such as -ize for eyes).
"Do you want this pasteurized?"
"No! Just up to my mouth'd be fine!"
Split-reform also includes the separation of a compound word into two.
Juggler to audience: Don't worry. I've got a backup system.
Everybody, back up!
Another category of split-reform reinterprets an -er ending as the word
her (catcher, licker, freezer, player), or capitalizes on words that begin
with the her sound (harass). Words that contain a him, sound (vitamin,
Himalayan, hemisphere) work as well.
One frosh to another: I can hardly wait to read the book
the English prof assigned us—J.D. Salinger's Catch Her
in the Rye.
"I was a diesel fitter in a shoe store."
"They don't have diesels in shoe stores!"
"Sure they do. I stood around and said, 'Dese'll fit 'er.'"
POW: Play on Words 81 SHOWTIME
Think of one of the humor targets you identified in chapter three, and
write down some words that relate to that topic. Pick one, and write
down as many soundalikes as come to mind. Then write a joke based
on these soundalikes.
For example, hormone sounds like whore moan, her moan,
and harmony. Now, it's not difficult to write such bits as Tom Padovano's
"Hormone could be heard clear across campus," or that old classic
"How do you make a hormone? Don't pay her."
Okay, so far so good. But how many homonyms can you make from
the following words? Two is fair, four is good, five or more is excellent; if
you can't come up with any, take up accounting.
Because the sound difference in reformed homonyms is so subtle, some
puns and reformed clichés work better in print. That's why they're so
popular on signs and graffiti. But spoken aloud, they may cause puzzle¬
ment in the audience, rather than laughter.
82 Comedy Writing Secrets I know a transsexual who only wants to eat, drink and be Mary.
A zebra is twenty-five sizes bigger than an A bra.
Humor writers prefer gag lunches.
Celebrity in snowstorm talking to reporter: If I had a good
quote, I'd be wearing it!
The boy had a lot to be spankful for.
Familiarity breeds attempt.
Note from meter maid to ticketed car owner:
Parking is such sweet sorrow.
Young boy to star baseball player walking out of
DA's office during drug investigation: Say it ain't
WRITING A REFORMED CLICHÉ OR EXPRESSION
In the summer of 1985, two Czechoslovakian tennis stars—Ivan Lendl
and Hana Mandlikova—won the U.S. Open men's and women's tennis
championships, respectively. The fact that they were both Czech gave
writers of photo captions, cartoons, headlines, and newscasts a homo¬
nym field day.
Imagine you are a newspaper or magazine editor. You have a photo
of the two winners, each holding a U.S. Open trophy and a huge prize
check. Your assignment is to come up with a photo caption or headline.
A POW using homonyms is an obvious choice.
First, write down all the homonyms associated with the sound of
the word Czech. A sample list would include all those connected with
• bounced check
• bad check
POW: Play on Words 83 • good check
• rubber check
• cashed check
• deposited check
• big check
• paid check
• returned check
• endorsed check
• cancelled check
• the check is in the mail
But the word check has many other meanings. The terms check and
checkmate are used in chess. There's the game of checkers, and the
clichéd expression "check and double check." In ice hockey, one player
body checks another. In a roll call, one checks off names with a check
mark. You can ask for separate checks in a restaurant. And when you've
completed this list, be sure to check it out completely!
Next, substitute the word Czech in all the above expressions and
determine if one of the captions or headlines syncs with the specific
picture you have. How many different captions can you come up with?
(You should be able to generate five to ten possibilities from the above
list. For instance, Czech-mated or cashed Czechs.) Only after examin
ing many possibilities would you select the best one.
It seems like a lot of work for one photo caption. It is. But before
long, your mental computer will have a file of all the different possibili
ties, and you'll be able to call them up at a moment's notice.
Do all those steps really become automatic? To continue the tennis
theme, think of all the moves a tennis pro has to make while setting up
for a tennis shot. As the ball approaches, he decides to move diagonal
ly forward or backward, left or right. At the same time, he is getting
his racket back, planting his feet properly while keeping both eyes on
the ball to judge its speed and spin. He now makes decisions on his
shot: the velocity of his swing in order to block, punch, or slam the
ball. With his peripheral vision, he determines where his opponent is
and guesses where he'll go. A tennis ace does all this and more in less
84 Comedy Writing Secrets than a second while the ball is traveling nearly a hundred miles per
hour—for every shot. If this type of thing can become automatic, so
can the creation of POWs.
Compared to a champion tennis player, you have a lot more time
to run through your gamut of double entendres and homonyms.
The second time you perform this exercise, it will not only be easier
but will generate better results. The five thousandth time will be
Let's try it again. In this case, you'll be a copywriter writing an adver¬
tisement to encourage the public to use your bank for personal loans.
Again, we'll go through similar steps.
STEP ONE: Locate the important word or phrase you would like to
reform. In this case, concentrate on the word loan. Then write as many
words as you can think of that rhyme with or sound similar to loan. Go
STEP TWO: Select the words from your list that seem to have possibili¬
ties as double entendres. You might choose groan, lone, moan, phone,
postpone, and own.
STEP THREE: Now, start eliminating. Groan and moan have negative
associations. Postpone is the opposite of what you wish to recommend.
But we still have lone, own, and phone. That's not bad!
STEP FOUR: Write as many POWs as you can with the word loan or
lone in it, and try some reforming based on changing the spelling. Humor
permits us to take some liberties with the language, so our list (which
would be much longer than this) would include:
Can you float a loan
You'll never be a loan
The loan ranger
STEP FIVE: With a little reforming, the Lone Ranger and Tonto can
become the loan arranger supported by his loyal sidekick, pronto.
Now you have an ad headline that suggests action.
POW: Play on Words 85 Santa Monica Bank
Phone the loan arranger—and pronto!
To appreciate the innumerable variations possible with homonyms, let's
examine POWs on the title of Stravinsky's famous ballet The Rite of
Spring. Okay, the sound rite can be spelled in the following ways: rite,
write, right, and wright. Each spelling, singular or plural, contributes to
a variety of humor possibilities, such as these examples of newspaper
Over a photo of a high school commencement: The Rite of Spring
Over a photo of a book on spring gardening: The Writes of Spring
Over a photo of the Wrights' annual garden party: The Wrights
In addition, the word spring can now be replaced with one of the follow¬
ing eighteen words that rhyme with it.
Thus, a picture of a coach instructing hitters at training camp could carry
the headline The Rites of Swing.
By multiplying those nineteen words by the four variations on the
sound rite (the other three were right, write, and wright), we now have
a total of seventy-two possible variations on one phrase. And we're not
finished! Just as we did with spring, let's take the word rite and replace
it with one of the twenty-three words that are close in sound. Here your
rhyming dictionary will be of help.
86 Comedy Writing Secrets bright brite cite
flight height hike
knight like mike
might pike plight
sight site spike
strike tight trike
This changes the options for rite from four to twenty-seven, and with
the eighteen spring variations, we now have the possibility of 414 varia¬
tions—from just one expression! Of course, only a handful of these
combinations could ever be used, but you never know when odd oppor¬
tunities will turn up: a college president named Ping shows up at his
child's birthday party, so now you can have a news photo caption that
reads: The Tykes of Ping.
THE ANSWER MAN
Here are some possible answers for the Showtime exercises on page 70.
Comedians do it standing up.
Dancers do it to music.
Bankers do it with interest.
Math teachers do it with unknowns.
Publishers do it by the book.
Carpet layers do it on their knees.
Bowlers do it with balls.
Here are the Washington Post reader submissions that correspond with
the Showtime exercises on pages 76-77.
foreply: Any misrepresentation about yourself for the purpose
of getting laid.
POW: Play on Words 87 sarchasm: The gulf between the author of sarcastic wit and
the person who doesn't get it.
inoculate: To take coffee intravenously when you are run
hipatitis: Terminal coolness.
glibido: All talk and no action.
ignoranus: A person who's stupid and an asshole.
88 Comedy Writing Secrets CHAPTER 5
More POW: The Simple Truth
and the Take-Off
I spilled spot remover on my dog—and now he's gone.
Many English phrases,
expressions, and clichés are
idiomatic, which means they
can't be taken literally: I got up
on the wrong side of the bed;
I had a change of heart. Other
phrases and expressions
are understood within a
context of logical assump¬
tions. When you tell someone you are getting your hair cut, it's logical for
them to assume you mean hair in the plural sense, not the singular.
Grandchild: Grandpa, I love running my fingers through your hairs.
The simple truth is a technique for creating humor by considering the
implications of the literal meaning of such expressions—without their
context of logical assumptions. The simple truth is just that—simple and
true. By taking the literal meaning of a key word, you surprise the audi¬
ence members, who have automatically interpreted the cliché with its
traditional meaning. The simple truth makes logic illogical. It's common¬
ly referred to as the "Call me a taxi" or "Call me a doctor" formula. ("Call
me a taxi." "Okay, you're a taxi"; or, "Call me a doctor." "Why? Are you
sick?" "No, I just graduated from med school.")
I was trying to get back to my original weight—seven pounds,
More POW: The Simple Truth and the Take-Off 89 I got some new underwear the other day. Well, it's new to me.
How long was I in the army? Five foot eleven.
The take-off is the most traditional of all humor techniques. Like the
simple truth, the take-off begins with a standard expression or cliché.
But it continues with an outrageous commentary, often containing a
I say live and let live. Anyone who can't accept that should
If truth is beauty, how come no one has her hair done in a library?
My mind wanders a lot, but fortunately it's too weak to go
Let's examine the logic and construction behind each of these two
THE WHOLE TRUTH
AND NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH
The construction of a simple truth depends on an almost childlike
comprehension. One of the ways to understand this technique is to
think like a child.
Grandma Elden was baby-sitting, and every five minutes Adrienne
had another request to keep from going to sleep. Exasperated, she
said to her four-year-old granddaughter, "Adrienne, if you call
Grandma one more time, I'm going to get very angry." Five min¬
utes later she heard Adrienne say quietly, "Mrs. Elden, can I have
a glass of water?"
90 Comedy Writing Secrets Another way to craft a simple truth is through a childish riddle.
"I bet you I can say the capitals of all fifty states in less than thirty
"Impossible. It's a bet. Ready, set, go!"
"Okay. The capitals of all fifty states in less than thirty seconds.
I said it. You lose!"
The innocence of children is an easy set-up for the simple truth in humor.
A six-year-old asked her mother: "Ma. Tell me the truth. Where did
I come from?" The flustered mother thought, "Must I really start
explaining the details of sexual reproduction already?" So she
asked, "Tell me, Debbie, why do you want to know?" And Debbie
said, "Cause the kid next door said he came from Detroit. I wanna
know where I come from."
As we mature comedically, simple truth techniques permit a whole series
of formula jokes.
I went to a bookstore and asked the saleswoman where the
self-help section was. She said if she told me it would defeat
It's no wonder illiterate people never get the full effect of
Simple Truth Construction: It Ain't Simple
On the surface, the mechanics of the simple truth seem easy to under¬
stand and structure, and therein lies the danger. To create a simple
truth, reexamine every major word in a phrase, reject its most com¬
mon meaning within its context, and reinterpret it literally. This is
not a simple task.
I slept like a log last night. I woke up in the fireplace.
More POW: The Simple Truth and the Take-Off 91 When I got divorced, I missed my husband, but I'm getting to be a
Because the simple truth is so juvenile, it's frequently denigrated as a
smart-ass remark (which used to be called smart-aleck until they discov¬
ered that Aleck had nothing to do with it).
"What would you say to a martini?"
"Depends on what the martini said to me first!"
—Sophia in The Golden Girls
Let's take a peek under the comedy tent to see how the simple truth
works. Remember that the goal is to create the element of surprise.
I like a girl with a head on her shoulders. No neck!
Try not to be restricted by the logic of the original idea. Comedy writers
are not philosophers. In the simple truth, we are linguistic specialists
concerned with exactly what the literal logic of a word conveys. You
might try to visualize a phrase or cliché to help you get past the standard
interpretation. If you visualize a girl with a head on her shoulders, you
can see that what's missing is her neck.
Once you've spotted the simple-truth potential in a phrase or cliché,
you may come up with a variety of related punch lines.
I like a girl with a head on her shoulders, because I hate necks.
Let's illustrate the construction of a simple truth by examining the dou¬
ble entendre possibilities of the word join. Join has three possible
definitions: (a) to cooperate, to become a member, to enlist; (b) to unite,
to bring together, to touch; and (c) to argue, to quarrel, to engage in bat¬
tle. In humor writing, the choice is always up to you.
When a friend asks, "Will you join me?" the obvious understanding is
that he's using the first definition ("to get together"). But if you base your
answer on the second definition ("uniting"), your reply can create humor
by surprise: "Why, are you coming apart?"
92 Comedy Writing Secrets If, on the other hand, you're asked, "Please join me in a cup of coffee,"
the incongruity of the first definition allows you to respond, "Only if
there's enough room in the cup."
The following examples play on the multiple meanings of the
I majored in nursing. I had to drop it. I ran out of milk.
I was at a bar nursing a beer. My nipple was getting quite soggy.
Such elementary simple-truth jokes will always get a physical reaction:
either a laugh or—more likely—a kick in the pants. In any case, remem¬
ber that one of the rewards of humor is attention, and that people will
admire your courage (maybe).
The simple truth can also be effective in physical comedy. In several
Mel Brooks movies and in his Broadway musical The Producers, the hero
and his cohorts ask the heroine, "How do we get there?," And the beauti¬
ful hostess says, "Walk this way." Then she swishes and sways across the
set and the men imitate her feminine walk.
In a basic simple-truth construction, the first part of the sentence or
paragraph is a cliché. The second part (the punchline) is an unexpected
interpretation because it is realistically literal.
Doctor: I don't like the looks of your husband.
Wife: Neither do I, doctor, but he's good to the children.
Boss to employee: I'd thank you, Harrison, but yours is a
I bought a new Japanese car, I turned on the radio. ... I don't
understand a word they're saying.
More POW: The Simple Truth and the Take-Off 93 With practice, your ear will find countless opportunities to make humor
using the simple truth.
WIFE: You never look out for me!
HUSBAND: Of course I do. And when I see you coming, I run
THE PRESIDENT OF THE SYNAGOGUE ADDRESSED
THE CONGREGATION: Lefkowitz just lost his wallet with six
hundred dollars in it. If anyone finds it, Lefkowitz says he'll give
a reward of fifty dollars.
A VOICE IN THE REAR: I'll give seventy-five!
CLERK TO JUDGE: The bar association wondered if you'd like to
contribute ten dollars to a lawyer's funeral?
JUDGE: Here's a hundred. Bury ten of them.
Actor Edmund Kean, on his deathbed, said, "Dying is easy. Comedy is
hard." In the same vein, reading about joke construction is easy, but
creating original humor material using these methods is not. You must
find the perfect construction—and that's difficult.
I bought Odor-Eaters. They ate for a half-hour and then threw up.
The proper setup for a simple-truth joke is essential. If someone asked
you, "Can you tell me how long to milk a cow?," a humorous simple-truth
response would not be obvious. But if you reword the question to "Can
you tell me how long cows should be milked?" you now have a long cow.
An answer could be: "The same way as short cows."
George Carlin, who uses the simple truth in his monologues, exam¬
ines words closely for incongruous variations.
How come my book of free verse costs twelve dollars?
Sometimes they say the wind is calm. Well, if it's calm, they're not
really winds, are they?
When you step on the brake, your life is in your foot's hand.
94 Comedy Writing Secrets Can placebos cause side effects? If so, are the side effects real?
Why don't they have waiters in waiting rooms?
Research reports and statistics are excellent sources for simple-truth
If a single dolphin has as many as two thousand babies, can you
imagine how many she'd have if she were married?
Old joke, old punchline:
Every six seconds in the U.S., some woman gives birth. So what
we've got to do is get hold of that woman and stop her.
Old joke, new punchlines:
MARRIED DAUGHTER TO MOTHER ON PHONE: Ma, I gave
birth to triplets. Isn't that exciting? You know, triplets are con¬
ceived only once in every three million times!
MOTHER: My heavens, Linea, when did you have time to do
PROFESSOR: Every fifteen minutes in the U.S., some student is
STUDENT: I think I know him.
A QUICK LESSON IN WORD ECONOMY
In many literary forms, embellishment might enrich a
piece; but when writing humor, less is better. A joke
is not a short story. It's a small story—often a single-
sentence story—told in as few words as possible.
Professionals constantly rewrite jokes to remove
unnecessary words, especially in the punchline. The
following Mitch Hedberg joke is a picture of such high-
More POW: The Simple Truth and the Take-Off 95 I'm against picketing, but I don't know how to show it.
Beginning writers, on the other hand, tend to fluff up a joke with unnec
essary words. For example, the novice might write the same joke in the
I'm against picketing, but I don't know if I should protest it with
a sign or whatever.
I'm against picketing, but I'm not exactly sure what ways to
I'm against picketing, but I don't know how to let other people
know that I'm against it.
Each of the alternative tag lines delivers the same general idea, but the
punch of the POW is lost in the verbiage. Professionals call the use of too
many words in a punchline frosting the flake or stacking the wack.
Your goal is avoid extra words and get to the joke as soon as possi
ble. Brent Forrester defined this as the Humor and Duration Principle,
which, simply put, states that the less time you take to get to the joke,
the funnier the joke will be. Embellishing a setup or punchline diminishes
the funniness of a joke.
Joke Time Funny
96 Comedy Writing Secrets Top This: Combining Simple Truths
A good humorist doesn't deliver just one gag and then tax the audience's
patience by developing a new setup. Once you've got the audience laugh¬
ing or on a roll, it's better to stay with toppers—a series of three or four
punchlines, each related to the previous one.
A girl phoned me the other day and said, "Come on over, there's
nobody home." I went over. Nobody was home.
Here are a few examples: The first contains one simple-truth punchline,
while the second—a variation on the same joke—tops the first punchline
with a second simple-truth punchline. The length of the pause between
the two punchlines in the second joke is a matter of judgment. Knowing
how long to pause separates the amateur from the pro.
The forest ranger approached an Indian riding his horse up the
steep canyon trail, his aged squaw trudging slowly along behind
him. "Chief, I've been noticing for months now that you always
ride up the trail and your wife always walks. How come?"
"Because," said the Indian solemnly, "she no gottum horse."
Here's the topper version of the same story. Note how the change in
locale keeps the simple-truth punchline realistic.
In Iraq, a Gl approached an Arab who was riding his donkey
along the military highway. His aged wife trudged along
ahead of him.
"Hey, Abdul," said the Gl, "I've been noticing for months that
you always ride and your wife always walks. How come?"
"Because," said the Iraqi, "she no got donkey."
"But why does she always walk ahead of you? Arab
"No! Land mines."
More POW: The Simple Truth and the Take-Off 97 SHOWTIME
Now try to finish some on your own. Read the following expressions and
clichés, and see if you can come up with a simple-truth tag. To help you
get started, the key word with the best possibility for a double entendre is
underlined. Check your payoff lines with the ones suggested at the end of
Boy: Are you free tonight?
My girlfriend was faithful to the end.
We never serve women at the bar.
Cleanliness is next to godliness.
Judge: The court awards your wife $200 a week for support.
SIMPLE TRUTHS AND MISPRONUNCIATION-
BASED DOUBLE ENTENDRES
There are thousands of words in the English language that can
become simple-truth double entendres by simple mispronunciation.
Every humorist has his own favorites. Most people consider such con¬
structions to be terrible puns. To overcome this conception, professional
humorists put simple-truth double entendres in the mouths of children.
Art Linkletter used them on his House Party TV show, and so did Stu
Hample's books, such as Children's Letters to God. Everyone is familiar
with take-offs of lines in the Bible (Lead me not into Penn Station) and
fractured Christmas carols (On the first day of Christmas, my tulip
gave to me ... and ...). You can collect your own mispronunciation dou¬
ble entendres by reading the words in the dictionary aloud. Once you
find one, your cleverness must add the punchline.
98 Comedy Writing Secrets I bought a product for erectile dysfunction and the box said Cialis.
I've been looking for her for the last three months.
Did ya hear about the Buddhist who refused novocaine when he went
to the dentist because he wanted to transcend dental medication?
I'm not as concerned with euthanasia as I am with kids in this
It wasn't my fault, it was the asphalt.
My mother makes our family eat so much salad, I wish she'd let
The simple-truth double entendre technique works in oral presentation,
but every once in a while it works best in print. Which method—oral or
print—would work best for the examples below?
The Paul Revere computer virus protection program warns of
impending hard disk attack—once if by LAN, twice if by C:/>.
When George W. Bush was campaigning during an Ohio pri
mary, he and an assistant dropped into a small luncheonette.
"Oh, Mr. Bush," smiled the attractive waitress. "We're
so honored. Have anything on the menu on us. What would
Bush studied the menu for a few moments and then said to
the waitress, "You know what I'd like, honey. I'd like a quickie."
The waitress slammed her pad on the table and said, "I
don't care if you are running for President, no one talks that
way to me." And she walked away.
"I don't know what she's so huffy about," said Bush. "It says
right here on the menu: quickie."
"Mr. Bush," said his assistant. "It's pronounced quiche."
More POW: The Simple Truth and the Take-Off 99 If you guessed print for the first example and oral for second, you
Simple Truths and Non Sequiturs
Another category of simple-truth humor is the non sequitur, an illogical
statement that is humorous because of the juxtaposition of two unrelated
elements. "One must have some grasp of logic even to recognize a non
sequitur," warned author and professor John Allen Paulos.
I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas,
I'll never know.
A hundred years from now, the works of the old masters will be
a thing of the past.
—A. Grove Day
Roadhouse sign: Clean and decent dancing every night but
Store sign: "Big Sale—Last Week!" Why are they telling me this?
I already missed it.
Simple Truths and Non Sequiturs on Stage
Many professional comedians use simple truths and non sequiturs
from time to time in their monologues. Several use non sequiturs most
of the time, including stand-up comedian Steven Wright. Here's a sam¬
ple; by now, you should be able to quickly anticipate most of the
I bought some batteries, but they weren't included. So, I had to
buy them again.
I had some eyeglasses, and as I was walking down the street, the
prescription ran out.
10 0 Comedy Writing Secrets I parked my car in a tow-away zone. When I came back, the entire
zone was gone.
If you're sending someone some Styrofoam, what do you pack it in?
I used to work in a fire hydrant factory. You couldn't park any
where near the place.
I walked into a restaurant. The sign said "Breakfast Served—
Anytime." I ordered French toast during the Renaissance.
A lot of people are afraid of heights. Not me, I'm afraid of widths.
I like to reminisce with people I don't know.
Survey these bits from Mitch Hedberg, and anticipate the humorous
Once you understand Morse code, a tap dancer will drive
I don't wear a watch because I want my arms to weigh the same.
It's dangerous to wave to people you don't know, because if they
don't have hands, they'll think you're cocky.
I used to do drugs. I still do, but I used to, too.
Try to finish each joke, then compare your answers to the ones listed at
the end of the chapter.
And I hate it when my foot falls asleep during the day ...
I woke up one morning and my girlfriend asked me if I slept
good. I said ...
At the gym they have free weights, so ...
More POW: The Simple Truth and the Take-Off 101 If you shoot a mime ...
If you saw a heat wave ...
I got my hair highlighted, because ...
On the other hand ...
DO UNTO OTHERS ... THEN TAKE OFF
The idea behind the take-off, one of the most popular formulas in humor
writing, is to draw a humorous conclusion from the intended meaning of
a standard cliché. Because the take-off is based on the intended meaning
of the phrase, a take-off is the opposite of the simple truth, which inter
prets the cliché or expression literally. In the take-off, the phrase or
cliché can either start the joke or be the punchline, but the cliché is typi
cally used as an introduction, and the surprise take-off is the big payoff
at the conclusion of the joke.
An invisible man married an invisible woman. Their kids were
nothing to look at either.
Nobody knows the trouble I've seen, but I keep trying to tell them.
Let a smile be your umbrella—and your hair will be a big mess.
Where there's a will, there's a family fighting over it.
The hands on my biological clock are giving me the finger.
Animals may be our friends. But they won't pick you up at
10 2 Comedy Writing Secrets A fool and his money were lucky to get together in the first place.
Whatever goes up must come down, but don't expect it to come
down where you can find it.
Comedy is in my blood. Frankly, I wish it were in my act!
Sign on hot chestnut stand: I don't want to set the world on fire.
I just want to keep my nuts warm.
Honesty is the best policy, but insanity is a better defense.
The race isn't always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong—
but that's the way to bet!
The take-off construction is more difficult when the standard phrase is
the second clause or sentence. A groan is the most frequent reaction to
this construction, so it's not as popular with stand-up comedians (they
get enough groans without scheduling them).
The dog's breath smelled terrible, so his bark was worse than his bite.
If you don't want the dentist to hurt you, keep your mouth shut.
I believe Dr. Kevorkian is on to something. Suicide is our way of
saying to God, "You can't fire me. I quit."
I know a guy who called up the Home Shopping Network. They
said, "Can I help you?" and he said, "No, I'm just looking."
I stuff my bra. So, if you get to second base with me, you'll find
that the bases are loaded.
More POW: The Simple Truth and the Take-Off 103 You can combine humor techniques in one joke. Here's an example
(inspired by author S.J. Perelman) that combines reforming (as discussed
in chapter four) with a take-off (note that the cliché comes second).
The hooker was chasing the comedian down the street—a case of
the tail dogging the wag.
You can also put more than one cliché in a take-off. It doubles the work,
but it also doubles the fun.
Immortality is a long shot, I admit. But somebody has to be first.
Give a man enough rope and he'll get tied up in the office.
Some girls fight against being kissed. Others take it lying down.
Why do people groan rather than laugh at outrageous puns? No one has
the slightest idea.
A pun is the lowest form of humor—unless you think of it first.
Whether you put the cliché first or second in a take-off depends on which
ending holds the surprise to the last possible moment. You may perform
the joke with the cliché first, but remember that humor is written back
wards. That means you must first find the cliché you want to work on,
then build a story around it. The trick is not to telegraph the punchline.
Here's a take-off that was so obviously stretched, it looks more like good
taffy than good humor.
A construction worker discovered his wife in the back seat of a
Yugo making love to another guy. He got into his cement truck,
drove up to the car, and dumped an entire load of concrete all
over it. Then, he drove away thinking, "The longer they go, the
harder it gets."
This example is a labored anecdote, but it does follow one essential rule:
Make sure the joke is the last possible thought, and don't add other words
104 Comedy Writing Secrets to the sentence after the joke. If you do, the audience will think that your
take-off was only a setup for a topper—and they'll be disappointed when
that topper doesn't pop up.
Take-Offs on Stage
One of the great masters of the take-off was Rodney Dangerfield, who
used the technique to emphasize his self-deprecating stage persona of
the man who gets no respect.
I looked up the family tree and found out that I was the sap.
I said to my wife, "All things considered, I'd like to die in bed,"
and she said, "What, again?"
My father never liked me. For Christmas, he gave me a bat.
The first time I tried to play ball with it, it flew away.
When I was a kid my parents moved a lot, but I always
I could tell my parents hated me. My bath toys were a toaster
and a radio.
When I was born, the doctor said to my father, "I'm sorry, we did
everything we could, but he still pulled through."
My mother didn't breast-feed me. She said she just liked me
as a friend.
The Deep Thoughts book series by fictional author Jack Handey
also uses the take-off. Each "deep thought" typically begins with a
cliché or common phrase, and takes off with a bizarre, off-the-wall
It takes a big man to cry, but it takes a bigger man to laugh at
Dad always said that laughter is the best medicine, which is why
several of us died from tuberculosis.
More POW: The Simple Truth and the Take-Off 105 If a kid asks where rain comes from, I think a cute thing to
tell him is "God is crying." And if he asks why God is crying,
another cute thing to tell him is "Probably because of some¬
thing you did."
Children need encouragement. So if a kid gets an answer right,
tell him it was a lucky guess. That way, he develops a good,
Let's analyze the saying that has more variations than any other in
comedic literature: If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.
If at first you don't succeed, try, try again—she expects
If at first you don't succeed, then quit. There's no sense being
a fool about it.
If at first you don't succeed, don't think of it as a failure. Think
of it as time-release success.
If at first you don't succeed, then skydiving isn't for you.
Sometimes it isn't even necessary to use the full cliché. Often, just a sug¬
gestion or variation of the cliché is enough. Here are some classic Homer
Simpson lines, also known as Homerisms.
If something's hard to do, then it's not worth doing.
Kids, you tried your best and failed miserably. So, the lesson is,
10 6 Comedy Writing Secrets How to weasel out of things is important to learn. It's what sep¬
arates us from the animals ... except the weasel.
Write the opening words for this cliché (If at first you don't succeed),
then create take-offs that have a surprising ending. A result often take-
offs is average; twenty is outstanding.
THE ANSWER MAN
Here are some punchline possibilities for the exercises on page 98. How
do yours compare?
BOY: Are you free tonight?
GIRL: Of course. Have I ever charged you?
My girlfriend was faithful to the end.
Unfortunately, I was the quarterback.
We never serve women at the bar.
You'll have to bring your own.
Cleanliness is next to godliness.
No, I looked in the dictionary, and go-getter is next to godliness.
JUDGE: The court awards your wife $200 a week for support.
DEFENDANT: Gee, that's very nice of you, Judge. I think I'll
throw in a few bucks myself.
Here are the professionals' conclusions to the jokes on pages 101-102.
And I hate it when my foot falls asleep during the day, because
that means it's going to be up all night.
I woke up one morning and my girlfriend asked me if I slept
good. I said, "No, I made a few mistakes."
More POW: The Simple Truth and the Take-Off 107 At the gym they have free weights, so I took them.
If you shoot a mime, should you use a silencer?
If you saw a heat wave, would you wave back?
10 8 Comedy Writing Secrets CHAPTER 6
POW Brainstorming Techniques
Writer's block is a fancy term made up by whiners so
they can have an excuse to drink alcohol.
Like most creative people, humor writers spend a lot of time
looking for the right figure of speech. Occasionally, the
blank "I'm thinking" gaze progresses to the comatose state
known as writer's block. Unfortunately, humor writers can
not only suffer from writer's block, but also from humor
block: unavoidable moments when the comedic juices stop
flowing. As comedian Marty Feldman overstated,
"Comedy, like sodomy, is an unnatural act."
Even when a writer's imagination is going full steam, the rule of ten
in, nine out applies: For every ten jokes written, only one might be
acceptable. The high ratio of successful to unsuccessful jokes explains
why most late-night talk shows, such as The Tonight Show and Late
Night, employ teams of gag writers. A five-minute monologue may be
written by as many as six writers.
There are ways to jump-start the creative process. The most common
brainstorming methods are association and listing. These techniques allow
you to generate multiple options for humor, thereby improving your chances
of uncovering a successful play on words (POW). Brainstorming can be
time-consuming, and most of the items you come up with will be discarded,
but brainstorming is nonetheless an invaluable tool for writing humor. It also
explains why humor writers are better at wordplay than foreplay.
A humorist's funny bone is like an athlete's muscles or a singer's vocal
cords. It works best when it's warmed up first. Writing instructors insist
POW Brainstorming Techniques 109 that students do fifteen to thirty minutes of brain-stretching exercises
each morning to clear the mind. Developing new associations is a creative-
writing technique that can help you discover humor in unexpected rela¬
tionships, and create POW jokes.
Association is putting two activities that haven't been previously asso¬
ciated into a plausible but audacious scenario. Association is a more for¬
mal word for teaming, humor's variation on metaphor. You combine two
simple elements that are logical alone but impossible together. The
humor comes from the unexpected, offbeat relationship.
Associations have several formats. One type of association begins
with a cliché or expression that the audience is likely to interpret one
way, but then the performer gives an illustrative example that reverses
the anticipated meaning.
My opponent has done the work of two men: Laurel and Hardy.
—Governor James A. Rhodes
Another type of association is the teaming of two clichés. This technique
is the backbone of improvisation.
Wife to friend: I call Herb's salary a phallic symbol even though it
only rises once a year.
A third type of association is the Tom Swifty, the teaming of a quota¬
tion with a verb or adverb of attribution that puns on the meaning of
"I want to renew my membership," Tom rejoined.
"I hope I can still play the guitar," he fretted.
"All the twos are missing from this deck," she deduced.
"You're burning the candle at both ends," he said wickedly.
"I think he's dead," she said mournfully.
"I'm as tired as a sled dog," he said huskily.
Robert Orben, one of the most prolific humor writers, warms up by writ¬
ing twenty-five POW jokes inspired by the morning paper. Then, he gets
to work. Others like to imagine funny captions to news photos. Humor
11 0 Comedy Writing Secrets lecturer Art Gliner gets his seminars going with a POW association exer¬
cise. He has attendees write down words that might describe how tired
firefighters, police, dogcatchers, plumbers, etc. feel when they get home
at night. For example:
torched fired up
like a plugged nickel
like a ladder day saint
not too hot
like he had made an ash of himself
half-cocked run down
charged holed up
badgered it was a riot
that's the ticket
muzzled bone tired
bitchy run down
licked dog tired
collared the paws that refreshes
plowed under bogged down
bushed raked over
mulched dug up
seedy all wet
Comedy writer Gene Perret likes to associate puns on famous names. First,
find a name with homonym possibilities. Then, write an anecdote to fit.
POW Brainstorming Techniques 111 Before she became Madonna, she was a pre-Madonna.
An Italian-American farmer erected a tombstone for his beloved
wife, Nellie, that read: "Here Liza Minnelli."
Take pity. I'm Jung and Freud-ened.
"I just can't Handel the Messiah."
"Then you'd better go into Haydn."
"Oh, get off my Bach, or I'll give you a karate Chopin the neck."
A microcomputer that draws geometric patterns on the screen is
called a Micro-Angle-O.
Here are some slogans (based on the same principle) for famous artists.
Seurat: Que Seurat, Seurat.
Monet: A lasting impression.
Van Gogh: Lend me your ear.
Warhol: The new Warhol—uncanny.
Gauguin: Here we Gauguin.
Goya: You can be Jewish and still love a Goya.
Humorists take only themselves seriously, no one else. The more you can
combine realism and exaggeration, the more humorous you will be.
That's why disrespectful association of the rich and famous with book or
movie titles is a frequent POW warmup for professionals.
Britney Spears in Once Is Not Enough
Dick Cheney in Raging Bull
Hillary Clinton in Cold Mountain
George W. Bush in Lost in Translation
Associating the last names of two different celebrities is another exercise
112 Comedy Writing Secrets If Isadora Duncan had married Robert Donat, would their child be
a Duncan Donat?
If Betty White had married Soupy Sales, would they have called
her Betty White Sales?
If all this is just the first step in humor writing, you're probably reminded
of the ancient warning: Watch out for that first step—it's a bitch! But with
patience and practice, you'll soon be skipping down the sidewalk with
out missing a crack.
REVISING FOR SURPRISE
It takes a good deal of testing to create a joke
with a surprise ending. So much so that jokes
aren't written—they're rewritten. Precision and
brevity help make a surprise ending effective.
A well-constructed joke:
• uses as few words as possible
• does not reveal key words in the setup
• preserves the funniest word until the end
When you write humor, your first draft can be as long as you wish. The
second draft should cut every nonessential phrase. The final draft should
cut every nonessential word. No machine has needless parts, and no
good comedy routine has needless words. Your mantra should be: Make
every word work.
As you're revising, trim redundant phrases—such as old adage, exact
same, really essential, continue on, four short years, absolutely neces
sary, advance planning, brief respite, future plans, and interact with each
other—down to the one necessary word.
If surprise is home plate, good humor writing runs the bases as fast as
possible. Normal speech is clocked at two and a half words per second,
so if you can erase just twenty redundant words from your final draft,
you'll save eight seconds that will help keep your audience alert.
POW Brainstorming Techniques 113 Let's analyze three different endings to the same joke. Which would
you select as the most effective?
He was complimented when the editor called his work sopho-
moric because he had flunked out of college his freshman year.
He had flunked out of college in his sophomore year, so he was
complimented whenever anybody called his work sophomoric.
He had flunked out of college in his freshman year, so he was
complimented whenever anybody called his work sophomoric.
The first joke is less effective because, after you've written sophomoric,
the surprise goes past the payoff window. The second joke loses its
punch because the word sophomore in the middle of the sentence fore¬
shadows the surprise word, sophomoric, at the end. The last joke works
best, because the surprise word—sophomoric—is held to the last instant.
The constant attention to editing may seem extensive, but the con¬
struction of a joke is as important as its content. Word economy and
holding the surprise until the end are two major characteristics of a well-
written joke, and humor writers spend considerable time ensuring that
they maintain those characteristics.
Consider the following example.
On the road into town there was a sign in an empty field that
said, "Three miles ahead, lots for sale." So I went to the loca¬
tion, but to my surprise, there was nothing there.
At two and a half words per second, the audience has to wait four sec¬
onds between hearing about the sign and getting to the punchline. This
period is too long and asks too much of the audience.
I saw this sign: "Lots for sale." And when I went there, I must
have been too late, because there was nothing there.
11 4 Comedy Writing Secrets This joke still contains too much unnecessary information.
I saw this sign: "Lots for sale." But there was nothing there.
LISTING: AN EXPLODING MIRTH RATE
The concept of listing seems simple enough: You break down a
topic of your choice into groups of related activities, then create
smaller and smaller subgroups. Regardless of your humor assignment,
the technique is the same. Let's imagine you need to write material
on golf, a favorite topic for speech humorists because so many
clients play golf.
STEP ONE: LIST GROUPS AND SUBGROUPS. The first step is to
chart the subject. On paper, divide the main subject into different head¬
ings. For example:
1. golf equipment
2. golf course
3. golf play
4. golf players
Now add as many subheads as you can think of, and keep adding to the
list every time you have another brainstorm. Don't censor yourself. The
quantity of ideas is important here; quality comes later.
Under golf equipment you might list:
argyle socks ball washer
flag glasses gloves
hats head covers lucky ball
optic yellow pencil
POW Brainstorming Techniques 115 scorecard shoes socks
spikes tees towels
Now break down the subhead clubs even further:
Even the woods and the irons can be listed by numeric designation:
two wood, nine iron, etc. And that's only category one—golf equipment.
Now do the same with category two, golf course.
apron ball wash bunker
clubhouse country club
dogleg driving range eighteen-hole course
lake locker room men's tee
nine-hole course nineteenth hole out of bounds
practice green pro tee
sand trap shower trees
water hazard women's tee woods
And now category three, golf play:
birdie bogie championship
chip double bogie drop ball
eagle "fore" foursome
handicap hole in one hook
lost balls mulligan par
play through pro-am score
shank skyball slice
stroke tournaments trophy
Finally, category four, golf players:
11 6 Comedy Writing Secrets amateurs betting bragging
cheating curses disgust
double up duffer exercise
expense fanatics foursome
hackers hobby hooker
hustler lessons Nassau
opponents pair partners
pros sandbagger slicer
STEP TWO: LIST CLICHÉS. The next part of the chart is a compre¬
hensive list of clichés or POWs associated with each entry. For example,
in category one (golf equipment) you could list:
got a new set of clubs he hit a three-hundred-yarder
make a six-footer practice swing
she knows how to putt
they've gotcha by the balls kiss his balls for good luck
she addressed the ball he lost his balls
keep your eye on the ball don't stand too close to the ball
hit a pair of beautiful balls
that's not his bag she's a bag lady
in the bag
And in category two, golf course, a list of cliché expressions might include:
name of the game how many strokes per round
let's play a round great way to meet people
she gave the caddy a tip a rich man's sport
In categories three, golf play, and four, golf players, you might include:
he knows the score it was a playable lie
it's a gimme she got out of the trap
POW Brainstorming Techniques 117 I lie three he's a poor sport
she moved heaven and earth what's par for the hole?
she shoots in the low seventies
that shot was a prayer
he's a scratch player he's a hooker
she's a weekend hacker
she's a slicer
he got out of a hole
the woods are full of them
he got distance off the tee how do you like the greens?
STEP THREE: ADD THE POW. As you read over the list, you can
already see a number of humor possibilities, particularly with double
entendres. Now is the time to list double entendres, synonyms,
antonyms, and homonyms that have a connection with golf. Here's
a sample list.
a six-footer ball
ball wash birdie
hole in one
long ball hitter
lucky ball make
nine holes out of bounds play
play through putt rough
swing tip trap
away = longest distance bar = nineteenth hole
club = sticks drive = tee-off
gimme = concede good shot = beauty
green = carpet hat = cap
lake = drink locker room = showers
oath = curse par = scratch
putt = tap tip = gift
11 8 Comedy Writing Secrets ANTONYMS
birdie = bogie country club = public links
eagle = double bogie flubbed = on the nose
hold head down = hold head up lost ball = found ball
match play = lowest score men's tee = women's tee
opponent = partner play = practice
stand close = stand away tip = advice
wager = friendly game
fore = four, for, foreplay, foursome
course = enter course (sign), intercourse, curse
play a round = play around
caddy = caddy (Cadillac)
seventies (score) = seventies (Fahrenheit temperature)
putts = putz
STEP FOUR: CREATE THE JOKES. Use all this research to come up
with humorous material for your monologue, sketch, or speech on golf.
Remember that, to be funny, the final line of the story or joke must be a
surprise. Depending on the speed of the performer, four jokes a minute is
maximum, and two jokes plus one anecdote in a minute is average. So if
you need five minutes of material, at the maximum you need twenty one-
liners, or seven anecdotes, or twelve one-liners and three anecdotes, etc.
The beginner writes the minimum to fill the time. The professional
writes three times what's needed (as many as sixty different bits for this
example), and tries them out on small groups (but never on her own fam¬
ily), rewrites, discards, rewrites some more, then finally settles on the
twenty that work best for that specific audience.
Let's try a few jokes based on the golf lists above. For this exercise,
let's stick with just one scenario—the dialogue between golfer and
caddy—so we can concentrate on humor technique. These stories would
all benefit from personalizing—substituting a VIP's name for the golfer or
the caddy, for instance. Many of these jokes would work whether the
hacker was male or female.
POW Brainstorming Techniques 119 CATEGORY ONE (GOLF EQUIPMENT)
CADDY TO HACKER: No matter how you slice it, sir, it's still
a golf ball.
HACKER: I got some new clubs for my wife.
CADDY: I know your wife, sir, and that wasn't a bad trade.
CADDY: I don't get it, sir. First, you slice your ball into the
woods. Then you hook it onto the highway. Now you top the
same ball into the water. And you still insist on my finding it?
HACKER: Of course. It's my lucky ball.
HACKER: I hit two beautiful balls today.
CADDY: The only way you could do that, sir, would be to step
on a rake.
CADDY: Here's a lost ball I found on the golf course.
HACKER: Gee, thanks. But how did you know it was a lost ball?
CADDY: Because they were still looking for it when I left.
HACKER: This is my first time playing golf. When do I use
CADDY: Sometime before dark, I hope.
CATEGORY TWO (GOLF CLUB)
HACKER: I'm moving heaven and earth to do better.
CADDY: Try just moving heaven. You've already moved plenty
CADDY: The traps on this course are certainly annoying, aren't
HACKER: Yes, and would you please shut yours?
HACKER: How does one meet new people at this country club?
CADDY: Easy. Try picking up the wrong ball.
12 0 Comedy Writing Secrets CATEGORY THREE (GOLF PLAY)
HACKER TO CADDY: I play golf in the seventies. When it gets
hotter, I quit.
HACKER: Golf is sure a funny game.
CADDY: It wasn't meant to be, sir.
HACKER TO CADDY: This hole should be good for a long drive
and a putt.
CADDY (AFTER HACKER FLUBS HIS FIRST SHOT): Now for
a helluva putt.
HACKER: Any ideas on how I can cut about ten strokes off
CADDY: Yes, quit on hole seventeen!
CADDY: How come you're not playing with Mr. Anderson today, sir?
HACKER: Would you play with a man who lies, cheats, and
moves his ball?
CADDY: No, sir!
HACKER: Well, neither will Mr. Anderson.
CADDY: Sir, you're teeing off from the ladies' tee.
HACKER: Shut up, willya? I lie three here.
HACKER: With my score today I'll never be able to hold my
CADDY: Why not? You've been doing it all afternoon.
PRIEST: I wonder if it would help me if I prayed each time I teed off?
CADDY: Only if you prayed with your head down.
CADDY: Father, is it a sin to play golf on Sunday?
PRIEST: The way I play, it's a sin on any day.
HACKER: Ever seen such a long ball hitter as me?
CADDY: Sure, the woods are full of them.
POW Brainstorming Techniques 121 CATEGORY POUR (GOLF PLAYERS)
HACKER TO CADDY: My wife says if I don't give up golf, she'll
leave me. And you know, I'm going to miss her.
HACKER: What do you think I should do about my game?
CADDY: Well, sir, first I'd relax, then stop playing for six months,
then give it up entirely.
Now let's see how several anecdotes are used to construct one golf joke.
A young man in his twenties went to Las Vegas, met a girl, had
a fabulous night, got drunk, got married, and woke up the next
morning. He said to her, "Look I've got a surprise for you. Last
night when I said I don't have a handicap, I meant I am a no-
scratch golfer. I spend all my time out on the golf course, and
you're the first girl I ever went out with." The girl said, "Well, I
really have a handicap. I'm a hooker, and I can't stop." So, the
kid took out one of his clubs and said, "Look, I can help. Next
time, before you swing, just put your right hand high on the
shaft. You'll do fine."
Why Work So Hard?
This seems like an awful lot of labor just to create a few one-liners.
Well, it is. No humor writer will deny that associations are laborious,
tedious, time-consuming, and frustrating when it doesn't come out
right. (And just as you're about to find that last elusive punchline, your
spouse will come up and say, "As long as you're not doing anything,
take out the garbage.")
FOUR MORE BLOCK BEATERS
Here are four more tools for busting through humor block.
1. WORK BACKWARDS. Create the last line—the punchline first. Then
write the anecdote or setup that best prepares the audience for the
12 2 Comedy Writing Secrets punchline. For instance, you might accidentally dis
cover a unique literal interpretation of a cliché (which
can happen easily when you accidentally make a
whittle typo). But creating setups isn't easy; you might
try half a dozen before the best one is apparent. Then you
may spend hours changing words and paring the joke down,
whittle by whittle. To get out of the habit of starting with
the setup, take a trip to a greeting card store and read
some of the humorous cards backwards. Start with the inside (the punch
line) of the card, and then guess the line on the outside (the setup).
2. LOOK FOR OPPOSITES. One key method of creating surprise is associat
ing two dissimilar things. Choose a topic, then brainstorm for people,
places, things, phrases, clichés, and words that are dissimilar to this topic.
3. TALK INSTEAD OF WRITING. Put down the pen and start talking out
loud. Use a voice recorder to capture ideas, which may come faster than
you can write.
4. IMAGINE INSTEAD OF WRITING. Albert Einstein recognized that the
mind's visual powers greatly exceed its verbal abilities, and he used visu
alization to discover many of his famous theories. Whenever you need to
kick-start your imagination, close your eyes and let your mind create a
mental movie of you telling jokes to a receptive audience.
Aggressive editing is important. Remember that a good joke:
1. uses as few words as possible
2. preserves the funniest part of the joke until the end
3. does not reveal key words in the setup, and does not contain words
after the funniest part of the punchline
POW Brainstorming Techniques 123 If the three criteria for a good joke are not met, a potentially good joke
will become lame. Complete the following exercises to practice
Aggressively edit the POW jokes you have written. First, remove any
unneeded words. Second, identify the funniest word or phrase in each
punchline, and if any words appear after the funniest part, rewrite the
joke to get rid of them. Third, make sure that key words that telegraph the
surprise ending are not used in the setup.
Now do the same with one of your favorite funny stories. How can it
be aggressively edited to be even more effective?
12 4 Comedy Writing Secrets CHAPTER 7
The Next Giant Step: Reverses
My boyfriend and I broke up, even though we're still deeply
in love. He wanted to get married and I didn't want him to.
The term reverse has many definitions in humor writing, but one of
the best is "a device that adds a contradictory tag line to the
opening line of a standard expression or cliché."
I couldn't wait for success, so I went ahead without it.
Other writers call it the old switcheroo; a technique that switches the
characters and setting of a standard humor bit to fit the existing situation.
We were incompatible in a lot of ways. Like for example, I was a
night person, and he didn't like me.
The most common definition of a reverse is "an unexpected switch in the
audience's point of view." Surprise comes from a basic change in direc¬
tion—a reversal of habitual thinking or activity. To maintain the element
of surprise, the writer must drop at least one prominent clue to mislead
the audience, to push the audience in a false direction. See if you can
spot the misdirection in the example below.
A man and woman are making passionate love in the bedroom.
Suddenly, the apartment door opens, and a man comes in and
shouts, "Darling! I'm home." He walks into the bedroom, sees the
naked couple and says, "What is she doing here?"
Did you spot it? The misdirection is the man shouting, "Darling!" The
audience thinks he's calling to the woman. The unexpected change in
point of view occurs in the last line: "What is she doing here?"
The Next Giant Step: Reverses 125 In each of the following examples, the writer wants you to be thinking
predictably. Despite the careful step-by-step analysis above, you may be
so accustomed to the logical thought process that many of these reverses
will still catch you by surprise.
BOY: Can I take your picture in the nude?
COED: Absolutely not! You'll have to wear your socks and a tie.
A junior executive walks into his boss's office. "I'm afraid I'll have
to leave early today, sir. I've got a terribly sore neck."
The boss says, "Whenever I get one, I go home and my wife
makes love to me. She knows how to massage every muscle in
my body, and when she's finished, all the tension is gone. You
should try it, and that's an order."
The next day the boss walks over to the young executive: "Did
you try what I told you?"
"Yes, I did," says the young man, "and it worked just fine. By
the way, you have a beautiful house, too!"
The standard reverse, then, is a simple statement setting up a point of
view that is effectively cancelled out by the last few words. Pro writers
sometimes spend hours polishing that important last line. In the exam
ples below, the setup statements have been underlined.
I sold my house this week. I got a good price for it—but it made
my landlord mad as hell.
I stayed at one of the crummiest hotels in town. In the middle of
the night, I called the desk clerk and said, "I've got a leak in the
bathtub." He said, "Hey, you paid for the room. Go right ahead."
When the old Sheraton hotel was being renovated, they sold the
ripped-out fixtures, so I bought the two front doors for my house.
After they were installed, I pointed them out to a friend, "These
came from the Sheraton hotel." He was astonished, "Most people
just take soap and towels."
12 6 Comedy Writing Secrets REVERSES AND THE ART OF SURPRISE
Why humor reverses continue to surprise us is a mystery. After all, the end
ing is logical (if not realistic). A magician is able to use physical misdirection
to accomplish his sleight of hand, while the comic has only words—and the
hope that the audience goes off on the wrong train of thought.
I understand that the doctor had to spank me when I was born, but
I really don't see any reason he had to call me a whore.
When I was young, I thought that money was the most important
thing in life. Now that I'm old—I know it is.
Effective humor is carefully scripted to ensure the surprise ending
remains hidden until the writer is ready to reveal it. Each phrase, idea, or
fact is carefully designed so that when the performer reverses the train
of thought, the audience is totally surprised. If they can see the reverse
coming, they're not surprised, just smug.
I made a killing in the stock market. My broker lost all my money,
so I killed him.
In the following routine, comedian Emo Philips plants clues that encour
age the audience to think along predictable lines.
One day I was playing—I was about seven years old—and I saw
the cellar door open just a crack. Now my folks had always
warned me: Emo, whatever you do, don't go near the cellar door.
But I had to see what was on the other side if it killed me, so I
went to the cellar door, pushed it open and walked through, and I
saw strange, wonderful things—things I had never seen before—
like ... trees, grass, flowers, the sun—that was nice!
Note how he built up the reverse by playing on the audience's assump
tion that he is outside the cellar.
The Next Giant Step: Reverses 127 I was about seven ...
A child could be forbidden to enter the cellar. He might fall down the
stairs, or the cellar might contain something dangerous.
I saw the cellar door open just a crack.
The parents have warned Philips away from the door, so the audience
thinks there is something dangerous in the cellar. When the door opens
just a crack, tension is created in the audience (who is still thinking that
Philips is outside the cellar).
My folks had always warned me ... whatever you do, don't go
near the cellar door.
The cellar is beginning to sound like some mysterious, horror-filled
I had to see what was on the other side if it killed me.
The word killed further builds tension.
I saw strange, wonderful things—things I had never seen before.
Now the audience is sure that the mysterious cellar is filled with relics
from King Tut's tomb.
This is a necessary long pause, which is the apex of tension in prepara
tion for the surprise ending—Philips revelation that he was in the cellar,
A reverse should not be easy for the audience to spot in advance. Write a
reverse for each of the following setups, and then compare your best
efforts with the pros' versions at the end of the chapter.
12 8 Comedy Writing Secrets Condoms aren't completely safe. A friend of mine was wearing
one and ...
My wife insists on turning off the lights when we make love.
That doesn't bother me. It's the ...
We have a presidential election coming up. And I think the big
problem, of course, is ...
After twelve years of therapy, my psychiatrist said something
that brought tears to my eyes. He said ...
THE ANECDOTAL REVERSE
An anecdote—like the Emo Philips routine just discussed—is a short
story with a sudden climax. The setup includes just enough information
to encourage the audience to proceed automatically in a direction the
performer reverses at the end.
"Let me tell you about my big-spending husband," one woman
said to another. "It was our anniversary, so he took me to the
most famous restaurant in town and told me to order the most
expensive dish on the menu. I did ... a Big Mac."
Two old men were watching a Great Dane lick his balls. One turned
to the other and said, "All my life, I've wished that I could do that!"
The second one said, "Better pet him first, he looks mean as hell."
The trick to creating a good anecdotal reverse is to lay out the plot line
of the story so realistically that the reverse isn't expected—even a little
bit—by the audience.
A man was driving on a narrow, winding mountain road when he
almost collided with a car that wildly careened around a blind
curve. "You stupid fool," he shouted at the other driver. The other
The Next Giant Step: Reverses 129 car came to a dead stop. A woman rolled down the window,
looked at the man and yelled, "Pig! Pig! Pig!" and then quickly
drove off. Furious at the insult, the man slammed his car into gear,
roared around the mountain curve—and slammed head-on into a
giant hog standing in the road.
The reversal in this anecdote works so well because the events leading
up to it are completely believable—they could happen to anyone.
Films and sitcoms can lay the groundwork for surprise endings with
seemingly insignificant dialogue sprinkled throughout an entire scene.
But jokes can't take a half-hour, so clues using the minimum number of
words must be dropped seamlessly into anecdotes. Only after audience
members have been fooled by the magician are they anxious to analyze
what really happened. When your audiences retrospectively analyze your
anecdotes, make sure they can note the cleverness of your construction.
A worker on a construction site would wait until the end of the day,
then walk out with a wheelbarrow filled with dirt. Management
was positive he was stealing supplies, but every security check of
the wheelbarrow accounted for nothing but plain sand. After the
job was completed and the worker collected his final paycheck, the
foreman walked up to him and said, "Mike, I know you were steal
ing something. Tell me the truth, what were you takin'?"
And Mike said, "Wheelbarrows!"
WRITE, DON'T TELEGRAPH
Telegraphing—inadvertently cluing the audience in to the upcoming sur
prise—is a sign of a beginner. Telegraphing can take the form of a too-
detailed introduction, making the setup so obvious that the audience can
anticipate the ending of the story. Here's an example: Jack Ellis, a former
fund-raising director, was being given a testimonial dinner. One speaker
told the following story.
A carnival strongman wet a towel and then squeezed every drop
of water out of it. Then he offered to bet anyone in the audience
13 0 Comedy Writing Secrets fifty dollars that they couldn't squeeze out just one more drop. Up
sprang our guest of honor, and sure enough, he squeezed out
three drops. "Who in the devil are you?" asked the strong man.
And the man said, "I'm a fund-raiser for Ohio University."
There is an unwritten law in humor that only one reverse is permissible
in any one anecdote. Two is pushing it, and the audience can usually pre¬
dict a third reverse in advance. The following joke successfully with¬
holds the single reverse until the end of the anecdote.
A man finds a chimp in the middle of the street. A police car drives
by and the man asks the cop, "Hey, what do you think I should do
"Take him to the zoo," yells the cop.
The next day the police notice the same man with the
"I thought I told you to take it to the zoo," said the cop.
"I did," said the man, "and we had so much fun, today I'm tak¬
ing him to Disneyland."
A Texan, visiting Vermont, asked a farmer how much acreage
"Oh, I've got a big farm," said the farmer. "More than 150 acres."
The Texan swelled up and said, "You know, mister, I get into
my car in the morning, I drive all day, and I still can't get to the
end of my property."
The farmer said, "I know what you mean. I've got a car just
If they are too obvious in their layout, reverses can be telegraphed even
in the shortest anecdotes.
"Sorry to hear your wife ran away with your gardener."
"Oh, that's all right. I was going to fire him anyway!"
After two drinks, my wife turns into a screaming bitch. After five
drinks, I pass out completely.
The Next Giant Step: Reverses 131 HIDE AND PEEK
Hiding is the opposite of telegraphing. Hiding is successful when the audi¬
ence believes the setup to be a straightforward statement. After a short
pause, the humorist reveals the surprise ending—since the audience was¬
n't expecting anything further, the punchline is even more of a surprise.
Ohio University was founded in 1804 and opened with a freshman
class of twelve students. And this year, eight of them graduated.
REVERSES ON STAGE
Reverses are common techniques for all stand-up comedians.
I divorced my first wife because she was so immature. I'd be in the
tub taking a bath and she would walk in whenever she felt like it
and sink my boats.
The doctor enters the examination room and says, "Okay, lay
down." I say, "Buy me a drink first, pig."
When I went to college, my parents threw a going-away party for
me, according to the letter.
My mother buried three husbands ... and two of them were
Every day people are straying away from the church, and going
back to God.
To me, clowns aren't funny. In fact, they're kind of scary. I've won¬
dered where this started and I think it goes back to the time I went
to the circus, and a clown killed my dad.
13 2 Comedy Writing Secrets My husband and I didn't sign a prenuptial agreement. We signed a
mutual suicide pact.
My grandfather is hard of hearing. He needs to read lips. I don't
mind him reading lips, but he uses one of those yellow highlighters.
I don't believe in reincarnation, and I didn't believe in it when I
was a hamster.
I was with this girl the other night, and from the way she was
responding to my skillful caresses, you would have sworn that she
was conscious from the top of her head to the tag on her toes.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR REVERSES
One delight of the reverse is that it can be used in speeches to make a
serious point, not just tell a joke. As a result, it's an excellent technique
for sermons as well.
Two manufacturing competitors were roommates at an industry
association outing at a mountain resort. The first night, they heard
scratching outside their cabin door. One went to look, came back,
and started to put on his running shoes.
"What's the trouble?" asked his roommate.
The competitor said, "There's a giant bear outside who's so
hungry he's gonna smash his way right into this room."
"Well," said the other, "why put on sneakers? You can't outrun a
bear." "I know," said the other, "but all I need to do is outrun you."
MCs are notorious for incorporating reverses into their brief introductions.
We usually go for the best in live entertainment. But, tonight we
have to settle for...
The Next Giant Step: Reverses 133 Is everybody having a good time? Well, we'll put an end to that
Reverses can occur in physical humor as well. During an appearance
on David Letterman's late-night TV show, Jack Hanna, then director of
the Columbus Zoo, was displaying a toucan. Letterman was tossing
grapes to the bird: "One, two, three," toss. The bird caught each grape
to the roaring approval of the audience. Suddenly, Letterman said to
Hanna, "Jack, why don't you try one?" "Fine," said Hanna. "Here we
go," yelled Letterman, and he began tossing grapes into the air for
Hanna to catch in his mouth. "One, two, three," toss.
Reverses are also very practical for deflecting insults. If the critic isn't
carefully specific, the target has the thrill—and it is a thrill when that
opportunity comes—to reverse the point of view and change the critic's
javelin into a boomerang.
I don't like country music, but I don't mean to denigrate those who
do. And for the people who like country music, denigrate means
Goldie Hawn is funny, sexy, beautiful, talented, intelligent,
warm, and consistently sunny. Other than that, she doesn't
impress me at all.
People say to me, "You're not very feminine." Well, they can just
suck my dick.
HUSBAND TO WIFE: You are not only beautiful, but stupid.
WIFE TO HUSBAND: Well, God made me beautiful so you
would be attracted to me. And he made me stupid so I'd be
attracted to you.
134 Comedy Writing Secrets SCHOOL DAZE: REVERSING A CLICHÉ
Now that we've discussed the uses of reverses and how reverses are con¬
structed, let's write a reversal of a cliché. For the target, let's use the begin¬
ning of the school term, when summer is over and parents everywhere
happily send their children back to school. Just writing We all feel relieved
when our kids go back to school and the house is quieter and neater is
not wit. Your first efforts to reverse a cliché may look something like these.
When my kids go back to school, I go back to sanity.
For parents, Thanksgiving takes place in September—on the day
When school starts, my kids think they're going back to hell, and I
think I'm going back to heaven.
The meaning of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" gets a
lot clearer the first day my kids go back to school.
September is the month when millions of beautiful faces radiating
happiness turn toward school. ...
They all belong to mothers.
It helps to work backward from the reverse. The most obvious reverse
might be to make a point about mothers when the audience thinks we're
talking about the children.
This type of joke would be a fun opening for a speech to a PTA-type
group because the audience members are likely to share a parent's
ambivalence toward children.
When school is out, there's always the tearing up of homework,
screeching, and giggling. You would think professors would act
The Next Giant Step: Reverses 135 SHOWTIME
The "news" reports on shows such as Saturday Night Live and The Daily
Show With Jon Stewart commonly include reverses in the form of one-
sentence news headlines followed by contradictory tag lines. Write a
reverse for each of the following setups, then compare your responses to
the pros' versions that appear on the next page.
A Harvard Medical School study has determined that rectal
thermometers are still the best way to tell a baby's temperature.
The University of Nebraska says that elderly people who
drink beer or wine at least four times a week have the highest
A man in France was arrested today for using his car to run
down a pedestrian he thought was Osama bin Laden.
THE ANSWER MAN
Here are the pros' conclusions for the reverse setups on pages 128-129.
Condoms aren't completely safe. A friend of mine was wearing
one and got hit by a bus.
My wife insists on turning off the lights when we make love.
That doesn't bother me. It's her hiding that seems so cruel.
We have a presidential election coming up. And I think the big
problem, of course, is someone will win.
13 6 Comedy Writing Secrets After twelve years of therapy, my psychiatrist said something
that brought tears to my eyes. He said, "No hablo ingles."
Here are the conclusions for the headline news setups on page 136.
A Harvard Medical School study has determined that rectal
thermometers are still the best way to tell a baby's tempera¬
ture. Plus, it really teaches the baby who's boss.
The University of Nebraska says that elderly people who drink
beer or wine at least four times a week have the highest bone
density. They need it—they're the ones falling down the most.
A man in France was arrested today for using his car to run down
a pedestrian he thought was Osama bin Laden. Even though it
was a mistake, it still ranks as France's biggest military victory.
The Next Giant Step: Reverses 137 CHAPTER 8
The Harmony of Paired Elements:
Phrases, Words, Statistics,
She was an earthy woman, so I treated her like dirt.
Humor is a feat of verbal gymnastics, and paired elements are examples
of the type of clever writing that is commonly used in political addresses,
sermons, academic oratory, and toasts. A paired element consists of two
grammatical structures (words, phrases, clauses, or sentences) that are
similar in construction and that play off each other in meaning.
Paired elements appear in humor formats as varied as ad slogans,
bumper stickers, and Shavian wit. You might find paired elements in the
"thought for today" in your desk calendar.
There are three varieties of paired elements.
1. paired phrases or sentences
2. paired words
3. paired numbers
PAIRED PHRASES AND SENTENCES
To be most effective, paired phrases or sentences must be
parallel—equal in grammatical purpose, structure, and
rhythm. Some need an introductory setup line; most do
not. In most cases, the first unit in the pair is a simple
declarative statement. The carefully crafted second
unit of the pair echoes the first, but a key word may be
altered, or the order of the words may be reversed to
change the meaning. Aphorisms, which will be dis
cussed later, often contain paired phrases, which
13 8 Comedy Writing Secrets are almost lyrical in repetition, and valuable because they make the
words easy to remember.
Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do
for your country.
—John F. Kennedy
Better a witty fool than a foolish wit.
When the going gets tough, the tough get going.
Figures don't lie, but all liars can figure.
Imagination compensates us for what we are not. Humor compen¬
sates us for what we are.
As a humor technique, paired phrases with word reverses are facile
but not necessarily simple. The basic rule, common in most humor
writing, is that the last line is written first—the last line is the one
that makes the point and is most easily remembered. Then, you try to
reinforce the theme by reversing the words so the first line introduces
Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much
Pilot over intercom to impatient passengers: We're having a
short delay for engine repairs. Aren't you glad you're down here
wishing you were up there, rather than up there wishing you
were down here?
—Joan White Book
Paired phrases are popular with clichés, which afford many opportuni¬
ties for take-off humor—the line after the paired phrase.
Boss to new employee: "Relax, Bitler. You have nothing to fear
except fear itself. And me, of course!"
The Harmony of Paired Elements 139 Paired elements are frequent applause-getters, and writers know that the
audience is more stimulated by the turn of phrase than by its logic.
Homonyms get laughs even when they don't make much sense.
It is better to have loved a small man than never to have
loved a tall.
—Mary Jo Crowley
As a general rule, you don't want the audience to be able to fill in
your punchline for you. You want to surprise them, because they
won't appreciate the humor if it's predictable. But audience participa¬
tion—mentally engaging the audience—can also be an excellent tech¬
nique for increasing appreciation. If you can create a strong, fresh,
paired-element joke, it may not be necessary to state the second part
of the pair if the audience can deduce it from the first. You can flatter
the audience members by letting them complete the thought them¬
selves. Then they will applaud not only your cleverness, but their
The difference between herpes and mono is that you can get
mono from snatching kisses.
Each sentence in a paired-sentence element contains one of two paired
phrases. In a joke format, each sentence is usually attributed to a differ¬
ent person. The final impression is of a snappy comeback—the audience
appreciates the responder's ability to reverse the order of the words and
toss them back in the originator's face.
TELEGRAM FROM PLAY PRODUCER TO GEORGE
BERNARD SHAW: Send manuscript. If good will send check.
SHAW'S REPLY: Send check. If good will send manuscript.
A creditor enclosed a picture of his four-month-old daughter in a
collection letter to a customer, pleading: "This is why I need the
money." The customer replied with a picture of a voluptuous
blonde in a bikini. His note: "This is why I don't have the money."
14 0 Comedy Writing Secrets SHOWTIME
Review your jokes from chapters four and five and rewrite seven to ten
of your favorites as paired phrases or sentences.
Most paired words fall into one of four classifications: synonyms,
homonyms, antonyms, or groupings. No professional humor writer is
without a dictionary of synonyms, antonyms, and homonyms.
Synonyms are different words that share a meaning (horses sweat, gen
tlemen perspire, ladies glow). Synonyms are popular word pairings.
There are so many words in the language that have a similar meaning
that there are countless double entendre opportunities. One simple
technique for pairing synonyms is to express an idea in one line or
phrase, then include in the second line or phrase a synonym for a key
word in the first. But the synonym should evoke a different and unex
pected meaning of the key word in the first phrase.
SHOE SALESMAN: Don't worry about the shoes.
WOMAN: Then don't worry about the check. It'll bounce.
In the example above, the paired words are stretch and bounce. Although
stretch and bounce aren't strict synonyms, their close relationship (some
thing that can stretch may be likely to bounce) allows them to work
together in a play on words.
In each of the following examples, the second phrase features a highly
exaggerated synonym for a key word in the first phrase.
The Harmony of Paired Elements 141 She wasn't just throwing herself at him. It was more like taking
He only acts mean. But down deep in his heart, he's thoroughly rotten.
The paired synonym take-off, like any take-off, begins with a cliché or
standard expression and includes a synonym with the unexpected insight
in the punchline.
I love mankind. It's people I can't stand.
—Charles M. Schulz
Redneck against women's lib: I told my wife to stick to her wash
ing, ironing, sewing, cooking, and cleaning. No wife of mine is
going to go to work!
Homonyms are words that sound the same but are spelled differently or
have a different meaning (see the full discussion of homonyms in chap
ter four). Our language is rich with words that are pronounced alike.
Take gene, for instance. Gene can be a scientific term or a man's name,
but when spoken, it can sound like pants made of denim (jeans) or a
woman's name (Jean).
One DNA molecule to another: Those genes make me look fat.
License plate of sheep rancher: EWEHAUL.
She was a girl who preferred men to liquor.
Ad for telephone system: From high tech to hi, Mom.
While synonyms are words or phrases that share the same meaning,
antonyms are words or expressions that mean the opposite of each
other: hot vs. cold, tall vs. short. Paired antonyms generate humor
because they are the simplest form of a reverse. The first word of the
phrase starts you in one direction; the antonym flips you in the oppo
site. When Saturday Night Live was having a bad season, critics were
quick to dub it Saturday Night Dead.
14 2 Comedy Writing Secrets There are good and bad politicians in the government: Some are
trying to clean it up; some are trying to clean it out.
Young boy to friend: If I'm too noisy they give me a spanking. If
I'm too quiet, they take my temperature.
The use of antonym pairs is compatible with humor based on double
entendres and puns. Since laughter frequently arises from the apprecia¬
tion of clever word play, even antonym non sequiturs can get laughs.
Let's get out of these wet clothes and into a dry martini.
It's no wonder foreigners are confused by our language. Here a
slim chance and a fat chance mean the same thing.
Three most frequently used antonym pairs are (a) good and bad, (b) right
and wrong, and (c) good and lousy.
FATHER TO PRETEEN DAUGHTER: "There are two words
I want you to stop using. One is swell and the other is lousy.
DAUGHTER: "Sure, Dad, now what are the two words?"
Your manuscript is both good and original, but the part that is
good is not original and the part that is original is not good.
Antonyms can exist as two words that mean the opposite of each other
(hot vs. cold), or one word can form its own antonym by the addition of
a prefix such as un- or in- (sensitive vs. insensitive). There are hundreds
of words that become their own antonyms just by the addition of a
prefix—uninteresting is the antonym of interesting, and impatience is
the opposite of patience.
I left journalism because I met too many interesting people at an
The Harmony of Paired Elements 143 The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreason¬
able man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself.
Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.
—George Bernard Shaw
Brainstorming Paired Antonyms
The first step of brainstorming humor is association, as discussed in
chapter six. When brainstorming antonyms, you must dredge up every
related combination. For example, when you think of the antonyms
right and left, you think of the directions right and left, and perhaps the
political perspectives of the right and the left. But good humorists
would notice that the word right is also an antonym to the word wrong.
Some of the most sophisticated (and appreciated) humor combines the
meaning of a word from one antonym pair with the meaning of a word
from another antonym pair.
Most bankers recommend that you wait until you've completely paid
for the right running shoe before you plunge in and buy the left.
In comedy, antonym pairs need not fit the dictionary definition of an
antonym perfectly. As long as the suggestion of an opposite is inferred,
the humor can work.
This administration brags that it has developed a new balance of
trade: Young people go south of the border to buy drugs and sen¬
ior citizens go north of the border to buy drugs.
A new patient was asked by his doctor to list all the prescriptions
he was taking. The doctor looked at the long list of different med¬
ications and said, "You know, Bill, you look better in person than
you do on paper."
It is important, however, not to mix up proper antonym combinations.
The antonym of born is died and the opposite of started is finished. You
shouldn't combine born wit h finished or started with died.
14 4 Comedy Writing Secrets ACCEPTABLE
In this nightclub, a number of famous comics were born—and
tonight, a number just died.
A number of famous comics started here—and tonight, a number
just finished here.
A number of famous comics started here—and tonight, a number
just died here.
It is sometimes possible to include two or more antonyms in the same bit.
Hard work pays off in the future. Laziness pays off now.
Another type of word play relies on the grouping of two or more words
loosely associated with the same topic. These words don't have to be
synonyms, antonyms, or homonyms.
A political candidate must learn not only to stand on a platform,
but also to sit on the fence and lie on the spot.
I come from out west, where men are men and women are
women, and you can't ask for a better setup than that.
I come from New York, where men are men—and women are
Use a thesaurus to create a list of antonyms for the two most frequently
used antonym pairs: good and bad, and right and wrong. Write
The Harmony of Faired Elements 145 seven to ten reverses in which the antonyms are used as
Numbers and figures can also be paired to humorous effect. As with any
joke, save the surprise number or figure for the very end of the joke, just
as if it were a word.
The sheriff said to the outlaw, "I'll give you a fair chance. We'll
step off ten paces and you fire at the count of three." The men
pace off, the sheriff shouts, "One, two"—and then he turns and
fires. The dying outlaw says, "I thought you said to fire on three."
The sheriff said, "That was your number. Mine was two."
Professional humor writers often use numbers in sequences. The
progression of a numerical sequence should be logical and rhythmic,
and sequences should always progress in one direction only: up
SON: Dad, can I be your caddy?
FATHER: Son, a caddy has to be old enough to keep score.
SON: I can keep score.
FATHER: Okay, if I got six on the first hole, seven on the second
hole, eight on the third hole, and nine on the fourth hole, what
would my total score be?
FATHER: Okay, son, you're my caddy.
Numbers Progressing Up
MC AT OLD-AGE HOME: "We're going to give a prize to the old
est person here."
FIRST VOICE: I'm 63.
SECOND VOICE: I'm 73.
14 6 Comedy Writing Secrets THIRD VOICE: I'm 83.
FOURTH VOICE: I'm dead!
There are still things you can get for a dollar—like nickels, dimes,
Numbers Progressing Down
Professor to class: Don't be afraid of rewrites. Just remember the
first draft of Dickens' book was called A Tale of Ten Cities. The sec
ond draft was called A Tale of Nine Cities, then it was Eight, then it
was Seven. ...
The following example not only repeats number pairs, it repeats phrases—
with a reversal of the numbers in the second phrase of the pair.
To have twenty lovers in one year is easy. To have one lover for
twenty years is difficult.
—Zsa Zsa Gabor
The example below repeats the number five and establishes a pattern
The kind of humor I like makes me laugh hard for five seconds and
think hard for five minutes.
APHORISMS AND PAIRINGS:
PLEASE WAIT TO BE SEEDED
Aphorisms are concise expressions of a bit of truth or wisdom.
Following a misfortune, we have certain options. We can turn pessimistic
and curse bad luck, or we can be optimistic and consider that fate has
provided a valuable learning experience. (The comic writer is trained by
necessity to see humor through woes-colored glasses.) These two
The Harmony of Paired Elements 147 options form the basis for one type of aphorism—a humorous contrast
between the point of view of a pessimist and that of an optimist. This
type of aphorism makes good use of paired elements. Let's imagine how
you might go about creating such an aphorism. You can start with a built-
in antonym pairing: optimist vs. pessimist. Your first effort might read
something like this.
A pessimist curses fate; an optimist looks for benefits from every
There is some wisdom in that line, but nothing particularly marketable.
So, you try again, using some repetitive adjectives and subjects.
An optimist sees benefit in every disaster; a pessimist sees recur
rence in every disaster.
The word disaster is repeated, and benefit has been contrasted
with recurrence. Still nowhere, but certain possibilities are starting
to appear. The contrast of benefit and disaster is stronger than the
contrast of benefit and recurrence. This could make for good word-
reversal opportunities. However, the word disaster seems too exagger
ated for this problem. Perhaps calamity, one peg down, might be
An optimist sees a benefit in every calamity; a pessimist sees a
calamity in every benefit.
There's something wrong with the sound and connotation of benefit.
Opportunity could work, but not every decision is an opportunity.
You might try the word test before settling on challenge. That
An optimist sees a challenge in every calamity. A pessimist sees a
calamity in every challenge.
The result is a set of paired phrases and a set of paired antonyms. It's
good writing, and it's good advice, too!
14 8 Comedy Writing Secrets SHOWTIME
Paired elements are another example of how humor is written back
wards—joke-first! And whichever medium is used for humor (printed
word, spoken word, cartoons, etc.), writers find paired elements increase
The work will get funny, and the funny will get work.
Whether you're working with paired elements or any of the previously
discussed techniques, humor writing requires daily practice. The follow
ing exercises will help fuel your comic imagination. (Additional exercises
are included in chapter nineteen.)
Write a funny ...
• set of new malaprops and Tom Swifties
• list of new college degree programs
• neighborhood watch guide
• online personal ad
• etiquette guideline for using a cell phone
• list of new Starbucks coffee offerings
• review of a local restaurant, bar, or convenience store
• set of announcements for a K—12 PA system
• e-mail soliciting money for a bogus charity
The Harmony of Paired Elements 149 CHAPTER 9
and Bewildered: Triples
I can't think of anything worse after a night of drinking than wak
ing up next to someone and not being able to remember their
name, or how you met, or why they're dead.
Every joke structure has its devotees, but the triple is one format that all
humorists use repeatedly. Featuring a grouping of three examples or a
sequence of three actions, comments, or categories, the triple increases
tension with its longer buildup.
I celebrated Thanksgiving in an old-fashioned way. I invited every
one in my neighborhood to my house, we had an enormous feast,
and then I killed them and took their land.
Triples are one of the most common humor formulas. They have been used
for so many years in the "There was a priest, a minister, and a rabbi..." for
mat that, when three such clergymen actually did walk into a bar, the bar
tender asked, "Is this some kind of a joke?"
The triple formula uses hostility, exaggeration, a buildup of
tension, and a surprise ending that inflates the payoff. Most triples are
short—two or three sentences—but longer triples can work if done
correctly. The opening lines are logical setups and the final line is the
A woman recently had a baby from an embryo that had been
frozen for seven years. She said, "I had no idea if I was having a
little boy, a little girl, or fish sticks."
15 0 Comedy Writing Secrets At eighty-eight, the king of popcorn, Orville Redenbacher, passed
away. His family is mired in an ugly dispute over whether to cre
mate, microwave, or air-pop him.
If peanut oil comes from peanuts, and olive oil comes from olives,
where does baby oil come from?
Neurotics build castles in the air, psychotics live in them. My
mother cleans them.
The only really good place to buy lumber is at a store where the
lumber has already been cut and attached together in the form of
furniture, finished, and put inside boxes.
Reverse Construction: The Power of Threes
The mystical power of three has been known and used for centuries. The
Bible is filled with triple designations: three wise men, the Trinity, and the
Hebrew forefathers: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Triple elements occur in
our most powerful historical literature: Thomas Jefferson wrote "Life, lib
erty, and the pursuit of happiness," and one of Abraham Lincoln's most-
quoted phrases is "Of the people, for the people, by the people." Three
may be an odd number in math, but its even da-da-Ta da-da-Ta da-da-Ta
cadence makes it the most important number in comedy. It's not a coinci
dence that we treasure Goldilocks
and the three bears, the three blind
mice, the three little pigs, the three
musketeers, and the Three Stooges.
People in the theater are so superstitious
about numbers that actors will knock on
stage doors three times and only three
times. And that's the truth, the whole
truth, and nothing but the truth.
Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered: Triples 151 Bart, a woman is like a beer. They look good, they smell good, and
you'd step over your own mother just to get one!
According to a comedic theory developed by author William Lang, there
are only three parts to most comedic bits. We call these three elements
humor's SAP test.
S = Setup (preparation)
A = Anticipation (triple)
P = Punchline (story payoff)
Notice how SAP fits these examples.
S = We were Pentecostal.
A = When I was growing up we couldn't go to movies, we
couldn't listen to rock music, we couldn't wear makeup.
P = That's just a lightbulb and a car away from being Amish.
S = My wife and I don't get along.
A = I take my meals separately, I take a separate vacation,
and I sleep in a separate bedroom.
P = I'm doing everything I can to keep this marriage together.
It's possible, of course, to abbreviate the SAP formula by combining two
of the elements in one sentence. In the following example, the third part
of the triple also includes the punchline.
When you die there's a light at the end of the tunnel. When my
father dies, he'll see the light, make his way toward it, and then
flip it off to save electricity.
Notice how the triple sequence in the next example sets up the value of
the last line.
If you want to be seen—stand up!
15 2 Comedy Writing Secrets If you want to be heard—speak up!
If you want to be appreciated—shut up!
The joke wouldn't be as effective as a series of two. When we leave off
the first line, the triple reads:
If you want to be heard—speak up!
If you want to be appreciated—shut up!
The humor is still there, but the punch is softer without the tension
buildup of the triple. If you were to add more lines to this joke, you
would overstretch the sequence and make the audience impatient to
get to the punchline.
If you want to be involved—show up!
If you want to be seen—stand up!
If you want to be heard—speak up!
If you want to be important—pay up!
If you want to be appreciated—shut up!
There's no reason to give five examples when three accomplishes all the
preparation that's needed.
The final element of SAP humor can include a reverse to make it
I was told to be accurate, be brief, and then be seated. So I prom
ise I shall be brief as possible—no matter how long it takes me.
The trilogy is not a commandment; it's a formula (which means it can be
taught in schools). Although most series-based jokes are most effective
when they contain three elements, the number of introductory setups in
the series can be two, three, four, or as many as you wish—whatever it
takes to build anticipation and a climax.
A Washington, D.C., police chief once claimed he had broken down
crime in the Capitol into four categories: murder, assault, robbery,
and acts of Congress.
Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered: Triples 153 Comic Bill Dana once explained why a ranch with eleven names (Bar
Nine, Circle Z, Rocking O, Flying W, Lazy R, Crazy Eight, Bar Seven,
Happy Tow, Flying Nun, Lazy Six, and Bar Five) had no cattle: because
none could make it through branding. Erma Bombeck preferred to use
four, five, and sometimes six in a series. The length of a series is not
what's critical—it's the anticipation created by the series.
I called my friend Bernie in Miami and asked how he was feeling.
"Not well," he said. "I've got cataracts in both eyes, my hear
ing is almost totally gone, my memory is so bad I can't remember
where I put anything, and my hands shake all the time."
"That's terrible," I said. "Any good news?"
"Yes," he said, "I still have my Florida driver's license."
It's no surprise that there are three rules specifically geared to the num
ber three. Tension is important in humor structure, and a triple helps
build tension, but be wary of too much of a good thing.
1. Never use more than three jokes about one subject in a monologue.
2. Three minutes is the ideal length for a skit.
3. Don't exceed three themes in an article.
The punchline to the traditional lightbulb joke (How many s
does it take to change a lightbulb?) often consists of a triple. Again, the
first and second answers are only setups for the third. Here are some
examples based on state stereotypes.
How many Louisianans does it take to change a lightbulb?
Three: one to hold the ladder, one to screw in the bulb, and
one to bribe officials for the permit.
How many Virginians?
Three: one to hold the ladder, one to screw in the bulb, and
15 4 Comedy Writing Secrets one highly refined lady to remark how much lovelier the
old bulb was.
How many Oregonians?
Forty-two: one to hold the ladder, one to screw in the bulb,
and forty to draft the environmental impact statement.
Use a triple to write a lightbulb joke for each of the following professions.
Compare your punch lines to the ones listed at the end of the chapter.
How many politicians does it take to change a lightbulb?
How many lawyers?
How many doctors?
How many L.A. cops?
How many auto mechanics?
TH E ANECDOTAL TRIPLE
An anecdote, as you know from chapter seven, is a short story told in the
fewest possible words. That's why, even in a long triple, you need to give
just enough information to set up the payoff line.
A minister comes home to his apartment early and finds his wife
nude in bed and the room filled with cigar smoke. He looks down
from his tenth-story window and sees a man smoking a big cigar
just leaving the building. Enraged, he picks up his refrigerator and
throws it out the window, killing the man instantly.
"Why did you do that?" someone yelled from the street. "
'You killed my priest."
The minister was so distraught that he threw himself
out of the window.
A few moments later, three men—a priest, a minister, and a
rabbi—approach heaven's gate and an angel asks each how he died.
"I don't know," says the priest, "except suddenly a refrigerator
smashed me into the ground."
Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered: Triples 155 The minister says, "I threw it. But I was so filled with remorse, I
jumped out of the window and killed myself."
"What about you, rabbi?" asks the angel.
"You got me. All I know was I was minding my own business,
sitting in a refrigerator..."
Humor takes even more literary effort than the average editorial story
because the climax must be powerful enough to cause an immediate
physical reaction in the audience. Your goal is to tell an anecdote in the
fewest possible words. But sometimes cutting words can lessen the
effect of a joke. Consider the following example.
Three sons, with their wives, were celebrating their parents' fiftieth
anniversary. At the dinner, the first son stood up and said, "Dad. Mom.
I'd have brought you a present, but Suzy and I spent the summer in
Europe, so we're kinda broke, but we do wish you the very best."
The second son said, "My dear parents, I, too, would have
brought a present, but I just bought Nancy a diamond necklace,
and we're short right now."
And the third said, "Folks, we purchased a powerboat, which
left us strapped, but good health and love for years to come."
"That's okay, sons," said the father. "I know how it feels to be
broke. I never told you this, but when your mother and I decided
to get married fifty years ago, we didn't even have the money for
a license, so we never had a ceremony."
One of the sons burst out, "My god, Dad. You know what
that makes us?"
"Yes, I do," said the father, "and cheap ones, too!"
You can tell the same story without a triple in half the words.
A son attends a fiftieth anniversary dinner for his parents. He
apologizes that, because of personal luxury expenses, he couldn't
afford a present. The father sympathizes, "We know how it is.
When Mother and I were courting, we were so poor we couldn't
afford a license, so we never got married."
15 6 Comedy Writing Secrets "My god," says the son, "do you know what that makes me?"
"Yes," says the dad, "and a cheap one, too! "
The elimination of the triple decreased the suspense and minimized the
buildup of hostility that makes the father's retort so funny. It isn't that
one example isn't funny; it's just that ridiculing three is more pleasurable.
The third element in a triple can also be customized to fit a specific event.
Some humorists are blessed with the ability to paint
a picture with words, affording the listener or read
er the chance to visualize the joke. For example, the
success of Garrison Keillor's mythical Lake Wobegon
adventures is in large part due to his colorful phrasing
and vivid references. Here are the opening lines to
Keillor's book Wobegon Boy.
I am a cheerful man, even in the dark, and it's all thanks to a
good Lutheran mother. When I was a boy, if I came around
looking glum and mopey, she said, "What's the matter? Did the
dog pee on your cinnamon toast?" And the thought of our old
black mutt raising his hind leg in the pas de dog and peeing on
my toast made me giggle.
Humor provides the writer with great latitude to embellish—even exag
gerate—with imagery. Consider the following triple.
Based on what you know about him, what do you think Abraham
Lincoln would be doing if he were alive today? One: Writing his
memoirs of the Civil War. Two: Advising the President. Or three:
Desperately clawing at the inside of his coffin.
The joke works only because of the imagery in the final line, "Desperately
clawing at the inside of his coffin." If a general phrase were used, such
Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered: Triples 157 as "Trying to get out of his coffin," the joke would be less effective. The
colorful language encourages the audience to visualize the joke.
The lack of imagery in many play-on-word (POW) jokes explains why
the response to them is often less than enthusiastic. Most POW humor
depends entirely on language subtleties to produce surprise, and only
half of the brain—the left hemisphere—experiences the joke. When
imagery is incorporated into a joke, both hemispheres are stimulated,
and the result is full-brain humor.
One of the ways to enhance the visual nature of humor is by
specificity. For example, the term candy bar is less likely to conjure up
a visual cue than a specific reference, such as a Snickers bar. The
challenge for comedy writers is to avoid general, abstract phrases and
use concrete descriptions that stimulate the senses.
The following exercises will punch up the imagery in your writing.
1. Rewrite each of the following phrases using specificity.
grab some food
read a book
drive a car
2. Replace general words or phrases in your previous jokes with specific,
3. When you record everyday events in your humor diary, use the most
vivid, colorful, and graphic descriptions.
15 8 Comedy Writing Secrets TRIPLE VARIATIONS
A common variation on the SAP formula is to set up a joke with a triple—
in other words, to include the triple not in the A (anticipation) part of the
formula, but in the first P (preparation). The second element of the joke
then refers to something unrelated to the triple. Finally, in the punchline,
the answer to the question references the triple in the setup. Once you
learn this formula, the variations multiply.
WAITRESS, IN HOARSE VOICE: For dessert, we got ice cream -
vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry.
CUSTOMER: You got laryngitis?
WAITRESS: No, just vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry.
Triples can easily be combined with other joke formats. For example,
you can start with a triple and add a take-off.
The thing about being a professor is that if you can make just one
student successful, if you can make just one student see the light,
if you can make just one ready for the outside world, then you're
still stuck with nineteen failures.
The thing about being a humorist is that if you only get one laugh,
if you only get one smile, if you can make only one person happy,
then you know your act stinks!
Another very popular combination of techniques is to start with a triple,
then switch to a reverse. The reverse can supplement or replace the third
element in the triple.
More than any time in history, mankind faces a crossroads.
One path leads to despair and utter helplessness, the other
to total extinction. Let us pray that we have the wisdom to
Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered: Triples 159 Younger men are all right! They also come too quick and go to
sleep right after, but they can do it every goddamn night.
I'd like to introduce a man with a lot of charm, talent, and wit.
Unfortunately, he couldn't be here tonight, so instead ...
Any of you see Survivor on TV last night? Talk about plot, drama,
great acting—it had none of those things.
I had a nightmare I was trapped in an elevator with Yanni, Kenny
G., and Michael Bolton ... and I had a gun with only one bullet.
My wife's family consisted of three brothers and a dog: Tom, Dick,
Harry, and Rover. Harry was the dog.
You can also combine a triple with another triple.
My rules for dating: I don't want to hear about your car, I don't
want to hear about your ex-girlfriend, I don't want to hear about
your boring-ass job. The most romantic thing you can do is relax,
buy me drinks, and shut the hell up.
Triples can also be used to enhance a mild piece of humor. Topping the
first bit of humor with two additional comments encourages the audience
to laugh instead of thinking Is that all there was to it?
There are three ways to be ruined in this world. First is by sex, the
second is by gambling, and the third is by telling jokes. Sex is the
most fun, gambling is the most exciting, and being a comedian is
Triples can also be used in physical humor. Bob Nelson does a visual
triple during his monologue about college football players being inter
viewed on camera He places two balloons under an oversized sweater to
indicate shoulder pads. But as he is putting them under the sweater he
16 0 Comedy Writing Secrets fills the time with a visual triple. He first pushes the two balloons under
neath from the bottom and leaves them momentarily side-by-side. "Wanna
see my grandmother?" he asks while the balloons are in a low position.
Then he moves the balloons midway up the sweater and says, "This is
what my dream girl looks like." Then he moves the two balloons, one to
each side of the sweater, and says, "My dream girl lying down." Finally, he
puts them in the shoulder-pad position for his football segment.
This is called a joke on the way to a joke because the triple is used to
enhance a dead moment while changing props. Except in intentional
pauses, silence is a comic's deadly enemy.
Like a joke in any other format, a triple must be concluded with an auda
cious and surprising climax. Write an unexpected conclusion for each of
the following jokes. Compare your answers to the pros' versions on the
Someone did a study of the three most-often-heard phrases in
New York City. One is "Hey, taxi." Two is "What train do I take
to get to Bloomingdale's?" And three is ...
I like Florida; everything is in the eighties: the temperature, the
ages, and ...
Men should be like Kleenex: soft, strong, and ...
Making love to a woman is like buying real estate ...
THE ANSWER MAN
Here are some possible punchlines for the lightbulb jokes on page 155
How many politicians does it take to change a lightbulb?
Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered: Triples 161 Thirty-six: Two to sponsor the bill, thirty-three to constitute
a quorum, and one to change it.
How many lawyers?
Three: One to change it, one to call the electrician who
wired the house, and one to sue the power company for
causing the surge that made the bulb burn out.
How many doctors?
Three: One to find a bulb specialist, one to find a bulb instal
lation specialist, and one to bill Medicare.
How many L.A. cops?
Six: One to screw in a new bulb, four to beat the crap out of
the old one, and one to videotape the scene.
How many auto mechanics?
Six: One to give you an estimate, one to force it with a
hammer, and four to go out for more bulbs.
Here are the professionals' conclusions for the triples on page 161.
Someone did a study of the three most-often-heard phrases in
New York City. One is "Hey, taxi." Two is "What train do I take
to get to Bloomingdale's?" And three is "Don't worry. It's only a
I like Florida; everything is in the eighties: the temperature, the
ages, and the IQs.
Men should be like Kleenex: soft, strong and disposable.
Making love to a woman is like buying real estate: location,
16 2 Comedy Writing Secrets CHAPTER 10
Realism, Exaggeration, and
When a thing is funny, search it for a hidden truth.
—George Bernard Shaw
Humor only appears to be free-form. To the trained ear,
it's predictable because it's structured. Nowhere is this
structure more evident than in the interaction of realism
and exaggeration, two of the six ingredients in the THREES for
mula (target, hostility, realism, exaggeration, emotion, surprise).
In humor, they balance each other like equal weights on a scale.
Sometimes one side of the scale may tip, but the variation is
always small—and that's no exaggeration.
My dad's pants kept creeping up on him. By
sixty-five he was just a pair of pants and a head.
In the preceding joke, the realistic element is the rising waistband of
the father's pants. The exaggeration is the waistband reaching the
father's head. Realism is essential in order for the audience share hos
tility toward a common target. On the other side of the scale, facts and
conclusions are exaggerated to build tension and surprise. This is a
standard theatrical device, a dramatic license that portrays objects and
events as larger than life.
MAKE IT REAL
Realism was a big reason for the success of such classic sitcoms as All
in the Family and The Cosby Show. "My one rule is to be true, rather
than funny," said Bill Cosby. The more realistic we make the humor piece
seem, the more our audience identifies with it.
Realism, Exaggeration, and Understatement 163 My way of joking is to tell the truth. It is the funniest joke
in the world.
—George Bernard Shaw
Truth (realism) involves the audience. This is why people want to know
the latest news. (The most influential words in advertising are free, sale,
and new.) We all care more about current events when they affect us
directly. The key is remembering that a premise must be true and inter
esting to we, the audience, not you, the writer. Remember how bored
you get when people dwell at length on their recent business or domestic
problems. The classic line is:
He's the kind of bore who, when you meet him on the street and
say, "How are you?" he stops and tells you.
Fifty percent of the time people don't care about your problems, and the
other fifty percent of the time they're glad you're getting what you deserve.
You want to avoid having the audience react this way to your jokes.
A customer in a bar is talking to the man seated next to him.
"Strange, isn't it? Normally, I'm a very caring person, but in your
case, for some reason, I don't give a damn."
The importance of realism might seem to run counter to our understand
ing that humor is fictional. But humor must contain some element of truth
if people are to care. If everyone knows from the beginning of a joke that
"any resemblance to anyone living or dead is purely coincidental," they
won't care, and they won't laugh.
I know a man who teethed on a set of alphabet blocks when he
was a baby. He finally tired of them when he was fifteen.
This story is simple enough. We have some realism: Babies do teethe on
building blocks. We have exaggeration with the age fifteen. We smile at
the insult, but there's no big laugh, because nobody cares about "a man."
Yet, if we could find someone whose public reputation indicates limit
ed intellectual abilities, and that person is an authority figure or some
celebrity who irritates us, then naming that person adds realism and
16 4 Comedy Writing Secrets gives the audience something that focuses their laughter. Remember that
good humor includes a strong target for the audience's hostility.
Sylvester Stallone's mother reported he learned to read by
teething on a set of alphabet blocks, and he's been swallowing
his letters ever since.
We are so influenced by the hyperbole of media, theater, and advertising,
we fall into the habit of believing that certain special events and celebri
ties are extraordinary. This inflated posturing by publicity specialists is
the balloon humorists aim to prick.
THE STRETCH-BAND THEORY
The British believe that the underclass overstates and the upper class
understates. Humor writers are classless; they use both understatement
and overstatement. Exaggeration is the Silly Putty of humor writing.
You start with a realistic scenario, then bend and distort it for comic
effect. Exaggeration is one of the easiest and most effective comedic
tools, and it is used in all types of humor: Cartoonists magnify physical
features, impressionists exaggerate speech mannerism, and comedians
Effective humor is truth-based, so the key to maximizing comedic
potential is striking a balance between realism and exaggeration. There
can be too much distortion. The audience must understand the connec
tion between the truth and the exaggeration.
If I've told you once, I've told you a thousand times:
Humor comes out of the unexpected: no surprise, no laugh. In a triple, as
discussed in chapter nine, the first two lines are frequently straight lines;
this is the realistic element. The third line is the surprise twist—logically
related to the first two lines, but unexpected and exaggerated. Realism is
the setup, while exaggeration is the joke. "Get your facts first," wrote
Mark Twain, "and then you can distort them as much as you please."
Realism, Exaggeration, and Understatement 165 Humor is like a rubber band; the more it can be stretched, the more
useful it is. The process of refining the relationship between exaggera
tion and realism in humor can be related to stretching a rubber band.
Imagine that the unstretched band is the realism, and exaggeration
stretches the band.
When the rubber band is stretched to capacity, several things hap
pen at once.
1. Stretching alters the shape of the band; exaggeration alters the per
ception of reality.
2. The rubber band can be stretched a little (understatement) or a lot
3. Just as tension increases in a rubber band when it is stretched, exag
geration increases tension in the audience—up to the breaking point.
4. When you pluck a rubber band, it makes a sound. The pitch of this
sound gets higher as you stretch the rubber band further. This sound
can be compared to emotion in an audience. The more you stretch
the rubber band, the higher the level of emotion in the audience.
16 6 Comedy Writing Secrets Finding the proper balance between realism and exaggeration is the
ultimate test of a comedy writer's skill. Humor only comes when the
exaggeration is logical. Simply being ludicrous or audacious is not a
skill. It's amateur.
The humor writer starts with realism, then tries to determine how far
in any direction the truth can be exaggerated without destroying credibil
ity. One way to do this is to create possibilities under the headings good,
better, and best. A story about a prisoner who calls his companion a cell
mate is good, but calling him a roommate is better, and calling him a
suite-mate is the best of all.
Realism is frequently funniest when it's exaggerated to the most
extreme possibility. In math, 1 + 1 = 2. In humor, 1 + 1 = 11. Exaggeration
can work by either overstatement (hyperbole) or understatement. Here
are examples of both.
CEO to members of the board: There you have it, gentlemen.
The upside potential is tremendous, but the downside risk is jail.
The scarecrow scared the crows so badly that they brought back
the corn they had stolen two years before.
I have my standards. They may be low, but I have them.
I have low self-esteem. When I'm in bed with someone, I fantasize
that I'm someone else.
How far can you go with exaggeration? Generally, the more your punchline
exaggerates the introductory realism, the better the result.
I drink to make other people interest me.
—George Jean Nathan
Realism, Exaggeration, and Understatement 167 I'm Jewish. I don't work out. If God had wanted us to bend over,
He would have put diamonds on the floor.
There's nothing random about the random search at the airport. You
go to the gate and they're standing there with a Sherwin-Williams
paint chart. If your ass is darker than khaki, you're getting searched.
Exaggeration seems obvious, but it isn't easy. Many of today's novice
stand-up comedians have trouble with it. They'll start with some realistic
premise like the way women dress, picking up men in a singles bar, out
smarting the police, or advertising slogans, but then they'll shift into fifth
gear in a wild display of ludicrous fantasy that's not well connected to
the initial premise. Their material has a success rate of only about 20 or
25 percent because they make the same mistake repeatedly: They disrupt
the equal balance of realism and exaggeration.
THE PERFECT PUNCH
Three criteria determine whether a premise properly sets up the punch
line: truth, emotion, and explicitness. The three factors form a memorable
acronym, TEE. A solid premise will TEE-up a joke by containing the fol
T = TRUTH: The most effective humor is reality-based,
genuine, and true. If a setup is exaggerated, insin
cere, or untrue, then you lose the ability to bend
reality to produce the surprise punchline.
E = EMOTION: A solid setup includes a factual
statement, opinion, or observation with a stat
ed or implied emotion. The emotion is usually anger or hostility
driven by the stupidity, absurdity, or weirdness of the premise.
E = EXPLICITNESS: An effective premise is specific and readily under
stood by others.
16 8 Comedy Writing Secrets The following exercises will help you identify targets with broad appeal,
and premises that TEE-up the punchline.
• Previously, you identified the ways in which each of your targets
causes anger, frustration, or irritation. Review each statement to
determine if it is reality-based, genuine, and true. If a statement is
exaggerated, insincere, or untrue, then either rewrite the premise or
• For each statement that passed the truth test, determine whether
the premise is specific and clear. Also, consider whether the prem
ise will appeal to others. Rewrite as needed.
• At this point, you'll have a list of premises that can TEE-up jokes. In
the upcoming chapters, we'll explain how to fit your premises into
various joke formulas.
UNREALISTIC VS. REALISTIC HUMOR
If there's anything instinctive about humor writing, it's being able to
determine the right balance of reality and distortion. It's the same
instinct news editors use daily to determine what is newsworthy. You
have to know it when you see it.
In show business, the key word is honesty. And once you've
learned to fake that, you're in.
Many believe that failed humor is most often the result of too
much exaggeration. That isn't true. Most often, it results from too
Here's an example of humor that's unrealistic. It doesn't mean it's not
funny. It does mean the performer has to work harder than if she had
used more realism.
Tommy came home from school very dejected. "I had an awful
day," he told his mother. "I couldn't remember an answer and it
Realism, Exaggeration, and Understatement 169 "Forgetting one answer is nothing to be embarrassed about,"
soothed his mother.
And the boy said, "During roll call?"
The following examples are more realistic.
"They threw me out of my hotel in Fort Lauderdale this spring
break for pissing in the pool."
"How could they do that? Lots of kids piss in the pool."
"From the fourteenth floor?"
The bushman remarked, "I'd like to get a new boomerang, but I
can't get rid of the old one."
You are not drunk if you lie on the floor without holding on.
Even my daughter doesn't give me any respect. I put her to bed
and tried to kiss her and she said, "Not tonight, Daddy, I've got a
Turning Sense Into Nonsense
Turning realism into exaggeration is easier to understand if we think of it
as a transition from sense to nonsense. Exaggeration is embellishing that
which you've seen or heard. It's almost instinctive. We learned as chil
dren that we could get attention by exaggerating. We also learned we
could get in a lot of trouble. But if we told stories in the form of jokes,
we not only got away with it, we got appreciative laughter.
In grade school, I was such a hit with my exaggerated mimicking
and clowning that the teacher was charging a four-dollar cover
and a two-drink minimum.
Every installment of I Love Lucy began with a logical premise, such as
Lucy's desire to be a singer in Ricky's band, or her suspicions he might be
17 0 Comedy Writing Secrets philandering. Only after a plausible foundation had been established was
the element of absurdity introduced. Then exaggeration continued to
inflate the plot until the inevitable slapstick climax.
Since comedy encourages the audience to suspend disbelief,
humorists can take advantage of every opportunity to stretch the truth.
In other circumstances, unmitigated exaggeration would be castigated
as lying. In humor, clever exaggeration guarantees laughter.
Jeff Foxworthy's signature line, You might be a redneck if... is always
followed by an exaggerated punchline.
You might be a redneck if your front porch collapses and four
dogs get killed.
You might be a redneck if you think the last words to The Star-
Spangled Banner are "Gentlemen, start your engines."
You should be able to provide the exaggerated last words of the following
possible conclusions to the setup You might be a redneck if... Compare
your efforts with Foxworthy's at the end of the chapter.
You might be a redneck if ...
... you think watching professional wrestling is ...
... you go to your family reunions looking for...
... on Thanksgiving Day you have to decide ...
... your child's first words were ...
... you've ever