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Joke-writing

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Charles Demers

on 9 November 2015

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Transcript of Joke-writing

Comic sensibility &Joke-writing
Why Comedy? And: comedy's basic unit
Here is Jerry Seinfeld, talking about Pop Tarts:
And here's how he got there...
What is a joke? The question has been examined from many angles:
Psychologically:
For Freud, jokes were dream-like; rooted in the subconscious & sublimated; aggressive
Philosophically:
Kant said that laughter was "tense expectation"... "transformed into nothing"
Cognitively:
De Bono suggested that a joke establishes & subverts a pattern; our pleasure comes from re-ordering the new pattern
(for the record, De Bono thought the Arab-Israeli conflict was due to a lack of zinc in unleavened bread, & could be ameliorated if everyone had some Marmite, so...)
There are myriad biological-evolutionary theories of laughter, some suggesting that it acted as a way to signal to others that a danger was past, or was never there.
Jim Holt cites Max Beerbohm, who wrote in 1920 that laughter, like love, bridges intellectual & physical experience -- albeit in opposite directions.
A successful joke is one that makes people laugh or smile.
But what about the joke as a literary text?
Paul Auster, in an interview with The Paris Review:
“The joke is the purest, most essential form of storytelling. Every word has to count.”
Jokes as folklore (street jokes) vs. Written Material
- authorship unimportant

- templates that get updated

- often relate to ethical or moral themes
- authorship matters; joke often fused with performance/voice of comedian
- liminal literary form somewhere between poetry & prose
In both cases, economy of words, symbolism, rhythm are emphasized.
Spot the literary devices:
- The Moving Detail
- rhythm/cadence
- three reasons for saying "Alcoholic" instead of "drunk"?
Component pieces of a joke:
premise/set-up
punchline/payoff
creates the pattern/expectation
subverts/disrupts/reorders expectation
The shortest joke in the world:
"Pretentious? Moi?"
Units of stand-up comedy:
The Joke:
The Bit:
The Set:
any combination of premise & punchline. May also include a 'tag.'
a selection of related material; also known, unfortunately, as a 'chunk'
the entirety of the comic's performance, from stepping out onstage to leaving it.
FIVE MAIN COMIC ELEMENTS/DEVICES:
INCONGRUITY
IRONY
REVERSAL
TENSION
SURPRISE
(overlapping & interrelated)
2 or more things that don't belong together
What you get isn't what you expected
subversion of status
discomfort with incongruity or offense
shock of recognition, offense, delight in reordering pattern
(Some examples from the world of street jokes -- the memory pill joke, the memorial service, the confession booth.)
THE RULE OF THREE
The "Rule of Three" is important in comedy. Things will often happen in threes in a funny story or joke, because this is the shortest space in which to establish & subvert a pattern.
Comedy can be a "Trojan Horse," which allows us to speak about subjects otherwise too uncomfortable or frightening.
It is a particularly persuasive form of rhetoric, because it forces the listener to share, at least temporarily, one's premise.
"Punching Up"
What is special about comedy as a literary/creative sensibility? What can it do to illuminate the human condition in ways that other approaches can't? What does comedy offer as a way of seeing & sharing?

How can we take comedy "seriously, but not
solemnly?" (Matthew Bevis)

Can't we just say "Because it's funny?"


Sure -- but that's not the whole story.
“Tragedy, like its partner comedy, depends on an acknowledgement of the flawed, botched nature of human life – although in tragedy one has to be hauled through hell to arrive at this recognition, so obdurate and tenacious is human self-delusion. Comedy embraces roughness and imperfection from the outset, and has no illusions about pious ideals. Against such grandiose follies, it pits the lowly, persistent, indestructible stuff of everyday life." - Terry Eagleton, 'After Theory'
“Humour lets us view the folly of the world by affording us the glimpse of another world, by offering what [Peter] Berger calls ‘a signal of transcendence.’ However, in my view, humour does not redeem us from this world, but returns us to it ineluctably by showing that there is no alternative [...] By showing us the folly of the world, humour does not save us from that folly by turning our attention elsewhere [...] but calls on us to face the folly of the world and change the situation in which we find ourselves.” - Simon Critchley, 'On Humour'
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