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Joke Writing

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Dina Del Bucchia

on 10 October 2018

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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:
For Freud, jokes were dream-like; rooted in the subconscious & sublimated; aggressive
Kant said that laughter was "tense expectation"... "transformed into nothing"
De Bono suggested that a joke establishes & subverts a pattern; our pleasure comes from re-ordering the pattern
But what about the joke as a literary text?
Novelist 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, and rhythm are emphasized.
- Word play
- Rhythm/cadence
- Diction
Component pieces of a joke:
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, as a 'chunk'
the entirety of the comic's performance, from stepping out onstage to leaving it.
(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" 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.
Targeting less vulnerable people in jokes, rather than taking cheap shots at people who are already marginalized can become a useful way to talk about power and art - even if we might hesitate to adopt strict rules for what artists can do.
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?
Why are things funny?
What literary elements are present in comedic writing that make them work?

When we analyze comedy it doesn't diminish the humour, it helps us understand it and allows us to find a way to create our own comedic works.
“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'
"Avoiding humiliation is the core of tragedy and comedy."
-John Guare, Playwright

"If something stinks, I say it stinks. But I try to massage it a little and not be as cutting, come behind it with a joke: Hey, I cut you deep, but now let me put a couple of stitches in you."
Wanda Sykes

Humiliation is one element that can be used to create comedy. Comedy can also come from other emotions, like happiness, or anger, or sadness. It can come from the absurd or ridiculous, the reality of existence, something unexpected, something familiar, something unfamiliar, the news, the universe, a personal story, an anecdote, a riff on something, or a parody of something that already exists. It can exist anywhere. Often our own experiences of humiliation or emotional experiences, can produce great comedic writing.
Classic Theories of Humour
Relief Theory-
A relief of tension from our fears. Laughter results from a release of nervous energy.
Superiority Theory -
Amusement in other's misfortune. a.k.a. I'm laughing at you, I am superior to you (schadenfreude).
Incongruity Theory -
When concept and reality are at odds or incongruous, it makes things funny.
Of course all of these are just theories, and there are many more of them. And most of them developed ages ago. To further discuss why something is funny, and what is humour, we have to look at the joke in detail. Even one that seems so silly or even bad. Sometimes the simplest jokes that make us groan are the easiest to examine:

“Two cannibals were eating a clown. One said to the other: 'Does he taste funny to you?’"
-Tommy Cooper
Like the haiku, a one-liner is a short literary form - a concise joke that still can tell a story and be on theme. It should also make people laugh. By paring down an idea you edit the joke to make it better, tighter, more economical.
Super funny, super short jokes
Other examples:
“I think it’s interesting that cologne rhymes with alone.” - Demetri Martin
"I have a lot of growing up to do. I realized that the other day inside my fort.” - Zach Galifianakis
"Never go to bed mad. Stay up and fight.” -Phyllis Diller
"Rice is great if you're really hungry and want to eat two thousand of something.” -Mitch Hedberg
"I'm not well dressed, but my sweatpants were expensive." - Mindy Kaling
- Repetition
In-class exercise
Write your own one-liners
Start with an idea. A one-liner might not start so short. Write down 5 joke ideas. They can be stories from your life, something you saw, etc.
Then pick one and try to hone it. Make sure the set up and punch line are clear. They should be the main part of the joke. No extra flavour. Just the tofu.

- Story structure
It's all about basic joke structure:

Premise/set up ---------------------> Punchline/pay off
So easy anyone can do it! And you will!
With longer jokes you contend with more words and more writing and the idea of being funny becomes more about cultivating and honing your comedic art. You have to consider:

story structure - building ideas into a framework
characterization - developing wants and needs
literary elements - like repetition & metaphor, anything that would be used in any other genre of literary art
larger themes - being conscious of meaning
In-class discussion: The Before
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?
Why are things funny?
What literary elements are present in comedic writing that make them work?

Did you ideas or opinions change over the course of today's class? What have to come away with today that will influence your own work?
In-class discussion: The After
Write a question asking for advice about a humiliating situation you've been in personally. Include specific details of why you found it humiliating. It should only be a few sentences. Then take on the persona of advice-giver and attempt to answer your own question. Use Wayne Koestenbaum's Q&A as your template. And be inspired be the reveals of BestieXBestie.
In-class exercise
When writing it's important to consider this question. Why is it important? Well, you want to know the motivation and reasoning behind the work you're creating. Answering questions is a great starting point for any type of writing. These questions are good ones to answer while writing:

Why do you want to write this piece?
Why is it funny to you?
Why are you the right person to write it?
Why is this the right subject for you to right about?
Watch and listen to the next clip. Write down as many set ups and punchlines as you can from this comedian's set.
What can we learn from the simple structure of the one-liner?
Can they form larger jokes and still maintain their one-liner status?
Questions to think about:
* What are the challenges of the one-liner?

* What does Demetri Martin's short article about short jokes and his stand up teach you about writing in a short form?

* What is appealing about writing short jokes?

* In the Martin's stand up what do you notice about the structure of his jokes?

* How easy is it to predict punchlines with one-liners or short jokes?
How Not To _______

Instead of how to do something, or advice like last week, write a short list on the theme of, "how not to". You could take on an issue (how not to be a politician) or something in our culture (how not to be a reality tv star) but you must write 5 points in your list and it must have a title that starts with "How Not to _____" and you fill in the blank. By virtue of completing this exercise you are in effect writing a short commentary on a subject, in a comedic way. This is worth 2 points and will be marked only if it is complete.
Pop-up Joke #1
Jokes on the page vs. the stage
On stage jokes look more effortless, like a conversation a comedian is having with the audience, or a story they are telling them.

The jokes the comedian tells are first written on the page. When we talk about a bit, we are talking about a longer routine of many jokes that centres around one idea or story.

To help you write jokes it's useful to write down what comedians say while you listen to their set. A good exercise is to try and pick out the bits or longer jokes in a set and copy the down to see how they're constructed.





Can you teach comedy?
There are many people who think you can't teach any creative discipline. Are there people with natural comedic timing or who are wired for comedy? Sure. But through practice, and by that I mean writing and writing and writing, and studying, and by that I mean watching and listening and reading, you can come to understand the comedic principles as you would any other academic or artistic practice.
In a way all of the comedic elements are about disruption. Whether something seems out of place, is a complete surprise, veers away from expectation, involves switching up a dynamic or expectation or is literally something that seems to come out of nowhere there is a disruption in what an audience or reader thinks will happen and what usually happens in a scenario.
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