Lori Hamilton is an award-winning writer, director and actor, and has produced this guide to writing comedy. You can find out more about Lori by reading our interview with her, or by visiting her website: https://thelorihamilton.com/
Principles of Comedy
Surprise! Comedy is often a surprise or a new way of looking at things. We have one idea or expectation of what is going to happen and then BOOM! We get hit with that comedy surprise or punchline.
Punch upwards. Comedy works best when it is making fun of ourselves or someone else/something else that has more power than we do. Even insult comics ALWAYS end their shows by making fun of themselves. No one wants to see you just be mean to people.
Lots of choices. Find what works for you. There are lots of different kinds of comedy – from knock-knock jokes to longer stories to traditional set up and punchline jokes. Whatever you find funny, someone else will too.
Study from those you love. When you’re first writing comedy, and even when you become a professional comedian, always be looking at what others do WELL. It’s so easy to criticize, but it takes a real artist to see and appreciate what someone else is doing well and learn from it.
Be yourself. This is honestly the hardest thing for comedians to achieve. It can take 10 years on the road to “find your voice.” Be you. Whatever is unique to you, whatever intrigues you, whatever makes you angry or curious, write about THAT. The more the audience feels like they know the real you, the more they will like you and the better your work will be!
Joke Writing Checklist
Copy others. Seriously. One of the best ways to learn how to write a joke is to write down what comics you love say and then analyze it. Where are the funny bits? What is the rhythm? What makes the joke funny? Learn from those you love.
Ruin a joke. One of the best ways to learn to write jokes is to take a joke that you love and ruin it. Say it slowly. Add extra words. Move the words around so that the last word is not the last word any more. Do you see how adding words and moving things around makes a great joke not funny?
Drum your jokes. Going back to the first two points, think of jokes like poetry or music. They have a rhythm to them. Take a joke you like and tap out the beats like a drum. Now take a joke that you don’t like and drum that. See the difference? Take a joke you like and say it way too slowly, add words. See how that beat changes? Jokes are like poetry or rap. Find the beat and you’ll find the funny.
Lists.A great way to start writing jokes is to use lists. Take something simple, like The Rolling Stones coming out with a new album. The Rolling Stones are super old. What could be the title of their new album? Write one list of Rolling Stones songs and another list of things associated with old people, then match them up. You Can’t Always Get What You Want from AARP (American Association of Retired Persons). You get the point.
Basic joke structure. If you’ve done the first 4 steps, you’ll see that jokes have a basic structure. First, there’s the premise, which is often a declarative statement or a question, such as “The Rolling Stones are coming out with a new album” “I’ve been single for 4 years” “My younger brother really bugs me.” Next, there’s the pay off or the punchline. The pay off or punchline either proves that the premise is true or that the premise is false. Take some jokes you love and break apart the structure.
Here are some quick examples:
From Steven Wright. It’s a small world (premise), but I wouldn’t want to paint it. (payoff, shows that the world is not really THAT small, so the premise is false)
Kid’s joke.What do you call a vampire that likes to cook? (premise). Count Spatula (shows that the premise is true with a funny name)
From Paula Poundstone. I checked into a hotel last night. They asked me if I had a floor preference. (premise) Uh yes, I would like a floor (takes the premise literally as true What level? Uh, beginner? (takes the premise as true)
From Kevin Hart. I don’t have X’s, I have Ys. (premise), like Y did I date you? (payoff proves the premise is true)
“I went to my doctor and asked for something for persistent wind. He gave me a kite.”
- Les Dawson
“My mum’s so pessimistic that if there was an Olympics for pessimism… she wouldn’t fancy her chances.”
- Nish Kumar
“My husband can do the work of two men. Unfortunately those men are Laurel and Hardy.”
- Jo Brand
The rule of 3s. For some reason 3 things is the right amount of things in a joke. If you have a list of 5 things, pick the funniest three things and use that. AND, you want the three things to come up this way: Normal thing, normal thing, funny unexpected thing. Or funny thing, funny thing, WAY funnier thing. What you want to do is establish a pattern with the first two things and then break that pattern with the third thing.
Here are some quick examples:
From Wendy Liebman. I got my first bikini. It's a three piece: It's a top, a bottom, and a blindfold for you.
Bobby, Judy and Debby are traveling in the desert. Bobby carries a jug of water; Judy carries a wad of money and Debby carries a car door.
They come upon a wise man. The wise man looks at them carefully and asks Bobby, “Why are you carrying such a large jug of water?” Bobby says, “when it gets hot, I’ll drink the water.”
Then he looks to Judy and asks “Why are you carrying money? There are no stores in the desert.” Judy says, “when it gets hot, I’ll buy some water from Bobby.”
Then the wiseman looks at Debby for a very long time. “Why are you carrying a car door?”
Debby perks up and answers “Well, when it gets hot, I’ll just roll down the window!”
Funny sounding words are funnier. Works with that have a K sound are funny. Pickle is funny, cucumber is funny. Cabbage is funny. Cash is funnier than money. Cake is funnier than pastry. Words that sound like an action are funny. Kaboom! Whoosh. ALWAYS put the funniest word at the end of the joke. Try this: Take a joke and put the last word in another place. Not as funny, right?
"Dressing up as decrepit old ladies, and even decrepit young ladies, was one of our staples."
- Graham Chapman of Monty Python
“Snooker is the best. Snooker is basically tidying up disguised as sport.”
- Jon Richardson
Write what you care about. One of the best ways to create jokes is to write about what makes you angry, sad or scared. Write out the things that bother you in a list, then create ways to take those things to the extreme OR take the opposite of what you really believe. So many great comics write about things that are really serious to them and find a way to make it funny.
“Guns don’t kill people, people kill people. And monkeys do too – if they have a gun.”
- Eddie Izzard
Examples of thing you might write about and examples of each.
- Painful childhood experiences – Nick Kroll, Jack Whitehall
- Social injustice –Dave Chappelle, Eddie Izzard, Ricky Gervais
- Women’s issues – Amy Schumer, Ali Wong, Hannah Gadsby
- Racial issues – Wanda Sykes, Chris Rock, Sindhu Vee
- Everyday annoyances – Steven Wright, Jerry Seinfeld, Monty Python
- Parenthood – Jim Gaffigan, Josh Widdicombe and Rob Beckett
For these types of jokes, you might agree with your premise, then take it to an extreme or even go against it.
From Jim Gaffigan:
Everyone asks me what my favorite ride is atDisneyland (premise – assumes he takes his kids to Disneyland, is a nice dad).
I tell them, “the train leaving the park.” (proves the premise false. He wants to leave the park.)
Shorter is better. Now that you’re writing jokes, be ruthless in editing. Take your jokes and see how few words you can use to express them. Like poetry or a great line in a song, the fewer words you can use to express your idea, the better. Henny Youngman is credited with writing the shortest joke ever “Take my wife! Please!” Strive to have the funniest word LAST because that’s the punch in the punchline.
“Why did the chicken commit suicide? To get to the other side.”
- Sara Pascoe
“I needed a password eight characters long so I picked Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”
- Nick Helm
Practice your delivery. There’s a saying in comedy “some people say funny things, some people say things in a funny way.” A great way to learn how to deliver jokes is to memorize jokes from your favorite comedian. Musicians do the same thing, so why not you? Learn not only the jokes but HOW the comic says the joke – the timing, the rhythm, the pauses. If you went to see that same comic night after night, you would see that they deliver that same joke the same way. OR, if they are building new joke material, the things they play with are how to deliver the joke.
“My musical knowledge is so poor I thought Kanye West was a railway station and Lana Del Rey a holiday destination.”
- Miranda Hart
Thanks to Lori Hamilton for producing this guide. You can find her over at https://thelorihamilton.com/.