What is a joke? | And why comedians should write more of them - by Dave Cohen

What is a joke?

And why comedians should write more of them - by Dave Cohen

If you want to make progress as a stand-up, it seems obvious that you should be writing more and more jokes. Yet it’s so hard to let go of the old favourites. In my stand-up days I was as guilty as anyone of that. 

I occasionally see my contemporaries from the 80s and 90s performing live, doing jokes I remember from a previous millennium. I totally get it, a guaranteed laugh is a guaranteed laugh, and as Steve Martin said, one of the great skills of stand-up is to say the same thing a thousand times and still make an audience laugh.

It's pretty obvious isn't it, if you want a career in comedy you have to be able to write jokes. That's most of what you should be writing, most of the time. If you're writing stand-up comedy, or topical gags, and the sentence you've just written isn't funny, then either the next sentence has to be funny or you'll have to cut them both.

It's amazing how often sitcom writers forget to write jokes. Even the most experienced professionals – maybe swept up with the excitement of communicating their great new idea, or absorbed by the story they want to tell -– sometimes forget that they are being paid to write comedy. And comedy means that people should be laughing nearly all the time, and when they're not laughing it's because they're listening to the set-up for the next laugh.

I'm not making a qualitative judgement here, but a quantitative one. The jokes I like may not be the ones you do, but there should be lots and lots of them. 

The commonest mistake made by beginner stand-ups is to be thrown when the audience fails to laugh at their new jokes. The performer delivers what they think is a funny line, and the audience doesn't laugh.

The audience aren't judging you, as far as they know you're still building up to the joke. The performer however is thinking: 'They didn't laugh at that line! That's my favourite joke. They hate me.' Their demeanour on stage starts to reflect this, now the audience see the look of panic and start to lose confidence in the performer. So it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, all because the performer didn't have the experience to ride through the lack of laughs and move on as if nothing untoward had happened.

An experienced performer will try the joke again at other gigs, maybe tweak it, adding a word or sentence here, moving it around, put it in a different place in a routine - either find a way to make it work or, finally, ditch it.

One of the great problems with jokes is that you never know if they're going to work until you try them out on someone. That's why so many comedy writers work in pairs - if you can make the person sitting next to you laugh, then at least one person aside from you has found it funny.

And it’s also why we started putting on new material nights back in the 1980s. Comics need a place to try out material, and to be allowed to fail. It’s not perfect – how easy it always was, on new material night, to get a laugh from that forgiving audience by acknowledging how badly your new joke had failed. But it spurred a small group of us on, faced with the sheer terror of our imminent first hour-long Edinburgh shows, forcing us to write new stuff.

Every comic has a list of jokes they loved that they could never get to work on stage. American comedy writers even have a lovely name for this - 'the restaurant on the corner.' It can't possibly fail, it's approachable from two different roads, it has potential to attract double the number of customers - but check your local high street, that restaurant on the corner is always the first business to close down. 

Conversely, any comedian who has done more than 100 gigs will be able to give you an example of a gag that came to them while on stage that’s as funny as anything they’ve sweated hours over. As American sitcom writer Fred Barron said: ‘Life isn't always fair, but sometimes it's unfair in your favour.’

I recently tried researching jokes, and realised there’s hardly anything written anywhere defining exactly what a joke is. Former stand-up Sally Holloway has written a great manual for comedy writers, The Serious Guide To Joke Writing, and there's plenty of scientific and psychological analysis of why we laugh, including The Naked Jape by Lucy Greeves and Jimmy Carr, whose thoughtful narrative is nicely punctuated by hundreds of gags. But there are hardly any specific definitions.

One of the few items on the internet refers to 'mathematical jokes' as a new category. I'd say that's a little niche, but music and mathematics are closely related to joke creation. A joke is like an equation, but instead of saying 2 + 2 = 4; it's 2 + 2 + (x) = 5, where x is the 'x-factor', the comic twist that surprises us and makes two and two add up to five.

And the rhythm of poetry and music beats through the heart of all great comedy. Seinfeld is the best example of this, where many new scenes open with a précis of the last scene and it sounds like they're singing.

What is a joke? A joke is a three-act story – even if your joke has only four words, as Tim Vine manages with his magnificent: ‘Velcro? What a rip-off!’

All stories have three acts, you know this because you've read The Poetics by Aristotle, I hope,2,000 years old but still the best book ever written about writing. Aristotle was the first person to recognise that every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. And between each of those sections there's a defining moment that twists the story round. Aristotle calls them complications, Robert McKee 'the inciting incident'. You can read The Poetics online and it's really short, 400 plus pages shorter than McKee's Story and £25 cheaper.

In a movie, Act One is usually the opening ten minutes, then the twist into Act Two brings about an hour or so of complications, until the next big twist takes us to the end, which lasts around 15 minutes. That's around 90-120 minutes. A joke, well written, lasts about ten seconds, but the same rules apply.

With a joke, act one is our real world, a nice normal place to leap from, then something unusual happens, and there's a complication (Act Two), then there's another twist, which propels us straight to the punchline. 

So in Act One we are given the word ‘Velcro’, because that's a normal thing that you immediately recognise. Except it’s not ‘Velcro’, it’s ‘Velcro?’, that question mark defining a complication, meaning ‘It’s not what you think it is.’ Amazing work from Tim there, making one word do the work of the first two acts of the joke. There’s a twist, Act Three, which is also the punchline, and okay, it’s a pun too, but even if you don’t like puns you have to admit it’s a good one.

Tim is renowned, of course, for writing enough jokes for a dozen comics. Just happens that they’re so short, he has to have so many more than the rest of you. 

What is it that holds comedians back from creating lots of new material? Relying on old favourites, sure, also a fear of not getting a laugh with a new joke, the realisation that you can get away with the same 20 minutes because even if an audience sees you again after a year or so, chances are they won’t remember your gags.

Sorry to be brutal, but the word we’re looking for here is laziness. Writing new jokes is too much like hard work. You already know that you’re going to have to write an awful lot more than an hour’s worth of material to produce an hour’s stage time. But a year feels like a reasonable amount of time to gather that amount. And trying new stuff can be surprisingly liberating. 

Which is why I’ve decided to try out a new writing course for stand-ups. I can’t teach you to be funny, but I can facilitate the situation for you to overcome those fears, and mine that great seam of your dysfunctional experience that made you decide that ‘the best way to spend the rest of my life will be to stand in front of a room full of strangers, attempting to make them laugh’.

Click here for more information on Dave Cohen’s new writing course.

Published: 17 Oct 2017

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