Recipes for success

Sally Holloway defends writing jokes by formula

I love jokes. I remember saying to a terrible act who had just done another terrible gig how much I liked one of his jokes. He said: ‘Yes, I know that one’s good, it never gets a laugh but people in the room do stop talking when I tell it!’

It’s funny how audiences can recognise a good joke told by a bad comic but can’t bring themselves to laugh (bastards!) When I was a new act in 1992, other comics often used to say: ‘What great material you have’. This was nice of them, but not much consolation when I’d just died on stage. It took me a few years to learn the performance skills to deliver my own jokes.

On the other hand I’ve stood by the side of stages and listened to mediocre jokes told by great performers dismayed at the huge laughs they were getting for what I considered lesser material.

I know it’s a bit crass of me to write a book about how to write jokes and then produce an article afterwards saying ‘Well it’s the way you tell ‘em!’ But that, I’m afraid is what I’m going to do.

Basically I think jokes are the ingredients and the performer is the chef. A fine chef can make a passable meal out of any stinky old grub and a terrible chef can burn or curdle the finest of foods.

But you have to have some ingredients and the combination of brilliantly crafted jokes and the right vehicle for them is where comedy gold is created - and it doesn’t really matter how the jokes were written. If you’re doing jokes about your unique and funny childhood memories or your quirky take on the world then you probably don’t need formulas (or you have your own unique formula).

When I was preparing a speech for my book launch for my family and friends it was easy to write jokes, ideas just bubbled out of me. But when my local MP asked me to write jokes on the Government’s Equality Bill I would have been stumped without my formulas. I had to sift though everything to do with equality, come at it from different angles, read reports on it and try and play off the words. I had nothing natural to say about the subject but I wrote 20 jokes.

I’ve seen some brilliant performers hardly saying a word on Mock The Week or Have I Got News For You. They might have great character and attitude in their stage, act but unless they can come up with the goods about oil prices and the latest twist in the Middle East crisis, then they can’t cut it.

So what formulas do is force things. They extend your range of subjects and the way you normally look at things. I was writing formulaic jokes long before I worked out what the formulas were. Basically all formulas do is recognise and mimic brain patterns which speeds up the way you write and can teach you new ways of thinking. The trick is to do your formulaic jokes within your stage persona, which is what I would argue that Milton Jones does so brilliantly with his extended puns.

Also stand-up comedy isn’t everything (what a thing to say on Chortle!) A lot of what I call ‘written’ jokes: cartoons, chair’s scripts, jokes tweeted, facedbooked or printed in newspapers pretty much live or die on their merit, and most of them are word-play which is a formulaic as it gets. Yet I still love reading the latest topical jokes, I delight at how the words have been twisted, the uniqueness of the set-up and the precision of the wording (try following ex comic Mark Hurst on Twitter or Facebook for examples of this).

What amazes me about formulas is that the same formula running the same subject through a different brain produces many different results. I’m not saying two people don’t ever write the same joke, but I don’t even get the same jokes when I deliberately feed my classes set-up lines that I know already have jokes attached. That’s because once you get your brain fired up it often keeps going, way beyond the original formula, linking with your other thoughts and ideas down your own unique neural pathways.

So formulas are just a starting point really, I wrote my book because I wanted to get down everything I have discovered on my long comedy journey. I didn’t invent formulas, I just recognised and formalised them. I know there are some beautiful comics out there doing lovely unique and quirky acts who would never touch a joke writing formula and that’s fair enough. The rest of us poor Sucker are just trying to write some gags and, formulaic or not, it’s a lovely feeling when you do so.

  • Sally Holloway is author of The Serious Guide To Joke Writing Click here to buy it from Amazon.

Published: 16 May 2011

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