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Telling Jokes

Updated on August 9, 2017

Telling Jokes VS Awkward Situations

I enjoyed much about the US adaptation of "The Office." I laughed and cringed along with the rest of us. What I didn't enjoy about the show is what it did to aspiring comedians for a season. It seems the lesson that many people learned was

awkward = funny

I would like to correct that formula.

awkward = awkward

Simply being awkward isn't the same as being funny. As a former youth pastor, I went to far too many student shows, where the hosts thought that being awkward was the same as being funny. I blame "The Office."

At some point, telling jokes has to include... you know... telling jokes. If you watch funny people you'll notice that they might use awkwardness, but they tell jokes in the midst of it. Lets talk about telling jokes.

30 Rock was another NBC sitcom that clarifies the difference. There were plenty of awkward situations. The show also famously had standards in the writing room of the number of jokes they would tell per minute. It makes the show very rewatchable as its fun to go back and catch jokes that you missed the first time because of how many there were.

Staying with NBC Sitcoms, Parks & Rec and Community clarify another move in comedy over the last several years. Community had plenty of light hearted fun, and some seasons were genuinely sincere in creating family. Community also had seasons marked by darkness, irony, satire, and a general feeling of "isn't everything the worst all the time?!" Parks and Rec started as a show starring a genuinely happy, uplifting person and the jokes tended to be about the dark negative people surrounding here. Instead of telling the story of the world bringing this person down, she brought the people around her up. It is one of the most sincere and earnest comedic efforts and I love where it took comedy. You can tell jokes without relying on awkwardness or biting satire.

Which show was funnier?

See results
am I here to amuse you?
am I here to amuse you? | Source

Setup Here

Punchline Here

Seth Meyers does a great bit on his show called "Jokes Seth Can't Tell." A recent one can be watched here

In the bit, Seth gives the setup, or premise, to a joke and one of his writers gives the punchline. They are playing with tropes about what jokes Seth can't tell as a straight while male. At the same time, the bit illustrates the structure of a joke. Setup --> Punchline. Some comedians tell long stories with multiple jokes inside a larger setup --> Punchline but ultimately they are still meeting that structure.

What far too many people seemed to miss about The Office (including, some would argue, the last few seasons of the show itself) is that the awkwardness was the setup to jokes. They paid off the awkwardness with punchlines.

Setup: I watched two movies last week.  One had a tight plot with well developed characters that made me feel real emotions and invested in what happened to them. Punchline: The other was Spectre.
Setup: I watched two movies last week. One had a tight plot with well developed characters that made me feel real emotions and invested in what happened to them. Punchline: The other was Spectre. | Source

Are you just telling setups?

What is the payoff to your joke?

Types of Payoffs

In most successful cases, your punchline will be something they didn't see coming

Exaggeration is one of your more basic payoffs. This is usually low risk low reward. I was parking near a baseball game, and I warned the passengers in my vehicle "Hey gang! We wanted to park a little ways away from the stadium so we could avoid the traffic after the game and get on the highway faster. You guys are OK walking a couple of miles to the game right?" When we were only walking a few blocks.

Surprise is my favorite payoff. Many of these payoffs could be described as surprise. Essentially you are giving your audience something unexpected. I like the word surprise because it seems delightful. Shows like Parks and Rec have helped move comedy towards sincerity and earnestness. (moving us out of the "dead baby" joke being dark instead of being funny).

Contradiction is when you lead your audience one way and then immediately change direction. On an SNL bit during the election, Kate McKinnon as Hillary Clinton was asked by Cecily Strong as Rachel Maddow "Are you an Extrovert or an Introvert." Kate as HIllary's reply was "I'm a little of both. As an Extrovert I like meeting and connecting with new people. And as an Introvert, no I don't." (See the bit

Satire is what Stephen Colbert has been doing every night for the past decade or so. It amounts to setup: hey! did you hear about this thing that's happening? And payoff: isn't it stupid! Satire can be hilarious. That said, it can be difficult to tell jokes when what you're satirizing really bothers you. Late Night writers have been talking about this with Trump ( Its OK to have a point of view in your comedy, in fact you should. But if you feel really strongly about what you're satirizing, be aware of the temptation you'll have to stop telling jokes.

Ridiculous is related to exaggeration. The humor is in the absurd. When you hear a comedian tell a story that makes you laugh, but you're also sure it never happened in real life, that's ridiculous. They may have started with a true observation about life, and then took a turn into the absurd. Louis C.K. had a bit in the early 2000's about dealing with a driver who had road rage. The driver was behind him at a red light and screaming at him to go, even though there were cars in front of him. He describes the driver getting out of the car and screaming at him through his window. Louis responded to the driver by screaming back at him "Give me back my jacket!" Its funny because it's absurd.

Emotion refers to a sudden change in emotion. You can tell a serious story with a funny finish, or a funny story with a serious finish. The change in emotion subverts expectations. If you can make your audience feel emotions while you make them laugh, they'll remember your jokes.

Real-Life makes you relatable to your audience. One of the funniest stories I've told is about when my mom got me an Easy Bake Oven for Christmas when I was 9 or 10. There are some punchlines in there about the girls on the box being so excited about it, and 10 year old me having a similar response. Its also a very relatable story. My setup involves setting the scene, describing my family's Christmas traditions and connecting with my hearers over those shared experiences. While they might not have gotten an Easy Bake Oven, my story makes me think of their own stories, and it pays off.

Honesty is surprising to your audience too! Ralphie May did a bit in the years after 9-11 about wanting to bomb countries for cheap gas. At the time "No War for Oil" was a popular protest, so being "honest" about just watching cheap gas was a powerful punchline. It cut politics by appealing to both left and right for different reasons, and was funny to boot.

The setup to your joke leads your audience in one direction. The payoff to your joke is usually unexpected. Keep in mind it doesn't have to be. Sometimes we may be tempted to think the goal in telling jokes is to stay one step ahead of our audience at all times. If they get to the punchline before you, that may just mean you've told a relatable joke!

If you want to be funny

Don't forget to tell jokes

I was pretty proud of this art project
I was pretty proud of this art project

Beware These PItfalls!

Originality: Sometimes the pursuit of being funny in a way no one else has been funny makes you funny to no one else. There are plenty of things that make me laugh that don't make the people around me laugh. You can spend energy trying to teach them to have as good a sense of humor as you, but spend some energy trying to connect with them over what they think is funny too!

Inoriginality: Passing along someone else's funny story or joke can make for a great conversation, but it doesn't pass as your own humor. Work on intentionally finding the absurd in your own day-to-day life and start talking about what you find with others!

Trying to Win at Funny: In my younger days I had a friend who, when we would share stories, would always start his with "you want to hear something really funny?" And I found myself wanting to prove him wrong. All of a sudden I wanted to win the conversation. That was less fun for everyone.

Telling Jokes at Someone's Expense: It may seem like you're scoring points telling Jokes at someone else's expense, and if that person is a distant third party you might be OK. But if you're constantly ripping on someone in your social circle, you're likely to find out your social circle rips on you when you're not around.

Self-Deprecating to the Extreme: The flip side of the same token is, if you're sense of humor is constantly about how dumb you are, sometimes your friends will start to agree with you. That's not a win for you either.

Unfunny Jokes: You might get some laughs out of telling bad puns or intentionally unfunny jokes. In a way, this can subvert expectations (they are expecting something funny, and you don't give it to them!). Make sure this is one of your tools and not your only tool. One of my favorite jokes to tell includes a several minute setup. Its a long winded story and I sometimes tell with intermediate jokes but often I don't. A setup that big would normally have a big payoff. Instead it ends with a pun based on an old children's cereal commercial. The absurdity of the proportion of setup to payoff makes me laugh. The audience response is usually 50-50. Some agree and think that's funny, some are upset with me for wasting their time.


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