Over the past few years, I’ve been fortunate enough to have several adventures in the world of stand up comedy.
I’ve met performers from all over the world; from the backs of pubs in London to rooftops in Shanghai.
A comedy set can unfold in infinite ways, but over my time performing, I’ve noticed a few writings patterns which I believe reveal a peek behind the curtain of joke writing.
Below are the things I’ve found to be true. They are by no means the only way to tell a joke… but they’re a start.
- Comedy = Pain x Time
In art, there are rarely “equations” which can reliably guide an artist towards their ultimate vision, however this is one of the few that I have found to be true time and time again.
Comedy = Pain x Time
If you listen to any comedian do a set, the likelihood is that at one point, they’ll tell a story about a painful experience which was not so funny at the time. However, after enough time passed, it made for a good comedic premise.
The best example I can think of is Robin Williams.
During his special Weapons of Self Destruction, he told a joke about how he suffered from alcoholism and abused drugs.
Instead of calling himself an alcoholic, he referred to himself as “ethanol challenged”. Instead of discussing how alcohol had been detrimental, he gave exaggerated anecdotes.
“Alcohol will make you do things that will make the devil say ‘Wow’.
“Being a functioning alcoholic is like being a pole dancing paraplegic… You can do it, but not very well”.
“Blacking out is like sleep walking and doing activities.. your conscience goes into witness protection”.
When he was experiencing these things and doing “things that would make the devil say wow”, it probably wasn’t funny. It was probably painful, and terrifying.
The time that passed between his painful experience with alcoholism and his performance allowed him to view the story from a less tragic perspective, and create material out of it.
The equation demonstrates that more than anything, natural and authentic comedy is the result of the performer processing their life through their art form.
We do this in our own lives as well. Fights with siblings become humorous a decade later. That time you cried in the elevator becomes a funny story about self growth that you tell at parties.
Removed from the context of a comedy special, the stories about alcoholism might have been painful to recount. There is audience who pays to laugh. However, in the comedic context, it was funny. The pain of the experience allowed members of the audience to relate to something deeply human, and the comedy was the result of the unexpected perspective which made light of tragedy.
The difference? Time.
2. Tension build and release
When properly used, tension is a reliable tool when writing a joke.
The best jokes I have ever heard are the ones that may seem a bit abstract, but have a massive pay off which ties everything together.
When a comedian is on stage telling a joke, tension is the invisible force guiding the story.
Each additional detail is meant to add to the flow and narrative of a joke.
Comedians often refer to the need to “cut the fat” and “tighten up” a joke. Unnecessary minutia draw away from the tension that mounts with each phrase.
A good joke is like climbing a mountain.
Each sentence is a step closer to the top is filled with anticipation for the miraculous view. However, rather than the climber howling in victory at the end of the ascent, the crowd is howling in laughter.
A great example of this is a joke from Martin Amini, a fellow comedian I knew in Washington, DC. You can watch his special here.
In this joke, I can identify three points of tension.
The first is that he gets caught dealing drugs.
The second is that his mother is devastated.
The third is that he had to go to a new school.
Combined, all of these details make for a rather uncomfortable experience. However, it’s the last factor which makes it a joke rather than a downer of a story: ironic release of tension.
Instead of seeing it as a punishment, he saw it as a “promotion” to do more of what got him into trouble in the first place.
This joke relies heavily on “comedic irony”. The irony here is that the protagonist of the joke took what was supposed to be a punishment and made it a reward.
However, the comedic irony serves the purpose of releasing all of the tension that had been established throughout the premise.
Tension and irony together are the foundation of many jokes.
The best part of comedy is that it isn’t real.
98% of the stories are false, borrowing liberally from real life experiences.
However, the booming laughter of an audience makes the story as real as the air we breathe.
Comedians create fictional stories and characters meant to take audiences out of their own brains for however short a period of time, and introduce them to a new realm where everything is funny. In this realm, nearly every emotion on the spectrum, from fear to sadness works towards the same end: laughter.
Absurdism is a great ally in this battle.
An accountant doing work at his desk is not funny.
But, an accountant doing work at his desk while his glasses hang lopsided on his face and a clown pulls flowers from his ears and a Mariachi band plays in the background might elicit a chuckle.
Eddie Murphy was a master of absurd comedy
In his 1983 special Delirious, Murphy tells the fictional story of his father believing that his friend Gus was secretly married to Bigfoot.
The crowd howls in laughter as Murphy’s father lambasts Gus for deceiving him and risking his children's lives by bringing Big Foot to the family barbecue.
The crowd of New Yorkers bellowed in laugher as they completely bought into the story he told as if they saw it with their own eyes, giving numerous applause brakes.
To this day, Delirious is one of the top grossing stand up specials ever, thanks in part to Murhpy’s masterful storytelling which relied heavily on absurdism.
What’s the funniest joke you’ve ever heard? Leave a comment!
“Creativity is contagious, pass it on” — Albert Einstein
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