“Doctor, the audience doesn’t laugh when I do this.”
“Don’t do that.”
To be a successful comedy writer, either for your own act or for others, you need to do more than write jokes. You also need to be able to fix jokes. Along with being a joke writer, you have to be a joke doctor.
Now sure, you could just make random changes in your gags and let the audience select which versions are best, but that process can take billions of years.
The good news is: There are faster ways to fix a joke.
The bad news is: You have to be an IJA member to learn them.
Small Changes Can Lead to Big Results
To fix a broken joke, sometimes all you need to do is change one word:
SCOTT: (Speaking Spanish badly) Mi hermano Ricardo y yo performanos para ustedes con el boardo de wigglioso … y … el tenador de muerte para un truco muy peligroso.
RICH: (Translating for SCOTT) I like sheep.
SCOTT: Por que.
Our sheep punch worked great but the butter tag never got a very good response. After a couple of months experimenting, we found that adding one word turned it into a solid, consistent laugh:
Rich: With butter.
Sometimes all you have to do is add a pause. For example, this is how Michael Davis originally performed his now classic gag:
MICHAEL DAVIS: (Juggling 2 balls.) A really good juggler can juggle two balls and even look away, glancing around the room. (MICHAEL moves his head around, as if he were looking away while keeping his eyes locked onto the balls.)
The audience would smile and giggle. It was an okay gag, but not great. One night, after a long day of shows at The Cannery, Michael spaced out and forgot to do his fake looking away punch. Instead he just paused and continued to stare at the balls. Huge laugh!
Adding the pause changed his original punch into a tag and led Michael to the extended version of the gag we now all know and steal, I mean love:
Michael describes his experience like this: “Comedy is like mining for precious gems. Get out there and find it. When you do, then polish it, and show it off.”
Using Joke Structure to Fix Jokes
Understanding joke structure will give you good clues about what to try first when doctoring a broken joke. It won’t tell you what will work. Only the audience can do that. But it will give you much better guesses to start with.
- Disguise your setup. Make it more natural, organic, important, informative, or inevitable.
- Disguise your frontloads.
- When performing a gag, be changed by it. Experience emotions that are different for the two different interpretations of your connector. Change your mind, mood, feelings, relationship, opinions, status, or tactics during the gag.
- Make your shatter more extreme. Don’t just break an assumption, SHATTER IT!
- Punch. Don’t push.
- Make your punch shorter.
- Make your punch more specific
- End with the reveal.
- Use different words in your setup and your punch (unless you’re writing a parallel structure joke or you’re repeating your connector).
If any of these terms are new to you (setup, connector, punch, assumptions, first story, second story, shatter, pedantic, pompous, condescending) you can read my first article on joke structure for a detailed explanation.
In this article we’re going to explore some more:
- Make sure you’ve got a clear negative opinion.
- Strengthen the assumption.
- Adjust the logic gap.
- Choose the right target.
- Use hard consonants.
- Up the stakes.
- Make it more immediate.
- Change the format or the feeling.
- Cut unnecessary words.
- Change your delivery.
All of these can help you heal sick jokes and revive dead ones.
Have a Clear Negative Opinion
Most jokes are powered by negative opinions. If your joke isn’t working, ask yourself, “What negative opinion does this joke expose or exploit?” If you can’t answer that, you have just diagnosed its most likely problem.
Strengthen the Assumption
You can only surprise the audience by shattering assumptions they’re actually making. So if you’ve got a joke that’s not working, ask yourself, “What exactly is the audience is assuming after I finish my setup?” If you’re not sure, neither are they.
Here’s one way to find out what they’re assuming: You could tell your setup to someone without telling them your punch. Then ask them what they expect will happen or what they think you’ll say next. Those are their real assumptions.
Choose clearer, more commonly shared assumptions for your lead-aways. Make sure your setup aims the audience strongly towards one of those assumptions.
Try a more obvious assumption and a less obvious punch.
And finally, shatter only one assumption per punch. If the audience is making more than one assumption, shatter the others in your tags.
Adjust the Logic Gap
The logic gap, also called “the comic leap,” is the mental jump the audience has to make to get from their assumption to your punch, from where they think your setup is leading to where your punch actually lands. More technically: the logic gap is the leap your audience takes from the assumptions that make up your first story to the shatter that defines your second story.
The size of the logic gap determines how long it takes and how hard the audience has to work to get the joke.
This logic gap is too small …
When the logic gap is too small, the audience will just nod and agree with you. At best, they’ll smile and think, “that’s clever:”
STREET PERFORMER: Every dollar you give helps to put me through college. Every five dollar bill helps five times as much.
Or they’ll beat you to the punch, leaving your laugh behind:
FIRE EATER: Fire eating was invented … by an idiot.
You could try to fix these by making your setup lead away more strongly
FIRE EATER: Fire eating was invented thousands of years ago … by an idiot.
Or by taking your punch one step further.
STREET PERFORMER: Every dollar you give helps to put me through college. Every five dollar bill means I might not have to go to college.
Another option is to leave the logic gap small, and then when you perform your gag, you leave enough air that the audience will supply the punch for you.
So instead of this chuckle:
FIRE EATER: Placing the fire in my mouth is known as … stupid!
You can get this laugh:
FIRE EATER: Placing the fire in my mouth is known as …
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Stupid!
Putting the punch in the audience can be comedy gold. Nothing is funnier than the audience being funnier than you! Alternatively, you could have an audience plant supply the punch and settle for comedy pyrite.
This logic gap is too big …
When the logic gap is too wide, like in my “pyrite” reference above, too many people in your audience won’t get the joke, or it will take them so long to get it that they lose the impulse to laugh.
You can fix this by adding information to your setup that pushes the laggards a bit closer to your shatter, thus narrowing the logic gap. This is what late night TV comics do all the time. Or, you can make your punch more explicit and trust less in your audiences’ imagination. (For example, I could have said “fool’s gold” instead of “comedy pyrite.”) Either of these can sometimes turn a pause followed by an, “Oh, I get it,” into a laugh.
Yesterday, Katrine and I made this kind of logic gap adjustment between shows based on the ethnicity of our audience. For a mostly Hispanic audience, after I mistakenly called someone’s Spanish Portuguese, we said:
SCOTT: Spanish? Portuguese? What’s the difference?
But when we repeated the mistake (always repeat your mistakes!) for a mostly Anglo audience later that day, we had to lead them a bit closer to that same punch like this:
SCOTT: Spanish? Portuguese? What’s the difference?
KATRINE: The difference is that Brazilians speak Portuguese … which is basically Spanish … But with waxing.
It’s why I couldn’t end this joke here, like I expected to when I first wrote it:
SCOTT: I love Katrine more than life itself. In fact, I would take a bullet for this woman. So if anyone here has a bullet …
Instead, I had to make the punch more explicit and add a tag to get the laugh the gag deserved:
… So if anyone here has a bullet, I’ll trade. Yes. I will make that deal. [Tag] Heck, at this point, I’d trade her for a tee shirt.
This logic gap is just right!
When the logic gap is just right, the crowd will love you. Audiences feel good about themselves, get more invested, and listen extra close when they have to do some of the work themselves. They become proud of how far they can leap.
But if you push them too far, with jokes that constantly require them to leap further than they’re able, you’re the one who will take the fall.
Choose the Right Target
When Rich and I did shows for prison inmates, jokes about the guards always got laughs. When we performed for the Army, the grunts cheered at jokes about their sergeants. On a Navy ship, our jokes about the captain died, but the sailors loved our jokes about their CWOs.
Generally, the authority figure you want to target is the one that your audience has the most direct contact with. So, if you’re doing school shows, the vice-principal may be a better target than the principal. Choosing a well known teacher as your volunteer could be best of all.
Punching down, doing jokes about people with less power and status than your audience, can leave a bad feeling. Most racist jokes punch down.
From the stage, punching down can feel like it’s working better than it actually is because you don’t see the people you’re turning off with it.
I will admit that some comics are experts at punching down. Daniel Tosh is brilliant at it.
Most ventriloquists are not.
It’s your choice. Do you want to use your comedy to take on the bullies or to be a bully?
Gender also matters. Katrine can get cheers doing jokes about me that would get boos if I said them about her. That’s why instead of performing our latest flat tire gag this way:
KATRINE: (Shaking her head, looking down at the flat tire on her unicycle at an angle that could also look like she’s looking down at her chest) This is totally flat.
SCOTT: Don’t worry. That doesn’t make you any less of a woman.
We may have to change it to:
SCOTT: (Pointing at Katrine’s unicycle’s flat tire) Ooh, that’s not good. You are totally flat.
KATRINE: Yeah? Well you’re short and bald.
Use Hard Consonants
“Words with a ‘K’ in it are funny… ‘L’s are not funny. ‘M’s are not funny.”
– Neil Simon, The Sunshine Boys
There’s a great story about this comedy rule. I don’t know if it’s true, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a great story:
When Neil Simon was writing The Sunshine Boys, he wanted the character of Willie Clark, an old vaudeville comic, to quote what sounded like an even older comedy rule. Not knowing any particularly old comedy rules, Simon just made one up. Since then, all comics, even the ones who make fun of this rule, follow a version of it.
I like to believe that Woody Allen over-accentuated all the hard consonants in this gag just to convince Neil Simon to friend him:
I also like to believe that baldness is caused by a toxic concentration of testosterone.
Up the Stakes
People laugh when tension is released. If you want bigger laughs, you want to create more tension. One way to build tension is to increase the stakes.
A joke that doesn’t get a laugh about throwing a club at an audience member may be hilarious with a knife.
A magician’s gag with a volunteer’s $100 bill will probably get a bigger laugh than with a $5.
A direct insult is always better than a story about an insult.
You can’t argue with math. Higher Stakes = Bigger Laughs. QED.
Make Your Gag More Immediate
It’s happening here. It’s happening now. Use the present tense whenever possible. If it can’t be happening right now, it happened as recently as possible.
Be specific. Name the people and places:
Two Jews were walking down the street …
Morty and Hymie are walking down 8th Avenue …
Choose nearby places with specific names.
I had a wonderful cup of coffee last week …
is not as good as:
I had the best cup of coffee at The Eagle Café this morning …
which is still not as good as:
(Sipping coffee) This has got to be the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had …
but best of all would be:
(Spitting out coffee) This coffee sucks …
Change the Format or the Feeling
Try your gag as a rule-of-three. Try it as a 2-beat. Or just go right to your punch.
Try it as a riddle or a sucker punch. Make it into a call-back. Reverse it. Exaggerate it.
Make it more sarcastic. If that doesn’t work, try more sincere.
Different isn’t always better, but better is always different. You’ll never know which structure or style will work best till you try them all!
Cut Unnecessary Words
“Brevity is the soul of wit.” – William Shakespeare.
“Levity is brevity.” – Greg Dean misquoting William Shakespeare.
Removing extra words will make your laughs denser. Remember, it’s easier to keep an audience laughing than to get them to start laughing. All those extra words get in your way. Cut ‘em!
Shorten your setup. This alone will improve your laughs per minute.
Shorten your punch. This almost always improves it.
Change Your Delivery
And finally, a few performance tips that can often bring a dying joke back to life:
- Make the audience believe that you just made it up.
- Care deeply about your setup while you’re performing it.
- Surprise yourself.
- Discover your punch as you’re saying it.
- Don’t just tell your joke. Act it out! Become each of the characters in your gag.
Try a different pace, pitch, emotion, or inflection:
- Be angrier.
- Or more vulnerable.
- Yell it.
- Whisper it.
If none of this works, maybe your joke isn’t funny. Cut it. Move on your next joke.
Find a joke in your show that’s broken. Fix it!
Let us know how you fixed it.