Be Funnier with Scotty Meltzer: Nice Structure!

When comedians watch other comedians perform, they rarely laugh. If they like a joke, they nod their heads and say: “Nice structure.” If they really like a joke they say: “I used to do a bit like that.”

Structures are to comedy as brushstrokes are to painting: Often invisible, absolutely necessary, and if you want to be a pro, you strive to master them.

You don’t have to understand joke structure to be funny. Many people are intuitively funny without knowing anything about the underlying structures of their jokes, but if you want to be able to analyze and fix jokes that are not working as well as they should, then knowing joke structure is indispensable. It also gives you a common language when you’re working with others, learning to write and improve your gags.

Basic joke structure

In this article we’re going to explore one of the most basic joke structures: Setup-Assumption-Connector-Shatter-Punch.

There are many others: Rule-of-Three, Mix Joke, Call Back, Denial Capper, Sucker Punch, Sub-reference, Semi-bluff, POV Shift, and Parody just to name a few.

Joke Structure Diagram

One could argue that these others are all just manifestations of that first basic joke structure. While that may be true, I think it’s more useful to study them separately because that gives you a larger set of more specific comedy writing tools.

Greg Dean has written a great book on comedy writing and joke structure. Here are my Cliff Notes from his first chapter with some nomenclature changes to match my previous articles.

Setup: The first part of the joke. This is what leads the audience to think that you’re going one way when you’re really going another.

Assumption: This is anything that the setup makes the audience expect. There can be a rich world created by the assumptions implied by your setup. Greg likes to call this world “The First Story” and the assumption you’re going to shatter “The Decoy Assumption.” I like to call Greg “Sugar-butt” and “The Hammer.”

Shatter: The thing the setup is revealed to really be about, the world implied or stated by the punch. I using the term “Shatter” for this part of a joke to match what I’ve written in my other articles. Some comics call this “The Turn.” Greg calls it “The Target Assumption” and the world created by it “The Second Story.”

Connector: This is the thing in your setup that is perceived in two ways, the thing that changes when the audience reinterprets your setup and realizes what’s really being said. Greg coined the term “Connector” for this part of a joke and that’s the term I now hear the most for it. I’ve also heard comics call this “The Pivot,” “The Link,” and “The Switch.”

The connector changes its meaning when the audience mentally moves from where they assumed you were going (the first story or decoy assumption implied by your setup) to being surprised by the shatter (the second story implied or stated by your punch). Greg calls this change “The Reinterpretation.”

Note: Connectors don’t have to be words. They can be phrases, gestures, objects, attitudes, ideas, purposes, or anything else that can be perceived in two ways.

Punch: This is the second part of the joke, the part the audience laughs at, the surprise that makes them reinterpret the connector, the thing that makes them infer the shatter. Also called the punch line.

For example:

In the Passing Zone’s brilliant polkadot gag, The Setup has two parts: Owen’s line: “You know what happens whenever you drop a sickle” and the fact that Jon is wearing a polkadot shirt. The Assumption is: Jon is simply wearing a polkadot shirt. The Connector is: The polkadots on the shirt. The Shatter is: It’s a white shirt that’s been covered in punishment dots. The Punch is: Owen putting another dot on the shirt.

In the now generic (but somebody actually made it up): “Got a lighter? Got a watch?” (Ben Decker credits his old partner, Randy Foster, as the writer of this joke.) The Setup is: “Got a lighter?” The Assumption is: You’re asking to borrow a lighter in order to light your torches. The Connector is: The reason that you’re asking for a lighter. The Shatter is: You’re stealing the lighter. The Punch is: “Got a watch?”

And finally a joke Katrine and I still perform but probably should replace because it’s become too generic: “We will now exchange these 6 torches in mid air. (Jugglers up on unicycles hand the torches to each other.)” Setup: “We will now exchange these 6 torches in mid air.” Assumption: We’re going to juggle them. Connector: The word “exchange.” Shatter: We’re not going to juggle them. Punch: Handing them to each other.

Using basic joke structure to write new jokes

Understanding this basic joke structure instantly gives you three simple methods to write jokes: forward from the beginning, out from the middle, and backwards from the end. Good joke-smiths should be adept at all three.

The good news is that all three of these methods are easy to learn and easy to do. The bad news is that all three make it easy to write puns and lots of really crappy jokes.

You’re welcome.

From the front

Ben Decker used to like to work forward from the beginning. Starting with a setup, he’d search for a punch. He called this method “Implied Meaning” which is a term from computer science. It’s a concept that explains why it’s so hard to create a truly artificial intelligence: People know tons of stuff, and make tons of assumptions about everything around them. These unconscious expectations make it easy to generate setups that can be turned into jokes.

For example, when you pick up a glass, there are so many things you know that you don’t even think about: It’s hard; It has a bottom; It can hold water; It’s three dimensional; You can drink from it, It will break if you drop it. All you have to do is come up with a simple scenario to show one or more of those assumptions is not true (like pouring water into the glass and having it run out the bottom, preferably all over your crotch) and you’ve got a joke.

One strength of this approach is that you can take any line in your show that isn’t currently part of a joke and turn it into a joke. Another is that you can take any punch in your show and instantly use it to setup a tag.

“Juggling 5 balls takes years to learn.”
“Juggling knives is very dangerous.”
“I hold in my hand an ordinary deck of cards.”
“I need everyone here to move in closer.”

Ben would view all these innocuous looking lines as possible starting points for a new joke. He’d look at each word, each group of words, and each idea in his hoped for setup and search for a connector. He would ask himself: What does this imply but not state. What does this make the audience assume? What does it make them expect? What else could it mean? He’d then try lots different ways of shattering each of these implications and assumptions with the goal of constructing one good joke.

*****

SETUP: “Juggling 5 balls takes years to learn.”
     ASSUMPTION: {I’m about to juggle 5 balls.}
     CONNECTOR: {My reason for telling the audience how hard 5 balls is.}
     SHATTER: {I’m not going to do it.}
PUNCH: (Throw the 5 balls offstage.) “Screw that.”
     NEW ASSUMPTION FROM PUNCH: {I don’t want to do a trick that difficult.}
     CONNECTOR: {My feelings about difficult tricks.}
     SHATTER: {I’m going to do an even more difficult trick.}
TAG: (Pick up 7 balls.) “I’m going to do 7!”

*****

SETUP: “Juggling knives is very dangerous.”
     ASSUMPTION: {I’m the one who’s going to juggle the knives.}
     CONNECTOR: {Who does the trick.}
     SHATTER: {An audience member is going to juggle the knives.}
PUNCH: (Hand knives to audience member.) “Good luck!”
SETUP FOR TAG: “No. Give me those” (Take knives back.)
     NEW ASSUMPTION FROM SECOND SETUP: {I’m stopping him.}
     CONNECTOR: {My reason for taking back the knives.}
     SHATTER: {I’m making the trick bigger.}
TAG: “You need to get on this first.” (Hand volunteer a unicycle.)

*****

When I write jokes from the front, I almost never think explicitly about the connector. I jump directly from the setup or the assumption to the shatter or even all the way to a punch. I then think about the assumptions that punch creates and try to add tags.

After I was done writing the two gags above and the three below, I went back and filled in all those middle steps that I skipped when I first wrote them in order to illustrate their structure for this article. In real life I would never go back and fill in those extra steps.

Pop quiz: Try to analyze the structure of the next three gags yourself. Try to identify the Setup, Assumption, Connector, Shatter, and Punch for each joke and each of its tags.

*****

“Juggling knives is very dangerous.”
“And so, I’m going to juggle these instead.” (Bring out fluffy stuffed animals to juggle.)
“Vicious killer gerbils.” (Open their mouths to expose sharp teeth.)
“Rrrrrrrrrrr.” (Pull back the fur on their paws to reveal long claws.)
“And to make them even more dangerous I will dip them in poison.” (Look in and around prop case for poison.)
(Discover an audience member drinking a soda.) “This’ll do.” (Dip gerbil’s claws in audience member’s soda.)
“One wrong move and it’s adult onset diabetes for all of us.”
(Drink from audience member’s Coke.) “Mmmm. New Coke Gerbil. Now with twice the rodent feces of regular Coke … but still with that same great Coke taste.”

*****

“I hold in my hands an ordinary deck of cards.”
(Juggle two clubs and the deck of cards.) “Which makes Mills’ Mess really hard.” (Do Mills’ Mess.)
(Approach audience member while juggling.) “Pick a club, any club.”

*****

“I need everyone here to move in closer.”
“‘Cause after my last show, my one man, all juggling version of the Koran, I’m still a bit scared to be out in the open like this.”
(Look up at the roof of a nearby building. Figure out the trajectory of a bullet. Move audience member into position to block the bullet.) “That’s better.”
“I’m kidding” (Move audience member back.)
“The shot’s much more likely to come from there.” (Point to grassy knoll that the audience member’s original position protected me from.)

(NOTE: If I wanted to perform this gag I would change the first punch to eliminate the racist/anti-Muslim beat. I’d make the reason I feel threatened more general to make the gag more performable and unfortunately less funny.)

*****

Like all the joke writing methods I know, most of the jokes you write this way will be crap. That just means you’ll have to write a lot of jokes to get to the good ones. The advantage of this method is that it makes it easy to come up with lots of mostly crappy gags quickly.

It took me less than 60 seconds to come with my first drafts of the 5 jokes above. I then spent another 20 minutes the next day rewriting and adding the tags. The longest part of this exercise was the hours I took writing out all the assumptions, shatters, and connectors that I normally would just do in my head.

From the middle

To write a joke from the middle we start with the connector.

Greg Dean claims that EVERY joke has a connector. I’ve lost many arguments with him about this.

Frank Miles thinks that what Greg calls the connector is actually a special kind of Janus-like compound object that can be bisociated, as Koestler would say, between two domains, one that is immediate, the other in memory or imagination and that the humor comes from the relationship of this bisociated object with an action that has two very different meanings depending on which constituent object and associated domain you’re considering.

I don’t know what that means but I do know several ways to use connectors to write jokes.

Let’s start with some objects, gestures and words that could mean more than one thing. Here are the first 10 Katrine and I thought of:

Short;
Blowing a kiss;
Passing a knife;
Flaming;
Sharp;
Air quotes;
Fishnet stockings;
Juggling rings;
Make you a dog;
Slapping yourself in the head.

And here are the results of about 20 minutes spread out between shows over the past three days trying to write jokes using them:

*****

KID: What is that on your legs?
MOM: They’re called fishnet stockings.
KID: Well, that explains the smell.

*****

SCOTT: We have six soon to be flaming torches and just two jugglers.
KATRINE: One of whom is already flaming.

*****

(Two female jugglers juggling a knife.) “We’re going to pass this knife back and forth. We call this move: Two girls, one knife.”

*****

(Two jugglers doing shaker cups.) “We call this move: ‘Two jugglers, one cup.’”

*****

(Making a balloon animal for a kid.) I’m going to make you a dog.
(Ties the balloon the back of the kid’s belt to give him a tail.) You’re a dog.

*****

SCOTT: (Making a balloon animal for a kid.) I’m going to make you a “bunny.” (Scott does air quotes around “bunny.”)
KATRINE: What’s with the air quotes?
SCOTT: Those are the bunny’s ears.

*****

SCOTT: We are Scotty and Trink. “Trink” is short for “Katrine.”
KATRINE: And “Scott” is short for an adult.

*****

Of these 7, none of the first 5 will work for us because they’re either too dirty, obscure, homophobic, or not funny enough, and Katrine would never wear a dress, much less fishnet stockings.

But the last two: “Short for an adult” and “Bunny’s ears” were promising enough that we tried both of them in the show right after we wrote them. (I love being able to do that!) Both got laughs that were good enough to try again so they’ll both stay in our show for at least a couple of weeks, longer if they keep working.

One advantage of this method is that when writing custom jokes for corporate events, it’s easy to start with a list of possible connectors all related to the theme, company, product, or specific audience you’re writing for.

From the end

Dan Bennet likes to write his jokes backwards, starting with what he believes will be a strong punch and then finding a connector and building a setup from that. He calls this “Reverse Engineering a Joke.”

Dan will spend weeks collecting and creating phrases, gestures, and tidbits that he thinks will make a good punch. At times, he has held onto a punch for years before finding the perfect setup.

As an exercise, I’ve tried to be Dan Bennet for the past two days. My juggling has improved and my interpersonal skills have disappeared.

Here are a some of the punches my inner Dan thought of over the weekend:

Mexican Jumping Beings;
She’s a Great Dane;
Ben Ghazi/Ben Gazera;
Rush Limburger;
Goy Scouts;
Sissy Longstocking;
Thank you for your service;
Hip hop/hip replacement;
Fox is to news as American is to cheese;
CNN – the Communist News Network;
PBS – the Petroleum Broadcast System;
ABC – Anything But Content;
NBC – NoBody Cares;
CBS – CBS is still around?;
My heart skips a beat every time I look at him;
I’m a hybrid;
He thinks he’s people;
Not all idiots are savants.

And here are the setups Katrine and I stuck in front of some of them:

*****

Chick-fil-A is adding beef to their menu.
Their first product will be called: the Rush Limburger.

*****

Now that the Boy Scouts are finally allowing openly gay boys to join, the Mormon Church has decided to create a group just for straight, Christian boys.
They’re calling it: The Goy Scouts.

*****

(For this next one the audience needs to already know that Katrine is from Denmark.)
SCOTT: (Mumbles something under his breath when mad at Katrine.)
KATRINE: Did you just call me a bitch?
SCOTT: No. I called you a Great Dane.

*****

SCOTT: (Doing the hip hop dance move where you hold your leg with one hand, put the other hand behind your head, and pump with the rest of your body.)
KATRINE: What are you doing?
SCOTT: (condescendingly) It’s called hip hop.
KATRINE: More like hip replacement.

*****

SCOTT: Right now we’re juggling 6 clubs.
KATRINE: But watch now as we add 2 more for a total of …
SCOTT: 7 CLUBS!
KATRINE: Proving that not all idiots are savants.

*****

And finally, here’s a joke from Thomas John’s show that he wrote using this method, from the end backwards:

THOMAS: (While two audience members are blowing up balloons) As a traveling juggler I have to use things for more than one purpose. For example, these balloons are both props in the show and how I smuggle things onto the ship.

My Results

Out of the couple of dozen jokes I wrote for this article, three are too close to jokes already performed by other jugglers so I’m going to discard them.

Two are too dirty, one is homophobic, another is racist so I’ll trash those four too.

Two are just puns, one is too clever, and most of the others either suck or wouldn’t fit anywhere in our show so we’re going to let all those just evaporate into the comic ether.

But these three seem promising: “Bunny’s ears,” “Short for an adult,” and “Hip replacement” and the first two have already proven themselves viable! That’s about the ratio of hits to misses I’d expect for an exercise like this.

Homework Assignment

Write some jokes from the front, the middle, and the back. Find out which direction works best for you. Practice the others.

Scott Meltzer would to convince Google that he is the world's most experienced trade show juggler.

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