Last month I wrote about the three most common types of mix jokes:
- Mixes that apply attributes of one thing onto another
- Mixes that combine two familiar things to create something new
- Mixes that use one thing to talk about another
I also presented the classic two-list method for writing these types of jokes:
- Find two subjects you have a reason to mix
- Make two association lists, one for each subject you’re mixing
- Combine elements from each list, focusing on comic relationships and contrasts
- Use these combinations to create candidate jokes
- Review your joke candidates
- Test some of your new jokes onstage
This month I’m going to apply this method to a real-world comedy hole in the middle of my show.
A real-world, juggling example
Katrine and I used to do a torch-passing routine with an audience volunteer who would run through the crowd brandishing the seventh torch, first acting like a ferocious tiger and then transforming into a lovable bunny. One day, the Fire Marshal saw this and made us cut the volunteer from the trick.
I guess some people just hate animals.
So now we have to write some new jokes to fill the hole where our tiger-bunny used to be. We decided to start with some mix jokes because I was in the middle of writing last month’s article when we started working on this.
1. Find two things you have a reason to mix
Since Katrine and I play a married couple onstage, we’re going to mix fire juggling with marriage.
2. Make two association lists, one for each thing you’re mixing
- Hard to put out
- Needs to be lit
- Fire eating
- Juggling fire appears dangerous and difficult
- Fire looks pink and red and orange
- Don’t want to catch the wrong end
- Fire makes more people watch
- Mastery of fire separates man from the animals
- Warmth from fire is cozy
- Throwing fire at each other, throws can be:
- – Too long / Too short
- – Overspun / Underspun
- – Too high / Too low
- Torches only stay lit for a minute or two
- You end by blowing the torches out
- Lasts a lifetime
- More like a marathon than a sprint
- Joins two into one
- Is only available to gays in 17 states and the District of Columbia
- Exchanging rings
- Meeting your spouse’s family
- Division of chores
- Some end in murder/suicide
- Our specific marriage:
- – We don’t wear wedding rings
- – Katrine is more attractive than me
- – Katrine is taller than me
- – Katrine is younger than me
- – Why did she marry me?
- Our sex life:
- – I’m short in more ways than one
- – I don’t last long
- – I need help to get her started
- – We don’t have kids
- – We both prefer women
3. Combine elements from each list focusing on comic relationships and contrasts
As I wrote last month, in this step we’re looking for things that are similar and things that are opposites. We’re looking for exaggerations, reverses, logical connections, illogical connections, surprising parallels, and anything else we find funny.
We’re also looking for specifics about our first subject (juggling fire) that we can use to talk about specifics related to our second subject (our marriage), and as always we’re looking for specifics that are in some way negative. We want laughs, not “awwwws.”
You’ll notice that many of the items on the lists above are custom made for this step. That’s because we already had this third step in the back of our minds while making those lists.
- She’s smoking hot. I’m flaming.
- Her throws are too short. I’m too short.
- Fire burns. STDs burn.
- Fire is hard to put out. She won’t put out.
- I also need help to get started.
- Eating fire: Katrine won’t do that either.
- Getting more people to watch. Voyeurism.
- Fire only lasts a couple of minutes. Just like me.
- We both juggle fire. We both prefer women.
- Marriage lasts a lifetime. Scott lasts a minute.
- I juggle fire for a living so we know she certainly didn’t marry me for the money.
- “Fire going out” could mean love dying.
- “Grabbing the wrong end” could mean cheating on her.
- “Blowing it out” could be a sexual reference.
4. Use these combinations to create candidate jokes
These lists and combinations and another three hours work led us to these joke candidates:
SCOTT: Juggling fire is a lot like our marriage.
KATRINE: I’m smoking hot and Scotty is flaming.
KATRINE: Juggling fire together is a lot like our marriage.
(SCOTT tries to light KATRINE’s torches during the next two lines and fails.)
SCOTT: When Katrine does it, she’s smoking hot.
KATRINE: (Referring to SCOTT’s failure) And Scott needs better equipment to get me started.
KATRINE: Juggling fire together is a lot like a marriage.
SCOTT: To be safe, you have to make sure you never grab the wrong end.
KATRINE: And we have to move fast because the entire act usually lasts less than a minute.
KATRINE: Juggling fire always reminds me of you.
SCOTT: Why’s that?
KATRINE: Because it lasts less than a minute.
SCOTT: This routine is a lot like our marriage.
KATRINE: Yeah, because even after the fire’s out it keeps going and going and going.
KATRINE: How are my throws?
SCOTT: Perfect and beautiful. Just like you. How ‘bout mine?
KATRINE: (Long pause.) Ummmm … Short and too fast?
SCOTT: (Money pitch) But it’s not just about the money.
KATRINE: No. It’s about love.
SCOTT: And we think love is like a 20 dollar bill. It’s nice to have …
KATRINE: But it’s better when you share it with someone else.
SCOTT: And love for 20 bucks? That’s a bargain.
KAT: Scott usually has to pay me 50!
SCOTT: (Catching the last torch between his legs.) Ow. It burns.
KATRINE: That’s what you get for not wearing a condom.
SCOTT: We think of fire juggling less as a trick and more as a overly public murder/suicide pact.
(Trick ends with KATRINE preparing to eat fire but instead just blowing out the torch.)
SCOTT: Yeah, don’t be surprised. She never swallows. Not even on my birthday.
(Trick ends with KATRINE eating fire, putting the last torch out in her mouth.)
SCOTT: This trick here is a lot like our love life.
KATRINE: Yeah. I hate the taste, but he seems to like it.
SCOTT: (As KATRINE prepares to put the last torch out in her mouth.) This is my favorite part. But she almost never does it.
KATRINE: I’d do it more if you would. (She smothers the torch in her mouth. After applause, SCOTT hands her his last torch to put out.)
SCOTT: (Smiling evilly) Here, do mine.
KATRINE: No. You blow yours out yourself.
SCOTT: If I could that, I wouldn’t have married you!
While working on this, we also came up with several gags that weren’t mix jokes, along with a few that weren’t even about juggling fire. That’s typical. Whenever you’re writing jokes about one particular subject or using one particular method, you’ll also come up with other jokes using other methods at the same time.
SCOTT: (To the people in the path of the torches) A quick warning to you people over here. You’re going to have to move way back. This trick is probably not going to work.
KATRINE: Come on. Our therapist said you need to be more positive.
SCOTT: Okay. This definitely isn’t going to work … Move back.
SCOTT: You’ll notice that even though we’re married, we’re not wearing wedding rings. That’s because these knife handles are solid wood. It really hurts when these handles hit the your ring.
KATRINE: (Flirting with someone from earlier in the show) That’s not why I’m not wearing a ring.
SCOTT: Excuse me. The 100-mile rule doesn’t apply when I’m traveling with you.
KATRINE: What about the five-second rule? (KATRINE mouths “call me” to her audience paramour from earlier in the show.)
SCOTT: (Prepping to juggle fire) The one thing that separates man from the animals is mastery of fire. The thing that separates men from women …
KATRINE: (Interrupts) Restraining orders.
SCOTT: Let me tell you what it’s like being married to a Viking. On our wedding night? She tried to colonize me.
SCOTT: Our marriage is more like a marathon than a sprint.
KATRINE: It’s not fun while you’re doing it, but you can be really proud of yourself when it’s over.
KATRINE: This may surprise you, but when I first met Scotty, I wasn’t attracted to him at all.
SCOTT: I know. It’s hard to believe.
KATRINE: But then I realized we have so much in common. We both ride unicycles. We both juggle fire. We both prefer women.
5. Review your joke candidates
You’re looking to pick out the ones that you think are funny enough to try onstage one time. And please notice I didn’t say, “funny enough to put in your act.” I said, “funny enough to try.”
As with all comedy-writing methods, most of the jokes you write will be crap. Don’t worry about that. Don’t beat yourself up about it. And don’t worry about how not-funny your new gags look on paper. That’s not where they will be tested.
Before I started these columns, I never showed my joke drafts to anyone other than my juggling partners, who were also writing mostly crap. The few times I had a reason to show my drafts to outsiders, I saw the same disappointment in their eyes that you see when you’re practicing five clubs in the park and someone stops to watch you. First, they think they’re going to be impressed. Then they see you trying the same thing over and over again, dropping most of the time. Then they walk away muttering, “I guess that guy’s never going to make it into the circus.”
Fellow jugglers know better. “Wow, you got eight catches that time. Congrats!”
Now you know better too. “A couple of those jokes might not suck. Congrats!”
Jack Handey is a successful and prolific comedy writer. He wrote for Saturday Night Live for almost two decades. He’s written gags for both Steves: Allen and Martin, along with multiple books and humor articles for The New Yorker. Yet even with all this experience and success, he still estimates that only one out of ten of his jokes makes the cut.
I’d be happy with that ratio.
6. Test some of your new jokes onstage
You need to rehearse your new jokes enough that you make sure you remember to do them, but not so much that they get set in stone. We’re still way too early in the process for that! For a first try, just find someplace in the middle of your show where you can test them out.
Never open with a new joke. That’s the worst place in your show for new material. Lots of street performers use their newest tricks and routines as “warm-up tricks” before the “official start of the show,” but I advise against this. Gathering the crowd is the hardest part of a street show. Don’t make it any harder on yourself by using your least tested material. And don’t subject your newest, most vulnerable jokes to that most dangerous spot in your show. Instead nurture them. Nestle them between two solid routines where they will feel safe. That way you’ll really be able to tell if they suck.
This advice is even more critical when you’re doing comedy clubs. The audience is most judgmental during your first few minutes. Protect yourself and your new jokes from this hell.
Today we did three shows at Pier 39 and managed to try ten of these new jokes onstage. There are a few more we still want to try. These are our results so far:
- “It keeps going and going and going” worked okay. Not great. We’ll probably keep it in the back of our minds and try it as a saver for the next time we drop so much that our torches really are going out.
- “Short and too fast” is a perfect joke. Unfortunately our audiences didn’t agree. Idiots.
- “Scotty is flaming” went down in flames.
- “Scott needs better equipment to get me started” worked okay. We’ll try it again using a lighter that really is broken so it doesn’t look so staged.
- “Our therapist said you need to be more positive” worked okay. Not great. Definitely worth a rewrite and a few more tries.
- “Not wearing a ring” got a mixed reaction. Most people didn’t get it, but those that did laughed a lot. We’ll work on it some more.
- “I’d do it more if you would” and “If I could blow mine out myself I wouldn’t have married you” also got solid laughs, but only from a very small percentage of our crowd. The overall reaction wasn’t near big enough to justify doing a joke that dirty. We’ll try a rewritten version of this sequence again in a more adult setting and see if we can get it to work.
- “Scott usually has to pay me $50” didn’t get as big a laugh and wasn’t as effective as our regular money pitch, so we’re probably done with that one.
- “Overly public murder/suicide pact” died every time.
- “Restraining orders” got solid laughs all three shows. It’s staying in our show.
One out of ten already worth keeping? Yay!
Removing the training wheels
After you’ve practiced this method a few times, you may find yourself skipping some steps. You may even skip the lists altogether. That’s fine. Many comics streamline their process this way. To write mix jokes they just walk themselves through the content of one thing while applying the form of another. They only make physical lists when they get stuck.
Another common shortcut is to make only one list, a list of things that are in some way associated with both subjects. This is usually done by thinking through all kinds of possible associations with either subject in your head but only writing down the ones that are common to both.
When I’m writing jokes, as opposed to writing about writing jokes, I skip steps all the time. I switch between multiple methods without being aware of which ones I’m actually using. All the different comedy-writing methods I know are like juggling tricks. After enough practice, I stop thinking about the individual throws.
But whenever I get stuck, I go back to the basics. Throw higher. Turn faster. Make lists.
Spend three hours this month writing mix jokes for your show.
If you don’t have that much time, spend two hours writing mixes for mine.