Whenever my old partner Rich Ross and I came up with a joke that was based solely on structure, usually a call back or a denial capper, we would throw our arms in the air and yell, “Structure? Genius!” We even did it when watching other people’s shows. This taught us a lot about the power of structure and it wasn’t long before acts who were just starting out, looking for help writing new jokes, began to ask us not to come to their shows anymore.
In my previous article on joke structure I introduced three different methods for writing Setup-Assumption-Connector-Shatter-Punch jokes: forward from the front, out from the middle, and backwards from the end. If you haven’t read that article yet, I suggest you do that now because this month we’re going to examine each of the elements in the structure of these lead away jokes. We’re going to dig deep into the bowels of the comedy of misdirection.
Hee hee. I typed bowels. That’s where poop comes from.
What makes a good setup?
You want your setups to be organic. You want them to be lines your character would say and things your character would do even if a punch weren’t coming. Your audience will laugh even more when they’re not just surprised by the content of your punch. They’re not even expecting a punch!SCOTTY: (After KATRINE has successfully whipped a cigarette out of his mouth without hurting him.) Have I told you how much I loved you yet today? KATRINE: (Surprised by his public intimacy) No … SCOTTY: There’s a reason.
One thing that makes people laugh is the release of tension. You want setups that create or increase tension to give your punches something to release:DAVE: Right now Sean is throwing the knives in single spins. SEAN: That’s one flip per blade. DAVE: Double flips are twice as hard. (Styles to SEAN.) SEAN: (Beat.) Yes, that’s true. (Continues to do single spins.)
Michael Goudeau likes to find setups by imagining what his show would be like if he actually were the act he’s pretending to be: The greatest juggler in the world! The greatest juggler in the world would juggle knives while blindfolded? Goudeau makes that his setup. (I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to write a punch. If you want to see Goudeau’s punch, build a time machine, fly to Vegas, buy tickets to the Lance Burton Show, and sorry, I can’t get you comps.)
Your setup needs to have enough ambiguity that it leads the audience to assume something that you can shatter. You want it to strongly imply something without explicitly stating it:MICHAEL DAVIS: (Juggling 2 balls.) A really good juggler could do this and even look away. (MICHAEL then continues to stare at the balls.)
And of course, being Michael Davis, he follows this with multiple tags.
If you’re not finding any good connectors to reinterpret or assumptions to shatter in your setup, that’s easy to fix. Just make the setup a bit more ambiguous and things that used to be explicitly stated instantly become assumptions instead.
You can substitute a pronoun for a noun; turn a word into a gesture; or use “that” or “them” instead of “him” or “her” to add ambiguity. Each of these changes creates a new connector and plants a seed that can grow into a new joke.
For example: If your setup was: “I’m going to juggle these knives,” you can change it to: “I’m going to juggle these” and simply point towards the knives. This transforms the knives from an explicit statement into an assumption that you can then shatter.
BTW: That original setup, “I’m going to juggle these knives,” already did have several assumptions associated with it:
- The knives are not bolted to the table;
- They’re sharp;
- They’re metal;
- They’re yours;
- Their handles are fastened on;
- You can lift them;
- And many more.
But your new setup, “I’m going to juggle these,” has even more:
- You’re referring to the knives, not the sheaths that they’re in;
- You’re referring to the knives, not the table and rug that they’re on;
- You’re talking about the thing you’re pointing at, not the fingers you’re using to point;
- And many, many more.
And just writing those additional assumptions led me directly to these jokes:“I’m going to juggle these.” (Juggler points two fingers at three knives. Juggler then changes her focus from the knives to her fingers. Then manipulates her fingers in complex patterns, ‘juggling’ them.) “I’m going to juggle these.” (Juggler points at three knives on a table on a rug. Juggler then picks up the table letting the knives fall to the ground, kicks up the rug, then balances the table on her chin while spinning the rug.)
Leading away with acting and emotion
I find it fascinating that your attitude while delivering your setup can be completely in line with its assumed meaning as opposed to its eventual meaning. You can even continue this misleading acting through much of your punch. You don’t have to change until the reveal.
(FYI: The reveal is the word or action in the punch that causes the audience to make the mental leap from your first story to your second story. It’s the part of your punch that makes them jump from their assumption to your shatter. Or to put it more simply: It’s the thing they start laughing immediately after. In the example below the reveal is: “court order.”)SCOTTY: We love performing for children, because … (Pauses to look at Katrine for permission to say it) … well because we can’t have kids of our own. KATRINE: (Starts to tear up and then, reacting to audience’s “awwww,” explains defensively) No. It’s not a biological thing. It’s a court order.
It’s as if your character believes the first story all through the setup and even into the punch, all the way up to the reveal. You discover the shatter at the same time the audience does so your acting, your emotions, your physicality, and everything you do can be designed to lead the audience toward the assumption and away from your punch.
You can do everything to reinforce and guide your audience to the assumption you’re about to shatter but if you explicitly state it, the joke collapses. It ceases to be a joke and simply becomes a contradiction.
In most cases, the more you lead your audience away with your acting, the bigger your laughs will be. The more your emotions and motivations change from the setup to the punch, the better.
What makes a good assumption?
You need to know your audience. You need to know what they’re thinking, expecting, and assuming; otherwise you won’t have anything to shatter.
Assumptions are often based on common knowledge. If you’re not sure that enough of your audience shares the needed information, you can add it to your setup.
Late night TV comics have to do this kind of front-loading all the time:Jay Leno: Former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford is the guy who told his wife he was going for a hike and then went to Argentina to see his girlfriend. He was exposed as an unethical, lying, cheating weasel. In a stunning comeback, he has been elected to Congress, where he’ll fit right in. David Letterman: I feel bad for Barack Obama. He’s got the Benghazi scandal, the IRS scandal, and the FBI wiretapping phones. The president is in so much trouble politically, he’s thinking about killing bin Laden again. Conan O’Brien: We have a new Pope. The Vatican has chosen the first ever Argentinean Pope. So once again, a bunch of old white guys got a Hispanic to do a job they didn’t want to do.
At a juggling convention you could probably get a laugh from the jogglers just by saying:“You know, nobody ever asks a marathon runner: ‘Can you do 27?’”
But for an audience of regular jugglers you might have to add:“You know, nobody ever asks a marathoner who’s just run 26 miles: ‘Can you do 27?’”
And for an audience of laypeople? I’ll bet you’d have to weigh down your setup with all this excess baggage:“Whenever someone watches me practice juggling 5 clubs, they always ask ‘Can you do 6?’ But have you ever noticed, nobody ever asks a marathon runner who’s just run 26 miles: ‘Can you do 27?’”
Of those three versions I like the first, I’m fine with the second and I think that all that extra weight kills the third.
However, as a response to a heckler who yells, “Do 6,” this streamlined version might work even for a lay audience because the heckler has just created the common knowledge that you need:JUGGLER: I will now juggle 5 balls … HECKLER: (Interrupting) Do 6! JUGGLER: What an idiot. That’s like going to a marathon and yelling, “Do 27!!!”
One good way to front-load is to disguise it by dropping the necessary information in several jokes earlier than it will be used. That way, instead of weakening your punch by telegraphing it, it can make your punch feel almost like a callback.
Some comics are experts at invisibly planting common knowledge. Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert are super skilled at this. Plus, they work in a format that lets them front-load so much of the information needed for their jokes that on average people who watched at least 2 hours per week of these fake news shows were better informed than people who watched 4 or more hours per week of Fox News.
I try to avoid front-loading. I prefer to write jokes that rely on information the audience already shares rather than info I have to give them but sometimes I can’t avoid it. Just like a mystery writer who has to summarize all the clues planted in the first 3 chapters to make sure everyone’s on the same page before starting chapter 4, comedy writers sometimes have to spoon-feed their audiences too.
What makes a good connector?
When writing a joke forward from the front, we start with a setup and try to find a good assumption to shatter. When writing a joke backwards from the end, we start with what we hope will be a good punch and look for a natural way to surprise the audience with it. When I use either of these methods I don’t even think about the connector. It just appears naturally. In fact, I often wouldn’t even know what my connector was unless I went back and specifically tried to analyze my new joke and who has time for that?
But when writing a joke out from the middle, the connector is the most important thing.
When using a verbal connector, you’re looking for a word or phrase that can have more than one meaning. You’re not looking for a word that merely sounds like another word. That is a recipe for writing puns and this column is not called “Be Punnier with Scotty Meltzer” and from your reaction, now you know why.
Audiences rarely laugh at puns. They groan or they say, “Oh, I get it.” For me, this reaction is the very definition of a pun. If it gets a laugh, it’s a joke. If they groan, it’s a pun.
“But what about doing a pun, getting a groan, and then getting a laugh with a saver?”
My belief is that it’s always better to spend that same amount of time doing a joke, getting a laugh, and then getting another laugh with a tag but rather than have that argument, let me just say: If you want to do puns, go ahead. I already have too much competition.
I like connectors where the emotions and motivations are different for the two different interpretations, not just the meaning of the connector.
I like physical connectors. Not a lot of juggling acts use them so they make your act look different from everyone else’s. Plus, they force the audience pay closer attention than they would for an act using just verbal connectors.
Here’s Charlie Chaplin describing one of his gags with a physical connector:
“Figuring out what the audience expects, and then doing something different, is great fun to me. In one of my pictures, The Immigrant, the opening scene showed me leaning far over the side of a ship. Only my back could be seen and from the convulsive shudders of my shoulders it looked as though I was seasick. If I had been, it would have been a terrible mistake to show it in the picture. What I was doing was deliberately misleading the audience. Because, when I straightened up, I pulled a fish on the end of a line into view, and the audience saw that, instead of being seasick, I had been leaning over the side to catch the fish. It came as a total surprise and got a roar of laughter.”
Chaplin uses that same physical connector, his shaking shoulders, again in his movie The Idle Class:
And here’s Mike Goudeau using a carrot as a physical connector. First as a projectile, next as knife, then bunny ears, and finally, well, take a look:
What makes a good shatter?
You can improve a shatter by making it more extreme.
You don’t just want to break the audience’s assumptions. You want to SHATTER them.
You can imbue your shatters with emotions that conflict with your audiences’ assumptions.
You can make your shatters more detailed. This doesn’t mean making your punch longer or more complex. It means making the world your punch implies, also called the second story or the target assumption, more vivid and more filled out. The laughs are in the details and any one of those details can lead you to a better punch.
A good shatter doesn’t have to be the negation or the opposite of the assumption. It could be an exaggeration of the assumption or an inappropriate reaction to the assumption or a surprising consequence of their assumption.
But no matter how you shatter your audience’s assumptions, your shatters should be more negative than their assumptions. Otherwise, instead of laughing, the crowd will just go, “awwwww.”
More negative includes: dirtier, more dangerous, more insulting, more inappropriate, stupider, more confused, or more offensive. Jokes are built around negative opinions. In general, you will get bigger laughs whenever you push your audience past their comfort zone. You might also get fired. But you will get bigger laughs.
But keep in mind, if you push too far, all the way past your audience’s comfort zone and out the other side into their hurt zone, they may turn on you. “Ha, ha, ha, I can’t believe she said that” can quickly turn into: “Ooooooh, she’s not funny at all” and every comic who dances on the edge learns that when you go too far, it can be a long trip back.
What makes a good punch?
Next month’s article will be all about punches. It’ll include several ways to write them along with some general rules about how to improve them including:
- Keep your punches short.
- Punch. Don’t push.
- End with the reveal.
- Optimize the logic gap.
There are exceptions to all the rules in this article. Comedy is built on breaking expectations and every rule sets up an expectation that someone can shatter with a joke.
But these rules will serve you well as general guidelines and they’re always excellent tools to start with when you’re trying to improve a gag.
Analyze the three biggest laughs in your show. What is the audience assuming? How are you shattering that? What’s the connector? Next, analyze the three worst jokes in your show. What’s the difference?