One of the biggest differences between amateur joke tellers and professional comedians is their use of tags. A tag, also called a “capper,” “topper,” “kicker,” or “follow up,” is a gag that uses the previous joke as its setup.
Tags are one of the most powerful weapons in your comedy arsenal because it’s easier to keep an audience laughing than to get them to start laughing. As Greg Dean explains it:
“Think about how hard you have to push someone to make them step backward. If they are standing still, it can take a lot of force. But, once you get them off balance, all you have to do is push them with one finger to keep them stepping backwards.”
In comedy, tags are the finger.
Every successful comic takes advantage of tags. The most common jokes that comedians pitch to each other are tags.
Once you get the audience rolling, you want to keep them rolling, so after every joke you write, you should ask yourself: “How can I tag this?”
There are infinitely many ways to tag a joke. Here are a few of the most common:
Tag with a POV Shift
POV stands for Point Of View and a POV Shift happens when the performer moves from one POV to another. For example: from the person telling the joke (Narrator POV), to the performer experiencing the joke (Self POV), to a character in the joke (Character POV), to a person hearing the joke (Audience POV), or even to an object in the joke (Object POV). There are also Critic POV, Director POV, Writer POV, Actor POV, and more.
Greg Dean pioneered the term “POV Shift” for this structure. Judy Carter calls them “Act Outs.” I’ve also heard them called “Scene Work” or “Scenes” or “Acting Cappers.” I prefer the term POV Shift because it opens your eyes to a wider world of possible act outs and to get Greg to pay for my breakfast.
One common way of doing a POV Shift is to act out the joke you just told, its consequences, or the audience’s reaction to it.
You can tag a gag with a single POV Shift or turn your tag into an extended bit with a series of POV Shifts.
If you watch Robin Williams, Eddie Murphy, Maria Bamford, or Richard Pryor, you’ll see tons of POV Shifts. Even Steven Wright, who I thought didn’t do any when I started researching this article, does some.
(BTW, the hardest thing about researching this article for the IJA was finding clips of Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy where they weren’t swearing.)
Here’s Jim Gaffigan doing 6 jokes with 14 tags and 21 POV Shifts in the first 2.5 minutes:
The vast majority of standups use lots of POV Shifts. Sitcoms and movies rarely use them. Most variety acts don’t use them enough.
The better your acting skills, the better your POV Shifts can be. The richer, deeper, and more fully formed the characters are in your act outs, the better.
A series of POV Shifts for a juggler
I was searching the web for an example of a juggler doing a series of POV Shifts but couldn’t find anything that really illustrated what I was trying to say. So instead, I wrote this:
|After a drop you could become the dropped club, a Jewish mother passive aggressively apologizing for being dropped: “No. No. Just leave me here. You go on without me. I’ll be fine here on the ground.”Then your left hand blaming your right: “You know, this never would have happened if you just came to rehearsal instead of staying out partying all night with your little friend.”
Then your right hand trying to soothe your left: “Hey baby. Why you got to be like that?”
Then the left again, having none of the right’s bull: “Don’t you ‘hey baby’ me.”
The right: “Hey. I’m not the one who’s lying there on the ground holding up the show.”
Then both the left and right do a take to the club and the club responds, indignant that the hands are ganging up on it: “There you go again. Blaming the victim. You two should be ashamed of yourselves.”
And then to narrator POV: “This poor lady in the front row has NO IDEA what’s going on up here.”
Another POV Shift, and another chance to show off your acting chops as you become a member of the audience watching this surreal scene: “I thought it was supposed to be a juggling show. What? Now he’s a ventriloquist? We can see your lips move Mr. Juggler slash Ventriloquist.”
A return to Narrator POV, ending the bit with that little arm motion that all Improv groups end their scenes with: “And scene.”
And finally one more tag, back to the audience member: “Ooh. Improv. I like that. How about you’re two strangers at a bus stop? Or oh, oh, oh … I got a better one. You’re a juggler trying to make the audience forget that you screwed up.”
I don’t know how much if any of that would get laughs. But I do know how to find out!
Tag with an example
You can tag with a specific example of your punch or by making what you implied in your punch explicit. In a double entendre joke you can often tag just by explicitly stating the subtext.
Here’s a minute of the rare combination of smart and funny that is Rhys Thomas tagging with a series of examples:
The series starts at 2:57 and ends at 3:45. If you keep watching (and why wouldn’t you?) there’s a wonderful box joke (“3d”) and tag (“6D”) at 4:02.
After watching that video I couldn’t help myself. I emailed Rhys to suggest he try adding the following tags:
After: “There is no “i” in “Cyclops.”
Tag: “Shouldn’t there be one?”
Tag: “Right in the middle?”
Tag: (Reach arms even farther out.) “6 double D.”
Tag with a new shatter
You can tag with a new punch that shatters the same assumption as your previous joke. One simple way to do this is to just take your previous punch one step further. What would happen next? What would the consequences be if my punch were true? What new assumptions does my punch create?
You can tag by shattering a different assumption in your previous joke’s setup. If you’re writing jokes using the anything like the method I presented in Comedy Creationism you’ll have lots of candidates for this kind of tag lying around.
You can tag by shattering a new assumption created by your previous punch or tag. Some comics call a series of these “switchback tags” or “switchbacks.” Steve Martin’s classic bit about a real nice girl and her cat is built from three switchbacks.
Tag with a reaction
You can try tagging with your reaction to your previous punch or by commenting on the audience’s reaction to it like Michael Davis does in his opening hat balancing gags.
You can tag with a POV Shift to an audience member reacting. (Be aware, this is the most common and therefore can be the most cliché type of POV Shift.)
Tag with a call back
Call backs, also called “tie lines,” “running gags,” or by Improv people “reincorporation,” are simply punch lines that you use more than once in a show. Call backs are a super-powerful structure because they function as automatic inside jokes, unifying this particular audience as the people in the know.
That’s why call backs often don’t just get laughs. They get laughs and then cheers!
To be effective, your call backs don’t even have to be fully formed jokes. They can just be standard lines of dialog when planted and still function as punch lines when they are called back.
Of course it’s better when your call backs are real jokes when planted and great when they’re good enough to be independent jokes when harvested, but neither is required. In many nights of Improv, the reincorporations are not jokes at all and yet still they kill.
A good call back is so deeply satisfying that many comedians end their sets with them. It’s the standup’s version of torches on a unicycle. And when a call back appears improvised? It’s comedy gold!
Here’s Edward Jackman planting a carrot at 0:59, harvesting it at 6:27, and then again at 7:00. (He also does a call back to his bowling ball and machete at 5:10.)
A denial capper is a tag that’s powered by an apology for, or denial of, your previous joke.
Denial cappers are particularly easy to write after insults.
For example, if Katrine were to say to me: “You’re short. You’re boring. And nobody likes you.” She could easily follow that Hallmark moment with the denial capper: “Come on sweetheart. You know I’m just kidding. (beat) My mother likes you.” This tag would also leave her open to immediately deliver another denial capper: “I’m kidding. (beat) My mother hates you.”
Children instinctively know how to use denial cappers:
Billy says to Johnny: “You’re stupid.”
Billy’s mother tells Billy: “That’s not nice. Say you’re sorry.”
Billy apologizes to Johnny: “I’m sorry that you’re stupid.”
Anytime you find yourself saying: “Just kidding” or “It’s a joke” or making any kind of apology, you’ve created the opportunity to deliver a denial capper.
Your tags don’t have to be verbal. They can be physical too.
You can tag by physically acting out your previous punch, its consequences, or the audience’s or a character’s reaction to it.
Physical tags often don’t get new laughs of their own. Instead they often extend the previous laugh, making it longer and stronger.
And physical call-backs, like Edward did with the carrot and the bicycle spokes? Pure genius!
A detailed juggling example
Take a look at these 2 minutes from Katrine and my show:
I’m going to over-explain the tag structure below for pedagogical reasons (and to show off that I know the word “pedagogical”). While we were coming up with these jokes and tags we weren’t thinking about comedy structures. We were just trying to be funny. They do, however, illustrate some of the structural elements I’ve outlined above.
(Juggling 3 knives, interrupts KATRINE, who had been juggling 3 clubs.)
No, no, keep talking. I’m sure everyone is paying attention to you. [JOKE one upping her.]
That’s right. You have clubs. I have knives. I’m tougher than you. I’m better than you. And in just the right light …
I’m sexier. [Rule of three JOKE shattering an assumption about our relative attractiveness.]
(Scott makes what he mistakenly thinks is a sexy face and pose.) [Physical TAG acting out previous punch and extending previous laugh.]
And what light may that be?
Bud Light. [TAG shattering a different assumption, the meaning of the word “light,” in the previous setup.]
You think you’re so tough?
I am tougher than you.
Alright. You do what I do.
Alright. I’ll stop shaving my legs. [Insult JOKE shattering the assumption that we’ll be competing by juggling.]
She’s from Europe. It’s a forest down there. [TAG taking previous punch further.]
I have to climb sometimes. (SCOTT mimes climbing up KATRINE’s leg.) [TAG taking previous tag further.]
(NOTE: In the YouTube example above I softened the first tag and cut the second because there were so many kids in the audience. The written version above is how we usually perform it.)
I do too. I do. I do. I do. Look. (KATRINE pulls up her pants leg.)
(SCOTT bends down to stroke her leg.) Oh my gosh. You finally did. Ooooh.
Look closer. I did that just so they could see your bald spot. [Sucker punch JOKE shattering the assumption about why I was bending over.]
Oh it’s on. I challenge you.
You challenge me?
I challenge you. Let’s see who they like best. Let’s see what you got.
Alright. You try and keep up.
Under the wrist. (KATRINE does a chop.)
Under the wrist. (SCOTT does a chop.)
Over the face. (KATRINE does an over the head throw.)
Under the wrist. (SCOTT does a chop again.) [Rule of two JOKE shattering the assumption set up by the first two moves.]
Over the face. (Insisting that he do it.)
Fine. Over the … face. (SCOTT finally does his over the head throw.)
Under the leg. (KATRINE does a through the legs throw.) [Tag topping Scott’s previous punch.]
No! [Tag topping Katrine’s previous tag.]
(NOTE: The “No” above is how I performed it the YouTube example above. I now tag here with a call back to: “Over the face” instead.)
Don’t laugh lady. Theses are knives! [TAG taking previous punch further.]
Don’t laugh. He’s not risking that much. [Insult TAG shattering assumption created by previous tag.]
In that sequence Katrine and I get 13 laughs and 2 rounds of applause in just over two minutes. We couldn’t get those 6+ Laughs Per Minute without taking advantage of tags.
Another juggling example
Or check out the Raspyni Brothers getting almost 9 Laughs Per Minute in this 1:15:
Notice how dense their laughs are: 11 solid laughs from 4 Jokes and 7 tags in just over a minute!
(In our defense, the Raspyni clip is from the 1980s, before the big laugh recession of 2009 and Barry is cheating with all that hair.)
Once Dan & Barry get the audience to start laughing, they keep them laughing. At times there are only a few seconds between their laughs. One of the main tools they use to accomplish this is tagging, in this particular case with tags that take their previous punch or tag one step further.
You wouldn’t get that kind of laugh density just from a series of independent jokes. The setups alone would take too long. That’s the power of tags. They are the easiest, most efficient way to increase your Laughs Per Minute.
Find the best laughs in your show and tag them. Keep trying different tags until you find ones that work.