How to Write Jokes

Ransom Riggs

OK, this is really more about how not to write jokes -- but sometimes learning by negative example is helpful, too. Jane Espenson is a TV writer and producer, and knows a thing or two about good jokes and bad -- and in a recent blog on the topic, she gave what might sound like contradictory advice: don't put the funniest part at the end. The cautionary example she uses is a not-very-funny McDonald's commercial:

A man says "... when my luggage went to the Bahamas ... and I didn't!" Oh, the attempted joke is so painful! Jokes are about surprises. What is the surprise in the second half of that line? There is none. Of COURSE he didn't go. If he'd gone to the Bahamas he wouldn't have worded the first part that way! You don't say, "My luggage went to the Bahamas and I had a great time there." Nonsense. The thing that makes this really shameful, of course, is the ellipsis. The pause is a very interesting comedy device. You can only use it when what follows is really good. It's an investment that the writer (or actor) is making in the joke. If it pays off, then if pays off bigger because of the pause. But if it fails, you lose everything. In this particular ad, the pause isn't just a short pause either, but a long one, with the actor turning to look down, then a WIDEN TO REVEAL shot change, which shows us that the actor is standing at an almost-empty luggage carousel, and then he looks back into camera for the "And I didn't." That is way too much weight for almost any joke! Especially for one with the fatal flaw of not being a joke.

Jane's advice? Throw the joke away. Or at least pretend to by either putting something else after it to soften the punchline, or by getting rid of the begging-for-laughs pause before the punchline. In other words, take out the rimshot/slide whistle/laugh track. Don't you find comedies without laugh tracks just as funny -- if not funnier, often times -- than comedies with laugh tracks? She sums it up this way:

If you want to be funnier than McDonald's, write actual jokes, and if you really want to be classy, throw them away.

The ultimate joke-thrower-awayer, of course, is Stephen Wright. He throws them away so quickly it's almost exhausting, and with such straight-faced conviction that you think he might be wondering what the hell the audience is laughing at. Whaddaya mean? Who's telling jokes?

Also why Stephen Wright is funny and non-obvious throw-away jokes are great: because you've got to use your brain a little to figure out what's funny and why -- and when you yourself do that little bit of work to catch the joke on your proverbial hook, isn't that more fun than someone just serving it up to you with a big obvious punchline and a laugh-track?