5 Elements of a Great Joke
Stand-up comedy is more than just telling jokes on stage. It’s an art, and one that requires skills honed over years of practice. The way comedians perform their material is far different from how you tell that funny tale at your work holiday party. So what makes a great joke work? The YouTube video series The Nerdwriter took a look at how a joke from Louis C.K. is constructed. Here are some of the most important parts of a joke and its delivery, and why the comedian is so effective, according to the video:
That’s what the joke is about. So Louis C.K. might be talking about playing Monopoly with his kids, and how his 6-year-old doesn’t really get it. That’s the premise. And if that premise has its own joke embedded within it—like when he references his daughter’s inability to grapple with her “inevitable loss in every game”—even better.
A great comedian knows when people are going to react to a bit, and what to emphasize, when to pause, etc. Louis C.K. knows when to continue the joke, hammering home the punch line with another few sentences along the same lines. In his joke about Monopoly, he repeats the idea of him taking his kid's play money three different times: “That’s mine now. Gotta give it all to me. Give it to me, that’s right.” And the laughs continue with him.
Louis C.K. is great at painting a mental picture of what he’s describing. He uses gestures to emphasize certain parts of the joke, like touching his hand to his heart when he tells the punch line.
4. BROADER COMMENTARY
At the heart of it, Louis C.K.’s joke about destroying his kid in Monopoly and taking all of her hard-earned play money away could be seen as a commentary on what happens every day to adults in the real world, who often lose out to corporate interests. If you think about how a 6-year-old feels about losing her Monopoly money, it’s also an analogue of what happens to, for instance, a family losing its house to a bank.
5. TIGHT CONSTRUCTION
Every word of a great comedian’s joke matters, either to the story or to the rhythm of the bit. It has to be distilled to its most potent, condensed version, or the audience will get bored. When a joke is written well, there shouldn’t be any extraneous content. And when it’s really on-point, that’s when the audience keeps on laughing at every sentence.