On The Art of Joke-telling and Writing Prose
When I was younger, joke-telling was extremely important in my family culture. I have multiple memories of my dad hearing a new joke, calling one of his brothers to tell him the joke, and then immediately calling the next sibling in line so he could prevent the sibling he had just told the joke to from calling them first and stealing his thunder. Christmas parties and similar family gatherings would feature jokes the uncles had intentionally held back for the event. Talking frogs were everywhere; I thought golf was the most popular sport there was. It was pandemonium.
If knowing the jokes was important, being able to tell them was equally so. There’s a Louis L’Amour trope in which one of his tough western protagonists explains that he’s good at shooting because during his backwoods childhood ammunition was expensive and missing wasn’t an option; the same sort of pressures were in play here. Every man in my dad’s generation could immediately tell a joke they had just heard to perfection, even if the joke-teller they had got it from couldn’t.
It was with these kinds of ideas of joke-telling fully internalized that I, the most bookish of the next generation of the contrarian family, gained access to the internet. I was 13-ish and had an extraordinary amount of free time. I was also in the process of sort of being re-inserted into society after a few years living in a bus (it’s both a longer and more boring story than it sounds like), and suddenly had nearly unlimited non-family targets to practice on.
In the golden age-range where most of the other kids couldn’t do original humor of any real sophistication, I learned hundreds-to-thousands of jokes. Not all of them were good, but I had literal hours of material, and used them. I spent hours trying to figure out why one joke worked and another didn’t. If you are imagining me whipping up spreadsheets and writing field notes on legal pads, you aren’t that far from the truth; I was briefly convinced I’d find some greater truths there, even if I didn’t.
Eventually I got pretty good (I think) and I learned what (I think) are interesting things about the form. I also think I learned some superficially unrelated stuff in the process - namely how to write - and I’d like to talk about that as well.
Note for the mild: I don’t think you can talk about jokes in any real depth without actually telling some, and I don’t think I can talk about jokes in a complete way without telling a variety of them. That means a range of on-and-off color and profanity might occur; any aunts of mine who might be reading this have been forewarned.
When I talk about jokes above, I am not talking about puns, quips, wordplay or improvised humor as you’d lay them down in a conversation; those are often funny, but not really what anyone means by. What I’m talking about are what I think of as formatted jokes, i.e. jokes that are designed in such a way that they work as intended even when written down, relayed to another party and re-delivered verbatim. They also almost always have two distinct sections: the setup (the story part of the joke, the part you don’t typically laugh during) and the punchline.
When people talk about being good at telling jokes, what they usually mean whether they know it or not is that a person is good at setting up jokes. For reasons I’ll get into a bit later, punchlines are almost always as short as possible and don’t allow for much variance. The setup, on the other hand, does; it can be edited and embellished in any way that allows the punchline to work. This allows for a certain level of artistry; it’s not truly creative, but different joke-tellers will have different styles often as divergent as two different singers covering the same standard.
Some people go for length; they stretch the joke setup so there’s more room for embellishment. If the joke calls for an exploding bird because the punchline needs someone to notice feathers strewn about, you might see something like this:
So there’s feathers everywhere; there are feathers on the couch. There’s feathers in the carpet, in the rafters. The guy reaches up and there’s feathers in his fucking hair. The room looks like a pillow-fight factory murdered a flock of geese.
They are counting on those embellishments to make the joke work. If a joke-teller is good at embellishing, he’s not only got the laughs he squeezed out of you during the joke, but he’s also softened you up for the punchline; you are already laughing, and now he’s going to make you laugh harder.
This is a style that ends up either succeeding or failing spectacularly - those that can pull it off can sometimes improve simple, mediocre jokes into something better, while those that can’t end up delivering endless torture and wonder why the punchlines they deliver to their exhausted prisoners don’t hit.
Here’s the equivalent faked joke section from the other stylistic extreme:
There’s feathers everywhere, all around the room.
I know that this probably looks much less funny, but the minimalist style here often works better; if this was a whole, real joke, you might very well end up laughing harder with this style than the other. That’s because the minimalist joke style is doing everything it can to get you all the vital points of the joke setup in favor of getting you to the punchline as soon as possible. It’s arguably true that the embellished, long-form joke-teller above has a higher ceiling on how hard you might laugh, but the short-form minimalist is going to be endlessly more consistent.
I bring up the distinction in styles because it helps me talk about what a formatted joke is, and how it works. Regardless of the style used, both joke-tellers are working towards a common goal: they are building up the potential of the punchline. The setup of the joke is superficially about making the punch-line possible (the chicken has to cross the road for “to get to the other side” to have any meaning), but more importantly it’s building up tension; it’s storing potential energy for eventual release.
So before we get into the boring details, here’s a more or less lame joke that I know from experience is kind of funny but overall doesn’t perform very well with most people:
A man at a bar gets very drunk, and the bartender cuts him off. The drunk is pissed off and stumbles out of the bar, cussing and complaining. A few minutes later, he stumbles back into the bar through a side door and asks for a drink; the bartender says “No, I already told you are too drunk. Go home.”
The drunk stumbles out, but stumbles in again a few minutes later through a different side door, demanding a drink. The bartender kicks him out, but sure enough, a few minutes later he comes in through the back door of the bar, stumbles through the kitchen, and finally makes it to the bar and asks for another drink. The bartender tells him no.
The drunk looks up at him, broken, and says “Man, how many bars do you work at?”
Because this joke is kind of funny, we can analyze it. The joke does everything it’s supposed to do. It sets up the possibility of the punchline by having our intrepid intoxicated protagonist enter the bar several times through different doors despite his stumble-drunk status. It builds up tension; unless they figure it out beforehand, the listener has plenty of time to wonder where you are going with this. There’s even room to hang embellishment if you want. The structure is all there, but it’s a filler joke at best; nobody is going to hear this joke and pee their pants laughing.
So why doesn’t it work? It comes down to what a punchline does: it relieves the tension you’ve built up during the joke. But the way a punchline does this is through shock; it surprises you. It’s a sudden change in direction that whips your head around and resolves the tension of the rest of the joke in a way you aren’t prepared for.
Whether the setup is delivered with the soften-them-up-with-artillery style of the embellisher or the ambush-them-by-night tactics of the minimalist, the point is to betray you. It’s the humor-instead-of-fear equivalent of leading you blindfolded to your surprise birthday party and then, in a surprise twist, removing the blindfold just before pushing you off a cliff. But if the surprise isn’t big enough, the “heh, I guess he was pretty drunk” of the joke above doesn’t cut it.
Here’s the same joke, but funnier:
A man comes home very late and very drunk one night, and is confronted by his wife, who accuses him of messing around with other women. “There’s no other woman!” he says. “I just found this amazing bar - it’s called the Golden Saloon. Everything is gold. The counters are gold. The glasses are gold! Even the urinals are gold!” He then passes out.
The next morning while he’s still sleeping it off, the wife decides to verify the story. She looks in the phone book, and sure enough there’s a bar called the golden saloon. She calls, they answer, and she begins her interrogation.
”Is this the golden saloon?”
”And your counters are gold?”
”Yes, Ma’am, they are.”
”And your glasses are all gold?”
”And even the urinals are gold?”
At this, there’s a moment of silence at the other end of the line for a moment before the man responds.
”Hey, Bob!” he shouts. “I think we got a lead on the guy who peed in your tuba!”
This joke is funnier. It does a slightly better job of building tension, but not much; the real difference is in the shock. Both jokes feature a confused drunk man, but layering on a bigger, more counterintuitive surprise forces a bigger reaction. Now here’s the same joke, but one that’s consistently hilarious to almost everyone:
A man is in a bar, drinking. At some point during the night he can sense he’s had too many and decides to go home, but when he tries to stand up from his stool he finds his legs are unsteady and collapses.
He decides that some fresh air will do his drunken head some good, so he army crawls to the door, pulls himself up on the frame, breathes in some cool night air and does feel a lot better. But when he lets go of the door to walk home, he immediately falls down again.
He’s drunk, but not too drunk to not know he needs to get home before his wife wakes up and sees how late he’s been out; since his house is nearby, he army crawls all the way there. By this time, he feels he’s probably sobered up enough to stand, but when he pulls himself up on the rail of his porch and then lets go, he immediately falls down again. Defeated, he army crawls up the stairs and pulls himself into bed, his sleeping wife non-the-wiser.
Despite his confidence he had fooled his wife, when he wakes up the next morning she’s standing over him, looking down disapprovingly.
”So I guess you got pretty drunk at the bar last night?” She asks.
”Why would you say that?” He responds, innocently.
His wife sighs. “Well, for one, you forgot your wheelchair again.”
Despite everyone knowing something like six ways that last joke doesn’t make sense, it kills. All three jokes are on a fundamental level the same joke, but only the last one destroys. And it’s even potentially a little counter-intuitive that it does. It would be reasonable for a scientifically minded person to guess that the potential for offense in that joke - and the potential is there, even if we all know that disabled people can get very drunk just like anyone else - would worry the listener, stifling whatever laugh you might have otherwise got.
But that’s not what happens; the potential offense turbocharges the joke. You might have noticed that a surprising amount of jokes are on the topic of sex; dirty jokes are considered by most to be the funniest category in the formatted-joke world. I asked a fair amount of people why they thought jokes with potentially (or very probably, or certainly) offensive sexual jokes were often considered funnier, and got answers like “Because they reveal dark things we confront in the moment” and “They aren’t; the people are just trying to be transgressive, to have an excuse to break rules.” And make no mistake - there are joke-tellers that do seek out the most offensive jokes for offense’s sake.
While I think the assumptions the people above made are potentially partially correct, I also think they miss the point. The actual reason dirty jokes hit harder is simply because they amplify the punchline artificially, like a form of joke cheating. Remember that the fundamental purpose of the punchline is to shock, and adding in elements to a joke that are independently shocking more or less dopes the punchline, increasing the payload. Consider the following not-that-good-without-sex-great-with-it joke:
A woman has had a string of bad relationships; the men she’s been with have consistently either hit her, left her, or were flat out lousy in bed. She decides to give romance one last try, and takes a personal ad out, clearly stating that she will only consider a non-abusive, non-abandoning man who is skilled in the sack.
A bunch of men reply to the ad, but all of them seem lacking in at least one of the three departments. She has just about given up all hope when there is one last ring at her doorbell; she opens the door to find a man with no arms and no legs sitting in a chair outside her door.
He seems like a nice enough guy, but she has misgivings. Before she can say so, he says:
”Listen, I know what you are thinking. But think about it some more; I have no arms. I can’t hit you. I don’t have any legs; I can’t run away.”
”I see that,” she says. “but how are you in bed?”
He grins. ”How do you think I rang the doorbell?”
It’s not impossible to compete with the extra shock of the sex joke, but it takes a lot. One of the jokes I use when I can’t do dirty jokes goes like this:
A journalist is driving down a country road when he sees a pig with a prosthetic rear leg sitting on a farm porch with a farmer. Curious, he pulls down the driveway and asks “Hey, what’s the story with the pig?”
“Oh, that’s an amazing animal,” The farmer says. “When my boy fell in the river, he tossed him a rope and hauled him out before he drowned. When a wolf tried to get the sheep, he fought them off. And when the house caught fire one night, he banged on all the windows until he woke us up. Saved all our lives.”
”That’s amazing!” says the journalist. “But how did he lose the leg?”
“Oh,” says the farmer, “A pig that good you don’t eat all at once.”
That joke competes with sex jokes, but look at all it has to do in order to do so; it has layers of oblivious thanklessness, culture shock, body horror and naivety of audience all rolled into package and it still barely makes it. When asking around for opinions on this column, an ACX commenter pointed me at this gem:
An Irishman is downtown for an important job interview scheduled for 2:00 PM, but is having a lot of trouble finding parking; it’s 1:55 PM, and if he doesn’t find parking soon he’s going to lose out on the job. He prays, saying “lord, if you help me find a spot, I swear I’ll be a better man; I won’t run around town with strange women. I’ll give up the drink.”
Just as he finishes praying, a car pulls out of a parking spot directly in front of him.
”Never mind, lord!” he says. “I found one already!”
That joke is reasonably funny, and seems simple. But some of you might feel a gnawing sense of familiarity from it. That’s likely because of this video, which has been making the rounds for several years (skip to 2:40 if the timestamp doesn’t work, and listen to the lost man/blizzard story):
For that joke to begin to compete with a simple sex joke, all it needed was a punch-line that in an only slightly altered form was interesting enough for a relatively famous and respected author to do five minutes on in what would become one of the more famous commencement speeches of all time. It’s not that there aren’t ways around the offensiveness shortcut; there are. But damn, what a shortcut it is, right?
I have occasionally had conversations with people who are legitimately confused as to why drug addicts become addicted to drugs; they don’t get why they’d try them, but they certainly don’t understand why they’d continue to use them to the point of addiction, especially having satisfied their curiosity with the first use. They react with legitimate skepticism when you tell them, listen, drugs feel good. They might be hurting you by doing the drugs and creating externalities, but their purpose in doing the drugs isn’t specifically to hurt you; that’s a byproduct.
I think the same thing is somewhat true here. Increasingly, the kind of people who still tell racist jokes are actual racists; I’m sure there’s exceptions, but most of us wouldn’t touch them these days. Some people who tell sexual jokes probably are, as some very conservative people I’ve known claim, perverts of some sort. But for the most part the people telling the jokes aren’t telling them because they are racist or sexual but because of the effect they believe offensive content has within a joke; namely, they think it will make the joke funnier. They might be racists or perverts, but their purpose in telling the racist or sexual jokes isn’t in pursuit of those things, or at least isn’t always.
(I’m not always as clear as I should be, so just to clarify: The point of jokes is to make people feel good, not to make them feel bad. Don’t tell jokes that will hurt people.)
It’s been a long time since I regularly told formatted jokes, or at least I tell them much less often than I used to. At some point I got older; some of the funnier, dirtier jokes got less appropriate and I had fewer people who would appreciate them. I also became more capable of being funny independent of the jokes and needed them less. But they still mean enough to me that I’m willing to write perhaps too-long explainer on them for an interesting reason: I’m pretty sure they taught me to write.
I have on several occasions this year told various people that I’m not entirely sure why I’m able to write at a level anyone wants to read. I have a sub-high-school level education and I am dead serious when I say that I could not tell you what a preposition or a predicate are or do in a sentence. I have read a fair bit, but I’ve had nothing even kind of resembling creating writing training at any point in my story.
But I did have jokes. Near the beginning of the article I talked about two forms of joke telling, one studded with a lot of decoration and one stripped down to racing speed. I’ve told hundreds of jokes in both forms and in learning which jokes worked better with which style also apparently picked up a bit about where to use more or less words on a page. Understanding a punchline helped me understand impact and what it takes to actually make a sentence work; it taught me how to pack meaning into minimal space.
Understanding both the benefits and costs of using offense as a tool taught me a lot about the wisdom of reading your audience, but also about the potential futility of trying to do anything meaningful in a completely safe way. Understanding the pacing of a joke gave me cadence; understanding the attention span of an audience gave me a sense of where to place beats.
I’m not telling you to go out and learn jokes as a way to write. I’m moderately confident it helped me in the way I’m describing, but if so only over the course of years and years of practice in an environment much friendlier to formatted jokes than today. But I will say that to the extent jokes did help my writing, it was because they were one of many ways to immerse myself in words - not only reading them, but playing with them like toys until I found the right combinations to unlock magic. Whether your version of that is writing poetry or posting in a forum, I encourage you to keep doing it; practice, it turns out, is practice. And the use of words is more universal than you might think.
Post-Article Advertising Stuff
The article is over (you can stop reading!), but I have a couple things I’m plugging as an experiment, both of which I use, and both of which are (full disclosure) traffic-trade barter situations; I like both these things but this is essentially an ad and you should take the appropriate grain of salt.
The first is The Sample, an algorithm-driven “random newsletter in our inbox” service. I use this one because because the “stable” of newsletters they push is based off user-recommends and stuff the founder has personally curated, but it manages to still feel very “random” in the sense that it’s actually showing me niche/unusual blogs I wouldn’t be able to find by myself.
The second (Refind) is newer to me, but I’ve been liking it so far; it’s a bit “more curated” in the sense that the average blog I see is probably a little more “professional” than The Sample, but much less random. It’s also a bit more self driven, in that you eventually are building it into a more self-curated digest format of things you’ve found and liked. The overall ad for them is this at the bottom of the article, if you want to see how they describe themselves.
I’m sort of figuring out if this is something I want to do in terms of plugging things at all; I’m trying to figure out the balance between getting the blog in front of more people (which I deeply, selfishly want) and bothering the people who already read. This definitely takes up some room, and I’m figuring out whether things like this are A. something that feels right for the blog and B. how to best handle it/format things if they are. Let me know any feedback you might have on it.
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