Friends laughing

How to write a joke

By BBC Maestro

Are you trying your hand at joke writing? Coming up with something funny can feel like an enormous pressure, especially if you’re new to stand-up or comedy writing.

But never fear – like most types of writing, there’s a reassuring amount of structure and technique that goes into writing a joke, which breaks the process down and makes it far less daunting. All you have to do is find an original take on a topic. 
 
In this article, we break down how to write a joke, giving you an insight into what’s beneath the bonnet of a polished comedy routine.  

What makes a good joke? 

At its simplest, a good joke should make you laugh, and its humour usually lies in the element of surprise. The content can be anything: observations on everyday life, politics, family, animals. Then, the comedian takes this topic and makes it unexpected. A surprise, twist or subversion is what will bring the laughs, so play around with your theme until you find something unique and unexpected about it. 
 
We’ve all heard the phrase, “It’s the way you tell ‘em!” Yes, the joke lives or dies on its delivery; but in order for it to be greeted with laughs and whoops (or wry smiles, depending on the demographic), it has to be well-written in the first place. The perfect joke is a combination of strong content and excellent delivery. 
 
The performance needs pace and timing, with a punchline that’s delivered with suitable aplomb. If it suits the delivery, you can add elements of physical comedy, too. 
 
While you’re planning and writing new material, always keep one thing in mind – surprise! Your joke needs to be a well-told story that finishes on a surprising plot twist. 

Joke structure 

Within this structure, a good joke will feature several narrative elements. It helps when you’re writing jokes to remember that each one is a story – yes, even the humble knock-knock joke is a little narrative. What elements do you need to consider when writing your joke?  

  • Character. Who’s the subject of your joke? You (or a version of you)? A politician? Someone you observed in the supermarket? Your cat? Just make sure that your subject is never a victim and that you’re not “punching down” (being superior about someone with less power than yourself. Punching up is regarded as fine: politicians and authority figures are expected to be able to take it).
  • Setting. Where does the action take place? (An easy one to answer if you actually are writing a knock-knock joke.)
  • Plot. Remember your high school essays: you need a beginning, a middle and an end to your joke.
  • Conflict. There needs to be some sort of tension for the story to exist in the first place, and this comedic conflict is what makes the punchline so powerful.
  • Resolution. The punchline, which needs to subvert expectations and deliver a surprise.  

Within this structure, a good joke will feature several narrative elements. It helps when you’re writing jokes to remember that each one is a story – yes, even the humble knock-knock joke is a little narrative. What elements do you need to consider when writing your joke?  

  • Character. Who’s the subject of your joke? You (or a version of you)? A politician? Someone you observed in the supermarket? Your cat? Just make sure that your subject is never a victim and that you’re not “punching down” (being superior about someone with less power than yourself. Punching up is regarded as fine: politicians and authority figures are expected to be able to take it).
  • Setting. Where does the action take place? (An easy one to answer if you actually are writing a knock-knock joke.)
  • Plot. Remember your high school essays: you need a beginning, a middle and an end to your joke.
  • Conflict. There needs to be some sort of tension for the story to exist in the first place, and this comedic conflict is what makes the punchline so powerful.
  • Resolution. The punchline, which needs to subvert expectations and deliver a surprise.  

Different types of jokes 

Jokes come in all shapes and sizes, from sharp one-liners to wonderfully winding anecdotes. The structure and elements apply to most types of joke. Here are a few different types of joke to think about: what heading does yours fit under? 

  • Observational. This is comedy that starts with everyday life, but gives it a unique take. The audience is brought in with something relatable, then the surprise comes when the normal is subverted. Think Eddie Izzard’s cats drilling for oil, or Bill Bailey’s take on shopping at Argos. Jimmy Carr, Jo Brand and Jerry Seinfeld all base their routines around observational jokes, and here’s the much-missed Sean Lock on living alone
  • Anecdotal. You’re in the hands of an expert raconteur here, like the late, great Dave Allen or our Maestro Sir Billy Connolly. Anecdotal humour can be a great starting place for a rookie writer: as Billy says, writing about yourself can create something that’s “magical”, for both you and your audience, plus you’re less likely to forget it. British anecdotal humour is quite often self-deprecating, too.
  • Character. A joke can be based around a character, or written for a character. Some comedians perform as personas, so the routine is written for the character rather than the performer. The lines can get blurred between performer and performance: see characters such as Keith Lemon, Ali G, Alan Partridge and Mrs Merton
  • Topical. These jokes are about politics and current affairs, so you really don’t have long to get these written and out there before the joke becomes last week’s news. You’ll most often hear topical jokes on weekly panel shows and in the opening monologues of late night talk shows.
  • One liners. These single-sentence jokes can be tricky to get right, because there’s little room for riffing and every word matters. Billy Connolly may be best-known for his long, tangential jokes, but check out his one-liners, too, like: 
     

There are two seasons in Scotland: June and Winter.

Bonnie Prince Charlie was the only man ever named after three sheepdogs. 

Along with some wise life advice:  

Never trust a man who, when left alone in a room with a tea cosy, doesn’t try it on. 

Write a joke in 6 steps 

Now we know the structure and parts of a joke, it’s time to put one together in 6 easy steps. 

  1. Research your material 
    If you know your theme or topic, brainstorm and make notes. Watch your favourite comedians for inspiration (try to evaluate their work critically, as well as enjoying it). You can simply sit outside at a café for a while, observing the ebb and flow of people and noting anything that sparks your imagination. 
  2. Structure your joke 
    Begin to build your joke, using the formula, elements and types we’ve looked at. Write the punchline first, then make sure the set-up does its job correctly.
  3. Add the jab lines and asides 
    What detail (if any) needs to go into the body of the joke? Do you need a series of mini jokes to keep things lively as you work towards the grand finale?
  4. Edit your joke 
    Be harsh. Even a long joke shouldn’t contain unnecessary elements, and you can bet that the classic long monologues from old-school comedians like Ronnie Corbett and Jethro were mercilessly pruned by someone at some point. You need to set the pace, and there’s a difference between the semblance of fireside rambling and simply going on a bit.
  5. Test and refine your joke 
    Trying out your shiny new joke in front of friends and family is on a par with your first club gig (well, almost). Take a deep breath and ask your audience to listen then feed back. Take their feedback on board, and use this to keep refining your writing.
  6. Practice, practice, practice 
    When you’ve finished using your mates as guinea pigs and you think your joke is “there”, practise it. Make sure you’re happy with your delivery and timing before you set your joke free into the world.  

What if you’re writing a joke for someone else to perform? The same process applies until the end, when ideally, you need to hear them deliver it. You may get the chance to change it to suit their idiom, or they may want to do that themselves. As you’ll learn on his BBC Maestro course, Sir Billy’s 20+ minute-long Last Supper / Crucifixion routine started with a short joke that a friend shared with him. 
 
What’s Billy’s advice for would-be joke writers? 
 
Write down everything that might be a joke. Don’t be fussy. Start by writing about yourself. 
 
Try to keep a comedy journal for a week or so. Jot down anything funny you observe or any puns or phrases that pop into your head. The dog does something amusing? Write it down. Something on the news have the potential for a satirical piece? Again, make a note. 
 
What if you get stuck? Don’t worry – we all get writers’ block sometimes. Talk to a comedian or writer friend, because sometimes just chatting can loosen the flow again. Go for a walk – just get a change of scene and some air. If you need a prompt, pick a topic, any topic. Challenge yourself to come up with at least one funny line about that topic before your next cup of coffee. 

Joke written, it’s time to learn how to perform it. Before you take to the stage, read our article on how to tell a joke, because as we know, the writing is only half of the joke’s story. 

Do you want to know more about writing and delivering your own comedy material? Pick up tips from The Big Yin himself in his BBC Maestro comedy course.  

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