The technique I'm going to discuss this week doesn't need to be used all the time. Sometimes a great joke is straightforward. Sometimes it doesn't need to get clever with its wording - it just twists the assumption in such an unexpected way that the twist is funny all on its own. Use your better judgment. If a joke's effective and clever on its own, there's no need to make it fancy.
That being said, you can upgrade a lot of jokes by fiddling with their wording. And, more often than not, a subtle punchline is more effective than a normal one. Remember that joke I wrote a few weeks ago about that juror who mentioned her trial on Facebook? Here's the first version of that joke again:
“A juror who blabbed about a trial on Facebook has to write an essay about a defendant’s right to a jury. Instead of typing the essay, however, she wrote it in pencil.”
The last part is pretty weak because it's too obvious. There's hardly any surprise. That's why I revised it:
“A juror who blabbed about a trial on Facebook has to write an essay about a defendant’s right to a jury. The judge has said he’ll take off points if she hands in a handwritten essay.”
Personally I'd futz with this joke more, but the punchline is still way better than the first one. It indicates the judge is grading the juror like a school teacher, but WITHOUT ACTUALLY SAYING IT. You still know that's what it means because you have that little detail about the judge taking off points if it's a handwritten essay. I know it sounds totally obvious, but that's what I mean by writing subtle punchlines - using specific details that hide the meaning of the line. A lot of comedy writing skill derives from using these details in a clever, fresh way.
Let's shed the darkness with another example. This time we'll toss one together from scratch, using a recent news item:
"A group of miners trapped underground in Chile are only allowed to watch news after it's been censored by the rescue team above."
And to show you just how original of a comedian I am, let's take a stab at Fox News.
"Turns out Fox News is just a 24-hour bleep censor."
Classy. But I think we can make a snappier punchline than that. There are several ways we can do that - we can use details to create an outlandish mental image or we can word the punchline differently and make it sound clever. Depends on the situation. Don't force a specific outcome - let it come as it may.
So, how do we do this? Once again, we resort to using relationships. (I hope you read last week's column!) Just to give us a starting point, I'm going to figure out things that are consistent with censoring. More specifically, how it's done. Normally words get bleeped out or cut entirely...but how ELSE might you censor a TV show? Heck, if you REALLY think Fox News is terrible, how can you censor the ENTIRE CHANNEL?
- Play snippets of music over controversial statements
- Play snippets of an audiobook over controversial statements
- Replace the entire channel with completely different shows
- Finding the channel with your remote automatically redirects you to a more appropriate channel
This time I'm going with option three. Now, just saying that by itself won't do squat, so that's why we'll use some details to spice it up. I'm going to imply that all of Fox News got switched with a marathon ofa completely different show. Let's pick, oh...Spin City. (ProTip: use details that most people can recognize, but don't go for the immediately obvious - try something more creative.)
With that in mind, I came up with the following punchline:
"Turns out Fox News was replaced by a marathon of Spin City reruns."
Ehhhh...it's better, but it'd pop more if we could say it in a clever way or make a fun mental image out of it. That's why I'm going to abandon it completely and look for something else. Normally you should work with a line before declaring it unsalvagable, but this time is different. This time...I got an IDEA.
See, comedy writing is rarely point A to B. Sometimes you need to jaunt through K and Q to find something real nice. And you don't plan this out ahead of time with MapQuest. No, sir, these little detours are all spontaneous if you follow a new bouncing ball while you're writing. Fortunately for you, this often works out, and you'll end up creating better material as a result. Sometimes it pays to have a terrible attention span.
As for the idea, I got it when we were brainstorming ways to censor Fox News. It emerged as a question on its own - "what might happen as a result of trying to censor Fox News?" You can either seek these questions out or let them come naturally, but in my experience, the surprise questions are the best. As I looked at the question, I suddenly received a mental image that lead me to write this punchline:
"They had to call another rescue team to save the guys trying to censor Fox News."
I look at this line and I can imagine a helicopter coming down with people rushing out to administer first aid to the rescue team, struggling to survive as Fox News flickers on their televisions. It made me laugh the first time it popped up. You can still make a mental image from scratch, though. Just imagine what crazy thing might occur as a result of the setup, and exaggerate it as neccessary. Don't get too wacky - the image still has to match the setup in some way, but you've got some room to be creative. If it makes you laugh, it's a good sign.
In any case, that's enough for one column. I'll come back to this issue later, but that should be a good start to improving your punchlines. Next time we'll head back into the field and find more ways to apply humor to writing, so stay tuned.
YOUR ASSIGNMENT: Create a punchline for a setup, using details and different words to imply what the punchline means. Go ahead and use the setup in this week's column if you want, but if you'd like something different to try out, here's something to work with:
Stephen Colbert's testimony during a recent congressional hearing about migrant workers has bestowed a lot of popularity to others involved in the hearing.