All right, now that you know the basic rule of humor (and if you don't, you should really check last week's article) let's give it a test drive. We'll play Conan for a while by writing a joke on a recent event, just like the opening monologues he did on the Tonight Show. (Technically, Leno's back to doing the monologues now, but let's pass on giving Thunderchin any kind of credit, shall we?)
First up is to find a topic to write about. Like I said before, we're gonna practice on a recent news event, but this works for any kind of statement - just as long as we're setting up an expectation to twist. It's not called the "setup" in joke writing lingo for nothing. Looking at recent news, I'll go with a story I've been following about a juror who was suspended from a case for posting "gonna be fun to tell the defendant GUILTY" on Facebook. As punishment, she has to fork over a fine and write an essay about a defendant's right to a jury. Since I already wrote a joke about this on my own Twitter and Facebook accounts, we'll work with that one.
Here's my setup:
"A juror who blabbed about a trial on Facebook has to write an essay about a defendant's right to a jury."
Your first reaction might be to wiggle the setup around and try to make it funny. DON'T. That's not how this works, and trust me, it's easier to come up with a funny line when you work off a normal setup. Just keep it to the facts, ma'am. You can write it informally like I did, but overall, fly straight.
All right. Now, looking at this setup, what assumptions can you make about it? Look at each word and see what comes to mind. Even if it's a common sense kind of assumption, write it down. Anything helps.
Off the top of my head:
1. The juror must be posting other personal information on her Facebook account.
2. The trial is held in a courtroom.
3. The juror will type the essay on a computer.
4. The right to a jury is set forth in the Constitution.
From there, let's pick an assumption to twist. I'll go with the third because it looks easier to play with. Now, to twist this assumption, I like to imagine the assumption isn't true and figure out other possibilities instead. The assumption here claims that the essay will be typed...but since that ain't true, how else might this juror write that essay?
1. In pencil
2. In crayon
3. In blood
4. In a secret code
Did you ever have a teacher that said she wouldn't accept handwritten essays? I did. That's why I'm deciding that the juror will write the essay in pencil. Take that possibility and write a new line out of it. That becomes the twist in your expectation, or the "punchline", basically. Together with the setup, that becomes the following joke:
"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."
Well. That's, uh...not A-plus material. Jokes have to do way more than just twist assumptions - the twist has to sound clever, unexpected. I'll cover that more in detail in a future column, but for now, this joke needs some time under the knife to get places.
Hold on. Remember what I said about the teacher who didn't accept handwritten essays? That little factoid can assist us by challenging another assumption - we assume that the judge's only job is being a judge, but what if he was ALSO a teacher? More importantly, what if HE was the one enforcing this "no handwritten essays" rule?
With that in mind, we can morph the joke to the following:
"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."
Much better. Bit wordy, but still an improvement. The cool thing about challenging assumptions is that your brain will often come up with other assumptions purely on a whim, and by playing with those, you can add more frosting to that joke cake you're baking.
There's more to cover in joke writing, but I think it's time to take your skills on the road. Next week we'll see how to slide some funny stuff into your writing, and along the way, maybe we can learn a thing or two about improving the lines we write. Stay tuned.
YOUR ASSIGNMENT: Find three current events and write them into statements. Then, twist the statements into jokes of their own. Don't be bummed if the results stink - practice and rewrites can make a lot of jokes better. Post whatever you write in the comments and I'll take a look at 'em for you. Have fun.