Make Your Writing Funny: Writing Your First Joke

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.

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Matt Willard's bio begins with witty phrasing that succinctly illustrates his stance as a humorist. It is then followed with a clever sentence that illustrates what he does in his spare time. The bio concludes with a shameless link to his Twitter profile, paired with an off-hand comment that alludes to his success with women. Laughter.

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10 thoughts on “Make Your Writing Funny: Writing Your First Joke”

  1. Alright, how about this

    The most expensive book, a rare copy of John James Audubon’s Birds of America is to go on sale soon. Only 119 copies of this book are known to exist, as all the others just flew of the shelves.

    ((I think I failed with this one, Its not so much a twist as it is a double entendre, and isnt really than funny.))

    • That’s a terrible pun, but it’s such a good terrible pun that I laughed :V

      Anyway, since you’re learning, don’t stress about it not being up to snuff. Let’s see…well, some assumption I’d make are things like “The second most expensive book must be about a topic worth paying a lot of money for” and “There are only 119 copies because of a limited print run.” See where you can go with those.

      • How about then…

        The most expensive book, a rare copy of John James Audubon’s Birds of America is to go on sale soon. The second most expensive book was the newly released twilight novel, ‘Some reference to the sun or the moon, I dont really care anymore, I just want money’. The latter has currently sold more than 3 billion copies.

        ((Too long in my opinionm but what do you think?))

  2. Alright, take two.

    So researchers have found new evidence towards the existance of a rare black hole. In other news, 3 people are still missing after traveling inside David Cameron to find his so called heart.

      • Well the term ‘having a black hole for a heart’ has been used quite a few times before (Pretty sure I remenber it in Fairy Odd Parents). And then I thought of an easy hate figure, such as the current priminister, David Cameron, whom a lot of people dont like.

        I decided to keep with the news theme, and make it so that they could link the two together, without the need of actually using the black hole heart term.

  3. The Univeristy of Balitmore is currently doing a new class called Zombie 101, where students learn how to prepare for a zombie attack. To compete with this, Forks Univeristy has started a class on ‘Vampirism’, which mostly consists of being apathetic and rubbing body glitter onto bare skin.

    ((I actually deleted a short segment from this, as I worried that it may be a bit obscure and make the joke too long))

  4. A juror who blabbed about a trial on Facebook has to write an essay about a defendant’s right to a jury.

    Maybe a defendant’s right to a jury should invovle jury members who don’t list Twilight as their favorite movie of all time


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