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Jim Richardson's
"How to Write a Joke: the 7 basic joke forms"

Photo of Jim looking up sharply from his pen and paper, the dummy in the background propped up by a computer
Ok, now that the dummy's got his cigar, have you got your pen and the 150 cocktail napkins in a shoe box that you've been calling your act?
Ok, now let's make sure you're getting everything you can out of each joke. Hey, relax: you've already done the hard work, this fine-tuning part is fun!
To get started, please click on Jim's face.
Or on Jim's tie.
Ideal Joke Form

What is a joke?


Topper and Second Topper

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Writing Jokes for a Speech vs. Stand-Up Comedy

Structurally speaking, joke writing problems are exactly the same for anyone trying to get a laugh.

  • The righteous minister tells circumspect religious jokes that conclude with a moral point.
  • The saloon comic may tell a variety of jokes that conclude with points running the moral spectrum.
But the bones upon which the comic flesh adhere are the same. It is the purpose of this section of Jim's home study audio tape/workbook packages to help you get some comedy in your bones. Then, you can dance to your own tune.

We will not be discussing content. We will be discussing form.

  • The focus will be on
    "how to".
  • After learning these simple techniques, you will decide
    to joke about.

    Whether our speech is serious or humorous, it is an act that requires writing techniques to put it over. Since stand-up comics will also be reading this workbook, for convenience sake Jim will not distinguish between speeches and comedy routines. Jim will refer to both as "your act."

    Jokes: the building blocks of all comedy routines and keynotes speeches

    As business speakers, we may be preparing a joke we are only going to tell on one special occasion. Then again, we may be putting together a joke we will tell 100 or more times, much like a stand-up comic.

    Also, as a speaker, we may be making a very serious point without any joke in it. A serious sentence can be greatly improved by the same techniques which make our comedy better. More about that later.

    'Nuff said.

    Let Jim get on with his act: showing us
    "How to Write A Joke"

We now get to the meat of our problem:

Ideal joke form:

After we have written the jokes, our next tasks are:

Devil's in the details:
syllables--less is more

Set up lines:

We have to know
what they know and
what they don't know:

However, the speaker or comic must always know where the audience is at in terms of the information they have regarding a given subject. He must always take them on from that exact point.

During James Watt's first nine months in office, Johnny Carson knew most people were unaware that the man was Secretary of the Interior. Carson had to laboriously state the man's title in every series of set up lines for a James Watt joke. After Watt was in office nine months, the man had made a certain reputation for himself. Then, Carson no longer had to explain who the guy was.

But my friends think that's a funny joke!

There is a major difference between telling a joke to our friends, family or business associates and telling it to a general audience. A business speaker may be a big success speaking before his branch office where he is well known. However, he may have a surprise in store the first time he addresses his company's national convention. There he may be less well known than at the home office or, worse, totally unknown to everyone attending -- except the folks who came with him. The same hundred people may still applaud long and hard. But it will be a hollow sound in a big hall if the rest of the 2-5,000 conventioneers sit on their hands, confused by the speaker's "in" references.

The difference is that our intimates have a frame of reference for relating to us.

On the old "Tomorrow Show" starring Tom Snyder, author Truman Capote pointed out what he considered to be a true sign of friendship:
if people in conversation know what the other person is going to say next, and they feel free to cut them off in mid-sentence. Sort of like, "Yeah, I know what you mean; did you know this-about-that?"

Want to transfer a joke which we have spontaneously created in conversation with our friends to a general audience? Then, we must always ask ourselves,

"What does 90-100% of the general audience know about this?"

What do they not know about this which I must tell them in order to make sure nearly everybody has a chance to get the joke?

Even if our point is serious and there is no joke, the audience will better understand what we are saying if we properly "set them up".

What is a joke?

The punch line is the sentence which contains the joke. A joke is anything which makes the audience laugh.

  1. A joke is usually in the language we use.
  2. But it may also depend on a gesture.
  3. Or, it can depend on the attitude with which a banal line is delivered.

Where is the punch in that punch line?

The first thing Johnny Carson taught his new writers was to end their jokes on the laugh.

Beginning-Intermediate-Advanced- Graduate school level
speakers and comics
have major problems
grasping this seemingly simple concept.

Even Jim finds himself forgetting this fundamental in the heat of creating a new joke or premise routine.

Therefore, Jim has found it helpful to break things down a little more precisely:

To sell a joke, there is one particular word that the idea turns on.

Jim has named this word the
"punch word".

The punch word is the word after which the audience gets the joke, and laughs.

Tag lines
We will usually want to place the punch word at the end of the punch line so audience laughter will not drown out the rest of our sentence. As George Burns once said, "If I'm talking when they're laughing, I should be taken away!"

Also, speaking words after the punch line gives the audience a false cue that a joke has not really been told, that they were mistaken. Often, they will shut up in mid-laugh. They are eager to hear what punch line they imagine will follow. They conclude that our actual punch line must have been "just a set up line" that they foolishly found funny.

A fun game you can play today,
And come back to often:

When writing serious speeches containing no jokes, see how many of our sentences can be improved by putting what at the end of the line?
The key word.

When we watch movies, notice how dramatic scenes often turn on such key words which are invariably placed at what part of the sentence?
The end.

Better yet: try to end on words of
one syllable.

Better still: end on a single

Trying out new jokes:

When we are trying out jokes for the first time, we will often find that the audience laughs before we get to the end of the punch line. They got ahead of us. Like the friends interrupting our sentences, they understood the joke earlier than we thought they would.

Usually, we just mistakenly placed the punch word in the middle of the line. Probably because it made grammatical sense to do so. But people neither speak nor think in strict accordance to the rules of grammar. So, we must edit and re-write for the logic of the laugh alone.


You will find yourself developing a poetic sense for re- arranging your words. A renewed study and appreciation of prosody, the art of versification which includes the study of metrical structures, rhyme, etc., would serve all speakers and comics well. In any case, put in simple terms, you will definitely have fun making sure the punch word comes at the end of the punch line.

Target the punch word, then put it at the end of the joke!

When writing, do something to consistently draw our attention to the punch word:

In this way, we are making the punch word a target for emphasis.

We are also forcing ourselves to end on a punch.

If we find we have circled a word in the middle of the sentence and we are sure it is the punch word, what must we do?

That's correct: re-write!

Get the punch word at the end . . ..

Getting three jokes for the price of one:

A topper is a second joke that:

A second topper is a third joke which:

Both toppers create the illusion of improvisation for the audience. In his interview with Larry Wilde, Jack Douglas winks, then says, "The two toppers sound like ad-libs. It's the greatest thing for an audience to think you haven't got a routine, that you're doing it all off the top of your head." (Larry Wilde's How the Great Comedians Create Laughter, p. 151.)

Basically, the audience might feel they could have come up with our one-liner. But, just sitting there listening to us, even the most arrogant among them will admit they wouldn't have had enough time to take it further by coming up with the two toppers.

The speaker or comic has worked six months to a year getting his act together, and testing it in front of live audiences. Our next audience does not know, nor does it want to know this behind- the-scenes information. They are looking for magic, not facts. Since the speaker-comedian-magician appears to have just invented the toppers, the audience is stunned. They assume he is a genius at thinking on his feet.

Pugilistic metaphor for topper/second topper

Jim will often use the conventional boxing metaphor for stand-up comedy to reinforce teaching points. Angelo Dundee, famous boxing coach to Mohammed Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard, in his biography I Only Talk Winning, reveals the first note he gives a boxer new to his training camp: "double-up your punches."

Jim wondered what that meant.

So, in 1990 Jim visited
the Dundee training camp
while he was on vacation;
it is located just outside Miami, Florida. Jim got one of the young boxer's to show him this
"double-up" technique.

As the fighter gently put it,
"Since you're already inside the guy's guard, don't just take one shot. You can do better if you
take the time to hit him twice."

To illustrate the greater effectiveness of hitting someone twice, when you might have thought once would do, we now link to a second web page to conclude Jim's brief lesson in joke writing.


To continue, click here now:Image of arrow pointing off the page to the right where we imagine, accurately, that the next page is lurking

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Home | Video | Coaching & Co-Writing | Order | About | Techniques | Register | FAQ | Contact
Sub Headings:
Studying Comics | Comedy Roots | Comeback? | Defense | Character mask | Robin | Censorship
Writer's block | Camcorder Coaching | Memorizing | Remembering | Setting a bit
Business | Business Cards | Your Web Site | Open Mics | Evil "Bringer Shows" | Audition | MC tips
Promo Packet | Contact media | Interviews | How to get BIG-$ Gig$ | Agents vs. Managers
Newsletter | Goodies | Auditioning: TV & Movie parts | Site Map: more tips
Improvisation: Thinking on Your Feet | Hecklers

Back to: History of Coach Says newsletter

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