How to Tell a Joke Like a Professional Stand-up Comedian
A Stand-up Comedian Shares his Secrets
How Do You Tell a Joke? Read the free article below to learn:
The best way to tell a joke
How to pace the set-up to get to the punch, because without a proper set-up, there is no joke
How to structure a joke correctly
Which types of jokes might not work for certain audiences
(the best way to tell a joke varies by audience)
Why you have an advantage (yes, an advantage) over a professional comedian when telling jokes to your friends
And the most important factor when preparing to tell a joke-
It should be obvious but almost everyone overlooks it, and you won’t learn it from watching pro comics because we hide it.
“Don’t Step on Your Laughter”
A Pro Comic Shares His Secrets
“The DEA is reporting that New Jersey’s heroin is the purest in the country. It’s 71% pure. That’s gotta be a bit embarrassing, don’t you think? When your heroin is cleaner than your drinking water?”
Surprisingly, that joke does as well in New Jersey as it does in New York. More surprisingly, sometimes people in New Jersey applaud the set-up before I even get to the punchline.
Everyone wants to have a great sense of humor. If you can make people laugh you can make people like you. But how do you make people laugh if you’re not spontaneously funny? Obviously- you can tell a joke. If you’re not a comedy writer and don’t have any comedy writers on your private payroll then you’ll be telling someone else’s joke.
Some people are good at telling jokes; others aren’t. But like most skills, making people laugh is a skill that almost anyone can develop.
Starting out to tell a joke you already have one advantage over a professional comedian. That’s right, an advantage. You know your audience. They’re your friends, your family, your co-workers. You, unlike a working comic, don’t have to consider for every joke what demographic groups will laugh, who won’t like the joke, who won’t understand it, and who might be so offended they’ll tune out the rest of what you have to say. You probably know the education, political leanings, religion and sensibilities of your audience.
Starting out, you’re one step ahead.
That said, not all jokes work for all people. If a fat person tells a fat joke and gets a laugh it doesn’t mean that you’ll get the same reaction if you have 8% body fat. Here are some other things to consider:
- If your joke makes fun of the people you’re telling it to, or a group that your audience belongs to (race, religion, gender, occupation, etc.) it’s going to be harder to get a laugh. Sometimes people object to the subject itself. So even if you’re not making fun of that group, just referring to them can make people defensive and not in a mood to laugh.
- If your audience is senior citizens, or they’re drunk, or English isn’t their first language, slow way down. The brain needs time to process information and you want the premise to sink in before you hit them with the surprise. And that’s what a punchline is, it’s a surprise after the audience has been misdirected.
- Even if it’s your friends, don’t assume they know everything you know. Even with a big hit movie- much less than half the country has seen it. You don’t have to have seen Star Wars to roughly know what it’s about but if your joke requires knowing details of the movie then you’re going to lose a lot of your audience.
I was working with a photographer who was using film and he was trying to remember how many shots he’d taken. I said something like “Do you feel lucky, punk?” which is a Dirty Harry movie reference about whether Dirty Harry fired five shots or six from a six-shooter. The photographer hadn’t seen the movie, wasn’t at all familiar with it, and didn’t get the reference.
In a comedy club the MC starts by warming up the audience. He may ask where people are from, or what they do for a living. While his funny banter may seem spontaneous, do you really think he’s never had a Southerner or a Midwesterner or a German, a trucker or farmer or prison guard, in the audience before? He’s making them feel part of the show and getting them ready to laugh. But you’ll never hear him say, “I have this joke for you.” A comedian doesn’t need a segue, just a pause before moving onto the next joke.
In house painting, preparation is so important that workers spend more time covering what they don’t want to paint than they do with the brush or roller. A golfer spends more time lining up a shot than it takes to swing the club. In comedy, the premise, which sets up the joke, is critical.
Don’t rush. Slower is funnier. Even Johnny Carson used to say that when he got back from a vacation he had to remind himself to slow down (and as I write this I wonder how many people reading have no idea who Johnny Carson was). But at the same time, extra words just get in the way. So keep it short.
And be sure to end right on the punch. That means the surprise comes at the end of the sentence. For example: “A man in Northern California claims he’s invented a device that will tell you whether your toilet seat is up or down. Didn’t a man in New Jersey already invent this? I think he called it the light bulb” is funnier than “A man in Northern California claims he’s invented a device that will tell you whether your toilet seat is up or down. But didn’t Thomas Edison invent the light bulb a hundred years ago?”
Word the joke so that when you’re finished, you stop talking. As soon as they get the joke they’ll start laughing. Don’t step on your laughter. You may think that the final sentence sounds smoother with the punch in the middle. That may work for coherence but not as the optimum way to structure a joke. There’s almost always a way to re-word a sentence to flow well and still have the punch right at the end.
Comedians write out our jokes and cross out any words or sentences that aren’t critical to the joke. We aim for several laughs a minute so extra words work against us. You don’t have that kind of pressure because your friends will sit through two minutes if they think something funny is coming. So there’s less pressure on you than on a professional on stage. But it may still help you to write out your joke and get rid of extra words.
The three most important words to know in preparing to tell a joke are: Practice, Practice, Practice. Don’t be afraid to spend an hour or two in front of a video camera to prepare a one-minute joke. Nobody has to know. Watch your face, your hands. Listen to your pacing. And watch your expression, because if you don’t look happy telling the joke, they won’t be happy to hear it. Comedians debate over whether it’s okay to laugh at your own joke. It’s probably fine as long as it’s natural. If you force yourself to laugh, it looks forced. And if you’re cracking up so much that you can’t get the words out, you’ll be the only one laughing. But either way you shouldn’t look sad or apprehensive when you tell a joke.
For the first five-minute routine I ever performed, I said it out loud over a hundred times so I would know it word for word. Nothing is worse than hearing half a joke, then having the joke-teller say something like, “Oh, wait, I forgot to tell you that the minister was a woman, and the hair stylist was her son.” You have to know the joke well enough to be able to tell it correctly the first time you have an audience. Being under pressure interferes with memory, so make sure you really, really know the joke. Practice it out loud. It’s not a rehearsal if it’s only in your head.
Some things look good on paper and sound fine in your head, but they are tongue-twisters. At my first audition at a New York City comedy club my first punch line to a joke I’d told only a few times before ended with the words “heroin addict.” To say “heroin addict” clearly requires moving the mouth in a lot of different directions. Under pressure, I got tongue-tied. I quickly corrected myself and didn’t lose the audience, but I didn’t pass the audition. If you’re not sure of something, or simply can’t decide on the best wording, why not call up whoever first told you the joke and ask him or her to repeat it? I’m sure your friend will be flattered. Unless you heard it from a professional comedian. We may be flattered but we want to be the one performing our own original material.
By the way, the joke was, after I changed the wording to get rid of the tongue-twister:
“The chewing tobacco company Skoal is advertising that since you can’t smoke on airplanes you should carry chewing tobacco. I’d rather have the middle seat between two crack whores. Hey, at least they’re skinny.”
Three sentences, two punchlines. Or as comedians refer to it, a punchline and a tag (a tag is another punchline that follows the first punchline, from the same premise). But here’s the thing- I don’t just have to pause after the two punchlines. I also have to pause after the first sentence, because some people react to the idea of people chewing tobacco on a plane and say “Eww” and I want that out of the way before I continue.
Don’t oversell your joke. Starting with “this is the funniest thing I’ve ever heard” sets up expectations that will be hard to meet. But you need to have confidence that the joke is funny. And you know it is—because it already made you laugh enough that you want to repeat it! So don’t question its humor and don’t undersell the joke. We all know people who make statements that are so tentative that they sound like questions. That doesn’t work for jokes. You have to sell the premise. A believable premise is easier to sell. I had to cut a joke I really liked but it was based on my car getting a sexually-transmitted disease. There are limits to how much you can make people laugh when you start off with something unrealistic.
But don’t start with “This really happened to me” or “This is a true story.” Because as soon as you say that they’ll start to doubt you. You want your audience following along and believing you, not judging or questioning.
And if after you tell your killer joke someone says, “Yeah, I’ve already heard that one,” take it as a sign you should think about writing your own material instead of just repeating what you’ve heard. Especially if someone emailed you the joke. Remember, if someone gets a joke and emails it to ten people, and they each send it to ten people… statistically you’re way more likely to be at the end of the email chain than towards the beginning.
The more jokes you tell, the more that other people will want to tell you jokes. That’s great for most people– you get to hear more jokes and you’ll have more jokes you can tell. It’s not fun for pro comics that everyone wants to tell us jokes. That’s not how it works. A few of us even have jokes in our act about not wanting audience members to tell us jokes, to try to minimize it.
I like talking to audience members after a show, as long as they’re not trying to tell me jokes. It’s almost always a long joke with just one very obvious punchline and the jokes are usually filthy or racist. And especially please don’t tell a pro comedian that some joke you heard is perfect for us. It’s not. Somebody else already wrote it and has been telling it. We’re paid to perform our own original material.
Comedy club audiences are paying to be entertained, so professional comedians won’t go more than a few sentences without some sort of laugh line as we build to a big finish. Telling a joke to your friends doesn’t come with that same kind of pressure. They’ll sit and wait a minute or more if they know you’re building to a punch line. But they have to know you’re telling a joke. If you begin a conversation with “this afternoon when I was shopping for underwear at Walmart” and they don’t know you’re starting a joke, it’s likely you’ll be interrupted. First you may have to telegraph that it’s a funny story.
Of course if you can begin with “This afternoon when I was shopping for underwear at McDonald’s…” they’ll probably figure out it’s the start of a joke. Unfortunately you’re still stuck with a burden that a professional comedian won’t have, because the pro’s job comes with a microphone, lighting that makes us the center of attention, and an audience expecting to be entertained.
And note that while some jokes are funnier to read, others are funnier when you hear them, like the New Jersey joke at the top of this article. Some funny things, like slapstick movies, have to be seen. Other jokes need to be both verbal and visual. Get out your video camera or cell phone and keep practicing. But if after all this you still can’t tell a joke and you still want people to laugh, take them to a comedy show or hire one for your corporate or charity event, country club or private party.
A version of this originally appeared in The Pennsylvania Gazette.
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To contact Shaun for his 31 flavors of comedy please call or text him at (914) it’s-funny (914) 487-3866 or email Shaun (at) BrainChampagne.com.