Thursday, October 10, 2013

Day 9: Diagramming a joke, Part 1

Today, I laughed at: the boyfriend imitating a horse while he played with L.
At Target (where I'll go for three things and come out with three bags, somehow), L. was fascinated with a dinosaur from the dollar section. Hey, as long as it was only a dollar and it wasn't princess/Disney related, I was fine buying it for her. When she brought it home, she introduced him to her toy horse and the Yo Gabba Gabba gang figures she has.
When the boyfriend woke up, she handed him the horse and began having a babble-speak conversation with the dinosaur. The boyfriend joined with the horse and "neighed" his portion of the conversation. "He-e-e-ey, ho-o-o-ow a-a-a-a-a-are yo-o-o-o-o-ou?"

 L. got a kick out of it and so did I. Have I mentioned how much I love the boyfriend? Well, it's a lo-o-o-o-ot.

Hopefully the antici-(Say it!)-pation you dear readers felt with my delay in writing today (it's still before midnight as I type this sentence so I feel I've fulfilled my duty of writing every day) was the perfect introduction of sorts to my topic: The setup of a joke.

A joke, despite how funny the punchline may be, can be completely ruined if the setup doesn't work. It's probably the most important part of the joke, in fact. The punchline is probably about 20 percent of what makes a joke funny. Here are some factors I believe are essential to a joke*:

Know your audience
Timing is everything, as I mentioned in a previous post. Part of knowing timing is to gauge your audience for the joke. Knowing your audience could mean knowing what kind of humor they enjoy, knowing the references they would understand, their likes, their dislikes. A joke about politics would go over the heads of toddlers, unless maybe you called the President of Naptime a Poopyhead. A joke about poop might go over the heads of ... well, who am I kidding? Poop is usually always funny, let's face it. But, then again, if you told a poop joke in a workplace, it would probably be considered inappropriate.

Keep it simple, silly. (Last letter changed for humor-related purposes.) Too much explanation in the setup causes the listener to become bored. In the movie, "Finding Nemo," Marlin tries to tell a joke throughout the movie, since he's a clown fish and is expected to be funny. Unfortunately, he doesn't really understand the qualities of a setup and he's explaining how sea cucumbers don't really talk but in a joke, they do. He has already lost his audience. Even if you realized you've screwed up the setup, try to correct the situation and talk your way around it seamlessly, if possible. The other tactic is continue telling the joke, finish with the punchline and when the audience doesn't get it, play dumb and casually say, "Oh, did I forget to tell you this detail? Oops! Silly me!" That way, even if they don't laugh at the joke, there's a chance they'll laugh, even if it's at you.

Be excited about your joke
Even if it's not really funny, which a lot of my jokes aren't, they fact that I am so excited to even tell my joke usually adds a little more humor to my joke. Sometimes, I tell horrible jokes, but I'm so excited about how horrible it is, especially my puns I've come up with, that others end up laughing mostly at me. And I'm OK with this. Even if you're telling a completely self-deprecating joke, you don't have to be enthusiastic about it, but there should be some level of energy when you're telling it. This is just my personal preference. Even Rachel Dratch's Debbie Downer character on "Saturday Night Live" has energy behind her earnest tales of dispair, not to mention the closeup of the face she makes.

It's not really funny if it's racist, sexist, homophobic, etc.
If you have to look around to see if anyone within earshot might be offended before you tell a joke, it's probably not that great of a joke. If you can't tell the joke in mixed company, don't tell it at all. I especially hate when the joke teller says, "It's OK, telling this joke doesn't make me a racist; I have a black friend" or something of that nature. You never know who will be in earshot who will overhear you and not take it as a joke. Laughing at such a joke will encourage these jokes to continue, which I would also advise against.


I would compare the setup of a joke to the beginning of a rollercoaster. You slowly go up this steep hill and you have no idea what you're about to get when you reach the top. Some jokes could be the quick decent into funny. Or, there could be a little tease decline you go down, make a turn and then go down the big hill, which you were not prepared for at all. And, of course, those punchlines hit the hardest.

If that analogy didn't do it for you, maybe comparing the setup to food will work. OK, so say the setup is like the chowder of the clam chowder. There's the butter, the cream, the potatoes, the, um, hotness (?), the salt, the, uh, hold on let me look up the recipe for clam chowder. Also, I'm talking the white clam chowder, (the best clam chowder) New England. OK, flour! There's also flour in it. So, yeah, let's say the setup is all of those things, and the clams are the punchline. You need all those other ingredients in just the right proportion to make it a really good soup stew (what is it? Oh right.) chowder. Not just the clams.

Here's a joke I will admit to learning from "Lamb Chop's Play Along" and the setup actually is the joke:
Pretty much the only appropriate
image to go along with this joke,
I believe.
"Pete and Repeat go for a boat ride. Pete falls out. Who's left?"
The audience says, "Repeat."
So you repeat the joke.
"Pete and Repeat go for a boat ride. Pete falls out. Who's left?"
Again, the response would be "Repeat." And so you do.

If you tell this joke to a 6-year-old, this joke will continue for hours, if you let it. You will be a hero in this 6-year-old's eyes. Therefore, don't tell it to a 6-year-old. You will hate the joke by the end of that hour. You will hate that joke after the third time you have to go through it. Pretty soon, you'll start omitting words and it won't make a damn difference.

"Pete and Repeat go for a boat ride. Who's left?"
6-year-old: "Repeat!" (Laughter and giggles)
"Pete and Repeat go for a ride."
6-year-old: "Repeat!" (Laughter, giggles, holding their stomach)
"Pete and Repeat go."
6-year-old: "Re-hahahaha-peat! Hahahaha!"
"Pete falls out."

By this time, the 6-year-old is crying with laughter, unable to breathe, thinking you are the absolute best at telling jokes. They'll try to retell the joke to their friends, only to laugh too hard and, instead, summon you to tell the joke for them. And the joke will be never-ending. (This actually happened to me, which is why I can tell this story with first-hand knowledge of the consequences.)

That said, I actually realized the best setup would to be to tell all your jokes to a 6-year-old. Yup. There's the secret to the perfect joke. And, if they don't quite understand the joke, throw the word "poop" into it. They'll love it. Poop.

* Sometimes I write like I'm an expert on a topic. I'm not. But do I sound convincing yet?