The 5.5 essential types of jokes

How do you take an idea that sounds funny—dorky parents, stupid dress codes, the fall of Rome—and turn it into an actual joke? The first step is to learn, practice, and master the 6 essential types of jokes.

Maybe you’re thinking: “But when you deconstruct a joke, it’s not funny!” MAYBE NOT. But if you don’t CONSTRUCT a joke, it won’t be funny in the first place.

Of course, these six are not the only types of jokes in the world. But we think they’re the best place to start.

1. Setup…punch

If you had to boil all joke structures down to one, this would be it. You set people up to expect one thing, but then POW! Surprise! You went in a different and unexpected direction—yet one that, once you hear it, makes sense in a whole new way. That’s the punch.

Can you guess the classic, quintessential example? Hint: it’s perfect because it’s so short—only four words! We’ll give you a second.

Don’t know? Well, it’s an oldie. Hint: it’s sexist!

Here you go: “Take my wife. Please.”

See how Henny Youngman did that?

“Take my wife” = “Take, for example, my wife. I am about to tell an amusing story about how much I love and respect her.”

“…Please.” = OH SNAP! “Take her away from me, for she is an annoying unattractive nag!”

(We like the Cameron Esposito/Rhea Butcher version better)

Maysoon Zayid, who has cerebral palsy, uses a classic setup/punch to open her set and introduce her physical condition: “I’m not drunk. But the doctor who delivered me was.”

Here are two more little gems from GOLD’s own pilot workshop alums:

 

Emika: “I love to inspire people. I also love to see them fail.”

 

Thea: “I am not just a nerd. I am also a geek.”

2. Triple/Lists

Triple

Otherwise known as the “rule of three.” Basically, it’s setup, setup, PUNCH. The #3 doesn’t have to be a knock-your-socks-off M. Night Shyamalan shocker; it just has to be different from #s 1 and 2. This structure can follow many patterns, such as:

  1. Normal, normal, RANDOM. (Spot the example in the first sentence of this article!)
  2. Normal, normal, ALARMING. Here’s a seasonal offering from Jon Stewart: “I celebrated Thanksgiving in an old-fashioned way. I invited everyone in my neighborhood to my house, we had an enormous feast, and then I killed them and took their land.”
  3. General, general, SUPER SPECIFIC or short, short, REALLY LONG. Elicia Sanchez: “I was a super nerd when I was a kid. I liked video games, I liked comic books, I was the youngest mage in the D&D campaign I was part of with 30-year-olds at the Yardbirds in Centralia, Washington.”

List

Most famous, least safe for work/school: George Carlin’s “7 words you can’t say on TV,” which he refined and supersized over the years.

Lists:

  1. Have more than three elements (otherwise they’re triples!)
  2. Work best when the elements contrast all over the place. Here’s one from GOLD workshop alum Uma: “I have a bunch of really weird fears. Wax Vacs, heights, loneliness, darkness, Russia, transphobia, homophobia, white supremacists, nails, and push pins.”
  3. Can be funny by virtue of being extremely, even uncomfortably long. (Then it’s more about form than content, and also about delivery–the faster the better.)

3. Comparisons

Simile

You know this one! From English class! Here’s one from GOLD ComedyTM founder Lynn Harris, who used to play ice hockey. “You guys, we just won a tournament in Canada. We actually even beat a Canadian team. That’s like beating the Italians at opera!”

“It looks like a Bedazzler threw up on it.” – Tiffany Hadish in Girls Trip

4. Character/Act-out

This is more about imitation than impersonation. You’re not showing off your DeNiro impression (please don’t); you’re following the age-old rule of “SHOW, don’t TELL.” Instead of just saying “My bio teacher has the most annoying voice,” DO THE VOICE. It doesn’t have to be accurate. It just has to be funny.

Advanced: Character can also be commentary. See how Sasheer Zamata slams the racist caricatures on radio ads targeted to black people. If she didn’t actually do the voices, she’d just be angry. Doing the voices makes her FUNNYangry.

5. Callback

A reference to an earlier joke or standout word. Callbacks themselves don’t even have to be funny. Audiences love them because they feel in on things. They’re also great to close with. YARDBIRDS!

5.5 Tag

A tag is just that…a bonus joke tagged onto the end of what is already a complete joke. The joke is complete without it. But the tag gets you a free extra laugh.

Here’s the great part. A tag actually doesn’t have to be a fully formed joke. You can actually just:

  1. Repeat a word or underscore an emotion from your joke. As in: “Yup. Weird.” or “YIKES”. Or even just: “Yeah, so THAT happened.”
  2. Add detail that builds the joke and stretches out the laugh. As in this bit from Brooke Van Poppelen: “Do you ever put on your workout clothes, and then you’re like, ‘Yeah, that feels like enough’-? And then you watch eight hours of House Hunters? International!” “International” is a tag. Not a separate joke, just a tiny add-on that gets a bonus laugh.

Read Lynn’s bio.