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Q: humour ( Answered 5 out of 5 stars,   1 Comment )
Subject: humour
Category: Arts and Entertainment
Asked by: zulu500-ga
List Price: $20.00
Posted: 13 Apr 2003 01:39 PDT
Expires: 13 May 2003 01:39 PDT
Question ID: 189872
what is the structure of humour? I understand the way a joke is
delivered (ie pausing etc) is as important as the content. Obviously
"funny" is subjective though surely there are patterns eg setting up
an expectation then saying the opposite (eg and I admit this is not
very funny :)"the great american philospher.....(pause) bart simpson
Subject: Re: humour
Answered By: j_philipp-ga on 13 Apr 2003 02:53 PDT
Rated:5 out of 5 stars
Hello Zulu500,

The crucial elements of delivering a good joke are:

1. Timing and Length
2. Predicting Target Group Expectations and Knowledge
3. Choosing an Appropriate Topic
4. Choosing a Recent Topic
5. Element of Surprise

Let's take the following line you provided:
"The great American philosopher ... (pause) Bart Simpson said ..."

It's funny because of:

1. Timing and Length

It's short and there's a pause before "Bart Simpson", the punch-line.
If there wouldn't be a pause, there would be no chance to "digest" the
phrase "great American philosopher" and thus no way to build up
expectations, which then are contradicted (creating the element of
surprise, see 5.)

2. Predicting Target Group Expectations and Knowledge

People, at least those who will laugh at this joke, know Bart Simpson.
There is nothing funny at all if you don't think Bart Simpson is in
fact not a "great American philosopher" (well, at least he isn't in
the traditional sense).

And consequently, often-times you find someone _not_ laughing at your
joke simply because he or she didn't "get" it. This may stem from a
lack of humour in general, or more specific from lack of knowledge of
what you're talking about.

3. Choosing an Appropriate Topic

Everything can be funny. But not everything can be funny to everyone.

If a group of men tell each other jokes in a late-night drinking
session, they may choose jokes of a certain topic. If a comic tells a
joke on TV, she must restrict herself to certain other topics. If you
tell a kid a joke, you choose a certain topic. Tell a joke to your
co-worker, spouse, neighbor; but know for all of them a different
theme may be appropriate.

Some (heavily constructed) examples that do _not_ feature an
appropriate topic:

- Telling a kid a joke with a political theme.

- Telling your lady boss a very sexist joke on the first day during
coffee break.

- Telling a one-legged man a joke about a one-legged sailor.

4. Choosing a Recent Topic

They say there's nothing older than yesterday's newspaper. Similar
rule applies to jokes.
If you would tell a joke about Clinton and Lewinsky in the year 2003,
people would think you're anti-social, and if not for their politeness
they probably wouldn't laugh at all. However, when the Clinton and
Lewinsky scandal was in the news, you could hear a lot of jokes about
the two, and would think of them as hilarious.

Now, there's the other side to this point: if you make a joke about a
disaster, you better make sure it's in fact _not_ a recent event.
If someone tells you a joke about the sinking Titanic, you might start
to laugh. Do you think in 1912, right after the catastrophy, people
would found this topic funny? Certainly not. It was one of the
greatest human-caused disasters recorded in modern history, rocking
civilization for decades to come -- but almost a century later, with
enough distance, we can easily connect something humorous with it, and
use it as theme for a joke. Carol Burnett, American Television
Comedian, said that "Comedy is a tragedy plus time". (And let's remind
ourselves, despite his popularity, Bart Simpson is a tragic figure --
an anti-hero.)

5. Element of Surprise

Aristotle said, "the secret to humor is surprise". Every joke builds
up to a punch-line. That is, people laugh only at the _very end_ of a
joke (though there might be a constant grinning throughout the time
one tells the joke, because recipients know the structure of jokes and
are gleefully anticipating the ending).

So why do we laugh at the end? Because our expectations are
contradicted, thus the element of surprise.
We build up possible endings in our mind, those that would follow our
instinctual prediction, more realistic alternatives, those that we use
in everyday life and that are caused by our logic, reason, and sense.
But in a joke, logic and reason, for a moment, blow up in the air --
what is left over when the dust has settled is the ridiculous, the
impossible, the absurd and clumsy. And it might be something that
reminds us of humanity, and also, of our own lack of perfection.
(Henri Bergson in his book "Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of
Comic" writes, "The first point to which attention should be called is
that the comic does not exist outside the pale of what is strictly
HUMAN. A landscape may be beautiful, charming and sublime, or
insignificant and ugly; it will never be laughable.")

So is there a definite recipe to compose a good joke? I would say no,
though you can follow the guidelines above to get somewhat closer. But
we need keep in mind different people laugh about different things,
and what may be funny to one person may be plain sad the other person.
(And as George Eliot, British Novelist, said: "A difference of taste
in jokes is a great strain on the affections.")

Now there are some further elements which might make one laugh at a
joke, but I wouldn't call them the "pure" elements:

- One might laugh because the joke is intentionally un-funny.

- One might not get the joke and laugh anyway to be part of the crowd.

- One might get the joke, and simply for that reason laugh -- again,
to be part of the crowd.

- One laughs because someone holds up a cardboard reading "LAUGHTER".

- One might have heard the joke before, or not find it funny to begin
with, and laugh out of politeness or affection.

- One laughs because one is incredibly drunk and, and this moment in
time, would laugh at pretty much everything.

So, how can you apply all this knowledge when telling a joke?
How to Tell a Joke

"Here's How:

"1. Before you open your mouth, know your joke. Even if you're
adlibbing, you must have a clear idea of where you're headed.
2. Know your audience. All jokes are not appropriate for all
3. Do not ask for permission to tell a joke. Surprise is crucial. Jump
in and go!
4. Do not tell everyone how funny your joke is beforehand. You'll make
your audience defensive and your laughs smaller.
5. There must be ample set-up to the joke, providing the pertinent
details the audience needs to know.
6. There must be a punch line or strong conclusion. 
7. When in doubt, the shortest distance through Step #5 and onto #6 is
usually best.
8. Avoid detours. As a rule, jokes work best in a straight line. 
9. Commit to your joke. Once you begin, follow through to the end. 


1. Avoid telling any joke you don't understand.
2. Speak at a comfortable, authoritative pace, manipulating the
material with verbal emphasis and pauses.
3 Listen closely to what you are saying, as if you are a member of the
audience hearing the joke for the first time. Fill those needs.
4. For preparation, when time is available, study jokes you love
audibly and on the printed page. Notice how in the best gags every
word is essential. Strive to make each word count in your stories. Cut
out fat.
5. Listen to the masters. Pay keen attention to comedians' timing and
how they use it, inflection and attitude to their advantage."

For a more elaborate discussion please read:

How to tell a joke like a professional comedian

"Nothing beats practice"

I hope this answers it!

Search terms:
"structure of humour"
"how to tell a joke"
zulu500-ga rated this answer:5 out of 5 stars
Superb thanks!

Subject: Re: humour
From: magnesium-ga on 03 Sep 2003 18:28 PDT
What a wonderful, wonderful answer! Thank you, J Philip.

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