What Makes a Joke Funny?

Jokes are all about managing your audience's line of thinking. You give them something to look forward to, then you throw out the window.

You can tell a joke about almost anything. But what makes your joke funny?

Many of us have experienced some level of absurd monotony in the workplace, but why does Ricky Gervais’s recounting lead to one of the most celebrated comedies of all time? And how does Tina Fey consistently deliver punchlines almost every two minutes? We’re all familiar with Pop Tarts, but every time Jerry Seinfeld tells that Pop Tart joke, we can’t help but laugh. 

So what exactly makes a joke funny?

A joke provides characters, conflict, and resolution. As the elements interact with one another, the joke forms a narrative arc: a beginning, a middle, and an end. Telling a joke is telling a story. Everyone loves to anticipate what might happen to the characters or how the conflict might be resolved. This is what I refer to as the joke, or the story’s line of thinking

But what we don’t often think about in our storytelling is what the audience is bringing to the table: it’s active participation. participation. What is the audience thinking about? What assumptions are being made? What expectations exist? 

Here’s an example around managing the line of thinking in a joke.

“Last week my house was on fire. My wife told the kids...” 

In the beginning of this anecdote, the storyteller quickly paints a bleak picture. The audience is immediately brought into a seemingly traumatic experience with the narrator’s home on fire with his family threatened. We’ve learned ‘fire = threat’ from previous stories, possibly experience, and it’s widely shared throughout society. Empathy for the protagonist kicks in. One of our first thoughts is “what would I do in that situation?” And then as we hear his wife is calling to his children, “what would I say in that situation?” Most likely, “run!” A natural reaction to a threatening environment. Instead, comic Rodney Dangerfield’s joke finishes: “Last week my house was on fire. My wife told the kids, ‘Be quiet, you’ll wake up Daddy.’” The audience immediately anticipated an escape and family welfare, assuming the entire family was looking out for each other. That’s where it went down one line of thinking, and Dangerfield took it down another. 

If you are in the audience, what makes this one-liner even more impactful is that Dangerfield shifts your feelings towards the characters. At first, he, as the protagonist, is the sympathetic character experiencing a fire and thinking about his family. By the second sentence, you realize he’s actually seen as a lousy husband and father. A powerful shift that took less than 20 words.

So how do you manage the line of thinking? By getting your audience comfortable.

Observational and situational comedy makes an effort to be relatable. Comedy writers create likeable characters like Jim and Pam in The Office for the audience to empathize with. They include Dwight, an obnoxious coworker many can imagine in their own office, and an exhausting, ineffective, yet loveable boss in Michael Scott. All these characters, even the setting and production style, are designed to set the audience’s expectations as if they were sharing the office as well.

In an effective joke, whether it’s standup, a sitcom, or just a funny friend, the writer is managing your expectations and helping you make assumptions about the story, that is, they’re giving you a clear line of thinking. As they share their story and illustrate the finest details, you, as the listener, visualize it and bring it to life in your head. Where they don’t offer details, you likely do, filling in the gaps and bringing some colour to the story. 

To this point, you’re on the same page, you’re on the same line of thinking.

And in an instant, sometimes a sentence, or even a word, everything you were visualizing, assuming, and ultimately expecting, is flipped upside down. This is an example of “the reverse” - a joke structure that intentionally leads the audience down an easy-to-follow story, only to offer a surprising conclusion the audience didn’t expect. Read this article again and think about a thriller movie or a magic show instead of a joke. Successful projects all lean on storytelling and managing the line of thinking to achieve their goal of surprise, delight, and revelation; the audience expects a certain outcome only to be met by another.

Great jokes come from powerful storytelling. And while this brief article simply scratches the surface, it highlights that even a one-liner can introduce characters, conflict, resolution, and a narrative arc, while playing off the audience’s assumptions and expectations.