November 16, 2006


How to be funny: Why are comedians such good liars? How hard do they work on their jokes? And how important is... timing? Jimmy Carr and Lucy Greeves explain the rules (Edited extracts from 'The Naked Jape', by Jimmy Carr and Lucy Greeves, Daily Telegraph)

They all laughed when I said I wanted to be a comedian. They're not laughing now.
-Bob Monkhouse

This Monkhouse gag is funny but, of course, it's much better heard than read. On paper, a joke is a pale and inadequate one-dimensional version of itself. In fact, a joke scarcely exists until someone has told it and someone else has laughed.

The who, where, when, what and why of a joke's telling can be more significant that its topic, and no single theory - from Freud's notion of the joke as a release of suppressed sexual neurosis to Schopenhauer's definition of humour as a reaction to incongruity - can explain how jokes work.

Even comedy's greats seem stuck for a proper analysis. When John Cleese tired of questions about where he got his jokes from, he resorted to, 'I buy them from a little man in Swindon.' The truth is much more prosaic. Jokes are about 10 per cent inspiration and 90 per cent whittling and crafting - much of it in front of an audience.

Jerry Seinfeld talks of the comedian's 'third eye', through which he views life with ironic detachment. However, irony and detachment are not enough. Joke writing and performing is a craft, and while an all-encompassing theory of humour may elude us, it is possible to identify some of the basics in the building of a successful joke.

Set-up, punchline, laugh?

A cowboy walks into a bar and orders a whisky. As the barman's pouring it the cowboy looks about him. 'Where is everybody?' he says. 'Gone to the hanging,' says the barman. 'Hanging?' says the cowboy.

'Who they hanging?'

'Brownpaper Pete,' replies the barman.

'Brownpaper Pete? Why do they call him that?'

'Well,' says the barman. 'His hat's made of brown paper, his shirt's made of brown paper, his jacket's made of brown paper and his trousers are made of brown paper.' 'Really?' says the cowboy. 'What they hanging him for?'


Many jokes, like this one, are written backwards, with the punchline sorted out first. However, the punchline - the destination without which a joke loses its way - is so potent a force that even on its own, with little or no narrative set-up, it can make us laugh. Witness the hugely popular sketch comedy of The Fast Show and Little Britain, in which characters get laughs from catchphrases that function just like punchlines to the situational jokes.

This is also how an 'in-joke' works among a group of friends. Life itself provides the set-up, and a word or two, sometimes just a knowing look between two people who are in on the joke, provides the punchline.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 16, 2006 4:46 AM
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