Like all stories, jokes have an arc, and understanding the arc to a joke is the key to understanding how to write a humorous story.
I’m going to use Norm MacDonald’s “Moth Joke” as a model here for the perfect joke, so watch the video and then come back.
Have you stopped laughing? No? We’ll wait.
Okay, let’s deconstruct the joke.
Part One: The Package
The package is the story that sets the scene. It can be one sentence long like this Steven Wright joke, “I can levitate birds…” Or it can focus on the familiar, something relatable like this old Roseanne Barr joke, “My husband is always losing stuff like his car keys.”
In the Moth Joke, Norm sets the scene with the ridiculous, “A moth walks into a podiatrist’s office.” Often, he leads by telling us he learned this joke from a Russian cab driver. Why is the cab driver Russian? Because it’s funny. Russians are known for their tragic pathos, so it contributes to the scene, but it’s also relatable for people who live in cities with a significant immigrant population.
It’s important to note that some words are funny based on sound, reputation, or just how they juxtapose against other elements in the story. For instance: New York City is not funny, but any of the boroughs, except Manhattan, is funny: Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens is funny, and The Bronx. Chicago isn’t funny, but Peoria is. San Bernardino isn’t funny, but Cucamonga is. Santa Fe isn’t funny, but Albuquerque is. Being John Malkovich is a funny title and premise because he’s a gifted and serious actor, whereas Being Tom Hanks is not funny because he is funny. Capisce? An American tourist in Paris is an excellent setting for a joke, but a Canadian tourist in Los Angeles won’t be funny.
The package must build tension, which Norm does brilliantly in the Moth Joke. He pushes the story, draws it out, flubs the story a bit – it’s the telling of the story here that establishes the package. You need to keep your audience engaged, wanting to know the punchline, but not delivering it too early or too late. That’s why we call it the package – because the delivery is critical, and Norm’s timing is masterful.
Part Two: The Setup
Usually, it’s a question delivered by a straight man, although you don’t need a comedy duo to have a straight man. In the Moth Joke, the podiatrist is the straight man. The straight man listens as the package is delivered then asks a question. It’s true with Who’s on First, and it’s true if you’re telling a Knock, Knock joke (Who’s there? Is the setup). And it’s true in the Moth Joke: Podiatrist: “Moth that’s terrible. You need help, but why did you come in here? You should see a psychiatrist.”
That brings us to:
Part Three: The Punchline
It could be a jarring turn in another direction. It could relate to the setup like in “Who’s on First?,” it could play off a harmless stereotype, or it could, like Norm MacDonald’s joke, be a known truth.
When you’re constructing a joke, and a joke can be a short story – Harlan Ellison’s “Repent Harlequin, Said the Tick-Tock Man” comes to mind – it could be an advertisement, or it could be a scene in a story, write it backwards: Punchline, Setup, Package. Work hard on the setup and the punchline until they fit together like Legos. Then scatter them on the floor and let your audience step on them.
You’ll be writing jokes in no time.