Comedy Theory

Joke Structure

Our minds think by recognizing patterns, and using them to make predictions.

When you see a pattern (“A, B, C”), your brain automatically recognizes the pattern (“Alphabet”), and makes a prediction about what comes next.

Jokes have two parts, setup and punchline. Setup leads people to recognize a pattern, which their brains automatically use to make predictions and assumptions. Punch line forces their brain to switch to a different pattern, shattering their assumptions, making it clear that predictions they've made are invalid.

The two patterns must be connected by one thing they have in common - “Connector”.  Connector is one thing with two interpretations that belong to two wildly unrelated patterns.

For example:

  • The setup (“My grandfather had the heart of a lion”) makes us recognize the first pattern: Brave grandfather.
  • The punchline (“and a lifetime ban from the Central Park Zoo”) makes us switch to the second pattern: Grandfather holding an actual heart of a lion.
  • The “Heart of a lion” is the connector, one thing that has two wildly different interpretations, one element that belongs to two entirely unrelated patterns.

The connector, or the patterns, don’t have to be made out of words, they can be abstract concepts, or even visual appearance:

The idea here is the same, one thing with two interpretations belonging to two different patterns:

Absurd Associations

At the core of any joke is an "absurd association", an unexpected connection between two ideas, two patterns that don’t belong together, but have one thing in common - the connector, the one thing with two interpretations.

To write a joke, we need to find two patterns that are connected by one thing. Then we can write a setup - a statement that leads people to recognize the first pattern, and a punch line - a statement that makes them switch to the second pattern.

The less two patterns belong together (the “farther” they are from each other, the more absurd their juxtaposition is), the funnier the joke will be. The better the two patterns are connected (the more Connector makes sense in the context of each of the patterns), the “smarter” the joke will be, the more sense it will make.

So the trick to writing jokes is finding absurd associations, interesting connections between patterns that aren’t normally connected. “Cat” - “Paws” - “Dog” is a valid association, but it’s not funny or interesting, it’s too obvious. “Cat” - “Nine Lives” - “Video Games” is much better, because we don’t normally associate cats with video games.

Pattern Recognizers

So we need to be able to find absurd associations. To do this, we need to understand “pattern recognizers”. When your brain looks at the world, it recognizes small parts of it (little patterns, like letters, or shapes), and then uses these parts to recognize larger patterns (images, words, sentences, abstract ideas).

All patterns are made out of smaller patterns (elements), and are a part of bigger patterns (categories). Both elements and categories work the same way, they recognize patterns, so we call them “pattern recognizers”.

  • When your brain hears a list of elements, like “Tail”, “Pointy Ears”, “Paws”, “Nine Lives”, it will recognize that we’re talking about a “Cat”.
  • When your brain hears a list of categories, like “Animals”, “Things that bring bad luck”, “Things that sound like a bat”, it will also recognize that we’re talking about a “Cat”.

To make associations between patterns, we need to find a recognizer they have in common (aka the connector).

Ways of finding absurd associations

Take Element out of Context

Make a list of elements that belong to Pattern 1.

Take one element out of context (forget about the original pattern, look at the element on its own).

Find a different pattern it belongs to.

For example:

Our topic is “Cat”. We list elements, and take one out of context “Nine Lives”. Then we’re looking for other patterns the “Nine Lives” element belongs to, that are entirely unrelated to the original “Cat” topic, and we find “Video Games”.

To brainstorm a list of elements, here’s a list of things to think about:

  • Adjectives, nouns, and verbs (actions).
  • Expectations, predictions, assumptions, explanations.
  • Situations (scenes, characters at a location doing something).
  • Who, what, where, when, why, how.
  • Idioms and related phrases.
  • Metaphors and analogies.
  • Antonyms, opposites.
  • Strong opinions.
  • Cliches.

When making a list of elements, you want to go for less obvious ones.

When you think of “Relationships” topic, the first things that come to mind are “Girlfriend”, “Marriage”, “Date”, etc. But you can also look for more interesting elements that can lead to more interesting connections - “Faking orgasms”, “Reproduction”, “Friendzone”, “Incest”, “Prenup”, “First time”, “Cheating”, “Soulmate”, “Divorce lawyer”, “Arranged marriage”, etc.

Broad Descriptions

Take a pattern and make a list of Broad Descriptions - categories it belongs to, ways to describe the topic that are intentionally abstract, vague, ambiguous, unusual, unexpected, slightly incorrect, silly, or metaphorical. Deliberately describe the topic in a way that can fit many distant, unrelated patterns. Intentionally make up a phrase/metaphor that can lead you astray from the first pattern, can be connected to something absurd.

Then take a broad description, and look where else it applies, find another pattern that fits this description, a pattern that is as different from the first pattern as possible, that doesn’t belong with it.

. For example, “Cat”:

  • Things that inspired Batman villains.
  • Things that ignore you even though you take care of them.
  • Things you have to take down from a tree.

Then you can use these things to find much more unexpected and interesting associations:

  • Cat - Things you take down from a tree - environmental activist
  • Cat - Things that ignore you - your teenage children

Association Chains

Take two entirely unrelated topics. Ideally ones that are far apart from each other, and aren’t usually connected.

Make a list of elements or broad descriptions for each of the topics.

Then find a chain of associations between these topics, ideally, a non-obvious, surprising, unexpected, interesting way to connect them. The shorter paths are better, try to come up with one thing both patterns have in common, one broad description that fits both topics.

Writing Jokes

Once you have an absurd association, the two connected patterns, you can write a joke.

  1. Write the setup - a statement that leads you to recognize/assume/expect the first pattern, the less absurd interpretation of the connector.

  2. Write the punch line - a statement that continues the first statement in a way that makes your brain switch to the 2nd pattern, to the alternative interpretation of the connector.

You can express the setup and punchline as a one-liner joke, or dialogue, where one person says the setup, and the other one responds with a punch.

Improve a Joke

  • Make it more concise. Clarity and brevity.
  • End on the word that triggers a laugh.
  • More/stronger connections, extra paths between patterns.
  • More exaggerated/absurd, farther away connections, heighten the contrast, increase the gap between the patterns.
  • Switch/Apply the most pushed absurd elements.
  • More super specific words/examples.
  • Non-word-based jokes, pivot around abstract patterns.
  • Callbacks. Dot-connects to previous jokes.
  • Tags, apply P1 to P2 more times in more ways.
  • Briefer wording.
  • Explore/justify make it make sense.
  • Consider an act out, dialogue line instead of telling.
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