How to Tell Jokes

Updated on July 25, 2018
Regi Brittain profile image

A stand-up comedian and freelance writer, Regi Brittain loves life and wants to help you enjoy it!

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After you read this article, you will know how to tell a joke for maximum effect. You will then only need to put my tips into practice.

Every joke works better with optimal comedic timing. That timing is also related to joke structure. Let’s talk about that first.

Optimal Joke Structure

Stand-up comedy has an axiom that states, “Always say the funny word last.” I took a huge leap forward in my joke-telling ability once I internalized that concept.

Jokes have setups and punchlines. (They also have something comedians call “taglines” or “tags”, but for our purposes, we only need to think about setups and punchlines.)

The classic - if hackneyed - setup is, “Why did the chicken cross the road.”

And its classic punchline, with its funniest word placed last, is, “To get to the other side!”

The chicken crossing the road joke is worn out and not very funny, but it’d be even less funny if the punchline had “side” in its middle and meandered, something like, “Because the other side was where he needed to get.”

So, whether you want to retell a joke you heard on the street or you want to write your own, you will give yourself the best chance at maximum laughs if you order it with setup-then-punchline and if you put its funniest word - the word on whose emphasis the laugh depends - last.

Punch Up, Not Down

Another common comedy axiom states, “Punch up, not down.”

What does that mean?

It means that you can typically get away with making a fool out of a person or a group with more power (or status) than you, but not less.

It means pick on corporations, not protected classes.

Better yet, talk about something goofy your cat does. In a way, joking about a cat is punching down, but the cat will never know.

In short, don’t be a jerk. Avoid racist, sexist, or otherwise cruel jokes. Surprise people with your wit and intellect.

Use an Economy of Words

Jokes land best after you cut all their excess words. That’s all I need to say here.

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Active Voice Beats Passive Voice

Do you recall active voice and passive voice from English class? Use active voice in your jokes to achieve verbal economics and improve your chances for laughs.

For example, instead of saying, “I found my way into the den,” say, “I walked into the den,” or “I entered the den.”

Some Words Are Funnier than Others

Some jokes are funnier than others, and there are multiple reasons for that fact. Among those, stands the fact that people perceive some words as funnier than other words.

A word can be funnier than others because of its sound. Think “doink”, for example.

Other words are funny because of their definitions. I can’t think of a killer example at this moment, but thankfully, our modern infoweb thingy has robust dictionaries.

I like to insert words with “Ks” and the sound of a “K” in them, like “kook”, “quack”, “cakehole”. These typically get a strong reaction, and by “strong reaction”, I mean laughs, often anyway.

Consider Your Comedic Timing

And now, we're back to comedic timing.

To really pull off a joke, you need excellent comedic timing. A lot of my fellow comedians think that you either have comedic timing or you don’t, and those comedians are wrong.

I’m into skills, not talents. Talent is a construct, a fallacy. Skill is real. Skill gets things done, and you can learn and hone skills, including comedic timing.

To learn comedic timing and get better at telling jokes, watch a range of comedians’ videos on Youtube or Netflix. Watch your favorite comedians, and pick some that may be unfamiliar to you. Note how we pause for emphasis. Listen to the way we order words, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere in this article.

Next, practice your joke telling to internalize comedic timing.

Practice

Partly because it took me until my 40s to take to the comedy stage, I lived most of my life devoid of comedic timing. Yet, I practiced and subsequently learned it. Today, I confidently garner laughs from audiences. Given these facts, I obviously firmly believe that you can practice and learn great joke delivery, too.

You can learn to tell jokes in front of your mirror. Indeed, you should include mirrors in your joke-telling practice. It will help you think about smiling, grinning, surprise, and other facial expressions that can make a joke truly land.

If you have comedy open mics or all-arts open mics in your area, you can take your well-structured, properly practiced jokes onstage at one of those. Performing at more than 100 open mics greatly helped me learn joke delivery.

No matter your practice method, do it repeatedly. From repetition, we gain skill.

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If you do everything I have detailed in this article, I am certain that you will noticeably improve your joke-telling ability. Now, all you have to do is take action. Within days, you can impress your employees, coworkers, friends, contemporaries, or anyone you want to make laugh.

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