Probably the most common question that commedians are asked is "How do you write your jokes?" It's the same way people ask musicians how they write their music. While everyone can see and understand how a joke or song is presented on stage, it's really hard for someone unfamiliar with the process to understand how to create it out of nothing.
Even though joke writing is simple the process can be complex. This is in part because it differs for every comic. George Carlin has said in past interviews that 98% of his material he knew would be funny before he ever said it on stage. On the other spectrum Jerry Seinfeld is famous for fine tuning his jokes over countless sets until it is "ready". Most comics fall somewhere in between, but ultimately a joke starts as an idea, then is formed into a single joke, refined after several presentations on stage, and then expanded on into a larger bit.
One of the best ways to describe this was done in the comedy documentary "I am comic" which I will briefly paraphrase:
First you have a basic set-up punchline joke. Several insert and tag jokes are written around the joke until it becomes a "bit." Several bits formed together create a "chunk" of material (anywhere from 5-10 minutes). Several "chunks" put together create a "set" of material (30-60 minutes).
In this model bits are usually about a single topic such as an ex-girlfriend. Another bit about breaking up with said girlfriend, and a third about getting back on the dating scene could be combined into a "chunk" about relationships.
This format also makes it easier to understand how we comics can memorize a 60 minute set word for word. Instead of memorizing the entire 60 minutes we focus on memorizing each bit individually. Then we just have to remember which bits go together in each chunk. It makes it a lot easier to mix up the set without forgetting which jokes we have already told.
Again this is all general information about how comics write jokes. The specifics of writing jokes vary greatly from comic to comic. The easiest way of explaining my process is to take you step by step through a recent joke that I incorporated into my set-list.
STEP 1: THE IDEA
Every joke starts with an "ah ha" moment. Something that you think of or that comes up which you realize could be a joke. Anyone who hangs out with me long enough will notice that I will routinely say in conversations "I need to write a joke about that."
This particular joke came while I was driving with my family in a Cost Co parking lot on a busy weekend. It was one of those parking lots where everyone is moving really slowly and you start getting frustrated with other drivers. As it happens my wife and I were stuck waiting for an extremely large pick-up truck to back out of a parking spot. With the exception of people who need them for actually transporting large loads or going to off road locations, I never understand why anyone would ever need such a large vehicle. This particular truck seemed even more so as it was unnecessarily suspended an extra foot off the ground, making the bottom of the door 2 and a half to 3 feet above the ground. My wife and I noticed that the truck was pulling out of a handicap spot and started joking about how any handicap person would even be able to get into such a vehicle. That's when I noticed that the truck's license plate was from Texas, and I told my wife "maybe being from Texas qualifies as a handicap".
My wife let out a loud laugh and I knew a joke was born. Now all I would have to do is write it.
STEP 2: WRITING
When I say that I "write" jokes I really mean that I "form" jokes. Writing implies taking pen to paper and creating a paper trail of material. If I'm lucky I'll remember to write an "idea" down so that I don't forget it later, but even this is rare. My "writing" consists of me saying the joke idea out loud to myself, hearing how it sounds, and then finding a way to make it sound smoother. I then repeat the process until I have a somewhat polished idea of what I can say on stage. Almost all of this writing is done in my car. I drive 50 thousand plus miles most years for comedy so that leaves me with a lot of free time to talk to myself.
Shortly after I saw this Texas truck I began a 20 hour drive to Oklahoma where I was performing at a couple of clubs. Along the way I formed a joke about the topic.
At this point the joke followed a standard "a funny thing happened on the way to the show" format. I began by describing the biggest truck that I had ever seen, finalizing that it was parked in a handicap spot. (I figured this fact alone would get a laugh) then describing that the truck had a Texas license plate followed by my punchline about how that qualifies as a "handicap."
The joke was now written, but I wasn't sure if it was funny. The only way to tell would be to try it on stage.
STEP 3: FINE TUNING
Sometimes when you write a joke it gets the reaction you expect. Sometimes it gets the opposite, and sometimes it gets a surprise laugh where you weren't expecting. This particular joke got a combination of all three when I delivered it on stage in Oklahoma. Yes, the expected punchline got a laugh, but a secondary punchline seemed to go unnoticed by the audience, and something I didn't think would get a laugh did.
On the first night that I told the joke I got a laugh after mentioning that I had just seen the biggest pick-up of my life. I didn't really think that in-and-of itself was funny, but to southern crowds it had the appearance of me being a naive northerner surprised by the good-ol-boy ways of the south. Whatever. A laugh is a laugh and I'll roll with it.
Mentioning the handicap spot got a laugh, aided by an improvised tag of how anyone in a wheel chair could ever get into such a vehicle. But when I mentioned the license plate from Texas there was no laugh, at least not until I said the obvious punchline of that fact qualifying as a handicap.
I had hoped the punchline would get a double laugh by leading the audience towards the punchline, then stopping just short for a moment and letting the smart people in the audience figure out where I was headed and then spoon feed it to the rest of the audience. This didn't happen, but it's not clear if that's because it's not funny or because the audience wasn't smart enough to make the connection. (Welcome to the south)
As I somewhat expected the joke offended several "Texans" in the audience, but they were easily silenced with a stock joke about congratulating them on being smart enough to get the joke.
After the week of fine tuning I now had a new introduction for the joke, a new way to deliver the punchline, and a follow-up tag. In essence I had my "bit" and it read like this:
Things are different down here in the south. I think I saw the biggest pick-up truck of my life this week. *
You know the kind of truck I'm talking about. Extended cab, extended bed, giant no-way-is-that-street-legal tires.*
It had a suspension that put it three feet off the ground, and here's the kicker.... parked in a handicap spot!*
As if anyone in a wheel chair could ever get into that vehicle.*
No handicap sticker either by the way. Normally that would make me upset, but this particular truck had a license plate from Texas, and I think that qualifies as a handicap.**
Apparently there are some people from Texas in the audience who were offended by that joke.* Well good for you being smart enough to understand it.*
(* indicates pause for audience laughter **pause for potential applause)
That is how the joke currently is performed on stage. It won't stay that way for long. I'll continue tweaking it. Taking out parts that don't work that well and adding more tags. Eventually the "bit" will be good enough to add to my joke Rolodex (which I keep in my head) and I can use it whenever I'm in a "blue collar" area.
This bit is about 50 seconds long and contains about 7 audience laugh moments. If I'm lucky I can write about two such bits a week. I'll keep the ones that work, and fine tune the ones that don't. That way by the time I perform at the same room I will have 15-20 minutes of new material. The trick is to take the time to write all of the jokes down so I don't forget them. At least thanks to this blog I have this one bit backed up.