Sometimes you will find it useful to tell a joke or humorous story on its own, for example at a party or a family dinner. At other times you will want to weave your joke into a speech. Now there are obvious differences between these two uses, but the fundamental architecture of a good joke or humorous story is the very same regardless of where it is used or fits in.
Now with this “architecture” in mind, let's look at building a joke.
We start by telling a story which encourages listeners to make a series of assumptions about a person and/or a situation. Your task as the teller of the joke is to help the listeners build one assumption on top of another until they are sitting up there on a “hill” made of their own erroneous assumptions. In fact, they are not just up on a hill, you have led them to the edge of a cliff... but they mustn't be allowed to realize this. The higher the hill, the higher the cliff, the better.
So when everyone is up there on the top of their hill of assumptions, and after a very short pause - you hit them with the punch line and catastrophically demolish all of their assumptions and drop them in free fall into an entirely different context in space.
It’s that simple.
total collapse of assumptions.
But it has to be done well.
Let me use an nonverbal example of this buildup and catastrophic collapse of assumptions routine. The clowns at the circus are running around throwing pails of water each other then maybe a pail or two at one of the elephants. Then one of the clowns moves to the edge of the crowd with a big bucket and starts to swing it back and forth. Then with a big smile on his face as he looks mischievously at the people in the front row then he looks up at the crowd with a devilish grin and he pauses for a moment. Now this pause is very important. He wants to give everyone a few more seconds to imagine all those poor people in the front row getting drenched with water.
Then the punch line!
He dramatically empties the bucket all over the front row. Surprise, surprise: it's not water like everyone assumed: it’s confetti !
Now if your joke forms part of a speech, to pull this off effectively you need to do some camouflaging, and one of the easiest way to do this is to personalize your humour. Instead of introducing your story, for example with the old "a pirate goes into a bar" you personalize it by saying, for example, “I was in XXX’s pub last Thursday night, it was about 10 PM etc.”
To make your set up really work, personalize your story by using references to place, time, site, sounds, and even smells.
A Note on Pacing
As teller of the joke you must be very sincere and convincing as you lead them up this hill of false assumptions. Indeed you, yourself, must be in the moment as you tell the story and trundle up the hill. Remember that you have been up this hill of assumptions many times before and you have already internalized the implications of all the assumptions. Your listeners are still working on this and you will leave them behind if you go too quickly. Lead them slowly enough up the hill that they are able to keep up with you.
While doing this, you dare not be thinking about the punch line or how funny the joke is. You have to be innocently with the audience on the trip up the hill of expectations.
(Incidentally, this cannot be done successfully if you read the joke as part of a speech.)
Then at the top of the hill, pause for a second or two before the punch line. This pause need only be one or two seconds but it is essential. It allows your followers to imagine and ponder briefly the “obvious” outcome of the many assumptions you have been encouraging them to make.
After the pause.... the punch line!
The punch line must be memorized.
It is inexcusable to stumble over the punch line. If you blow the punch line, all is lost.
Remember it's as simple as this. Build up of assumptions. Catastrophic collapse.
I would like to share with you an experience about drinking and driving. As you well know, some of us have been known to have had brushes with the authorities on our way home from the odd social session over the years.
A couple of nights ago, I was out for a few drinks with some friends at the Marriott Hotel and had a few too many beers and some rather nice red wine.
Knowing full well I may have been slightly over the limit, I did something I've never done before: I took a bus home. Sure enough I passed a police roadblock but as it was a bus, they waved it past.
I arrived home safely without incident which was a real surprise to me ...
as I have never driven a bus before and I'm not sure where I got it.
From prehistoric time humans have pondered the afterlife. A hunter-gatherer taking a break from hunting and gathering sits on a perch, chin in hand, and thinks ‘what happens when the hunting and gathering are over?’
5pm, November 5th and it is cool, rainy and windy in Ottawa, but I arrived here in Montevideo yesterday and am soaking in the sun in T-shirt weather, under clear blue skies. But can it be possible that I travelled with Airmiles?
In the past couple of weeks I have received numerous calls from an outfit that claims to be associated with Microsoft and wants to send me a refund because they are going out of business. At least, I think that's the story, it really is not very clear. The voices always have a strong accent and certainly don't sound North American. The first few times I simply hung up, feeling irritated by the interruption but when the calls kept coming, I decided to change my strategy.
There is always a few seconds of silence, before the caller sees a line is open and announces himself or herself, so I know what is coming. If I am not actually in the middle of something else, I respond warmly and tell him or her how pleased I am by the call. They then proceed to tell me that they want to send me a refund. I thank them for their generosity and tell them to send me a cheque. That isn't possible for amounts under $1,000, and I am supposed to turn on my computer. At that point I start badgering them with lots of questions, most of them silly. One of my favourite lines is to tell them that my computer has a screen and not a window, which requires them to explain at length to a computer-illiterate what they mean by "windows". I also explain that I have spoken to lots of their colleagues and if only they put their heads together all the various amounts they have promised me would add up to over a $1000 and they could send me a cheque. I ask them where live and where their office is and some of them have given me a phone number (it's a 800 or 877 number or a USA area code) and an address. I ask them all sorts of personal questions, showing a great deal of interest in their puzzled responses. They get exasperated when I don't seem to get the point of their call but they are reluctant to give up on a "live" target so they keep trying to get back to their set-piece while I keep interrupting. At some point they begin to realize they're not going to get anywhere and their exasperation starts getting the better of them. At that point I tell them I enjoy wasting their time and that I see it a as sort of social service: as long as I am wasting their time they cannot be harassing someone else, possibly more vulnerable.
I've actually come to enjoy these marketing calls.
Same Time, Same Station
‘In my day,’ my mother used to say, ‘things were different’. Typically, she meant disapproval of today. I remember thinking a little despondently that the world I’d been born into must be was going to the dogs – in the 1920’s virtue and courtesy must have reigned.
Chai in the Sky
I once watched Jane Fonda interviewing the then Archbishop of Canterbury on BBC TV in the UK in the sixties. She asked him a question that had always lingered in me: ‘why is Christianity the only true religion?’ His answer was sympathetic and seemingly open-minded – ‘I see value in Islam, in Judaism, in Hinduism and Buddhism’ he said, ‘but I believe the only true revelation of Christ is reflected in the Christian religion.’
The other day I was watching the preps for a football game on TV and caught sight of a player propped down on one knee on the sidelines. He mumbled to himself, made a sign of the cross, bounced up and jogged off perkily to join his team in a huddle. I thought to myself, “How does God handle that? How many people are there on earth who say prayers, and how does He decide who gets what?”
Angus or a Master’s Plaint
I had not realized the potential significance of “Angus” until a six-week-old Bernadoodle arrived in our home, assuming my hitherto unused second name. For several years my wife Gloria had been musing about acquiring a dog. When this became insistent, I gave in. “It will be your responsibility, but I’m not going to stand in your way”.
To endure living in Ottawa during the first days of spring it helps to be possessed of considerable inner reserves. The weather is wearisome. At worst, it is an extension of the previous three or four grim months; at best, the city is redolent of thawing doggy doo and March winds whirl unswept grit into your footwear.
Is something going on?? Yesterday I visited a large Canadian retail store where I was approached, unsolicited, by a floor clerk who asked whether I required assistance, conducted me to the area of my interest, explained some intricacies of the sales offers in vigour, and volunteered to remain nearby in case I had further need of him. I was so shocked I nearly called the management.