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.