It happened again. You find yourself shuffling away from their glazed-over looks, your eyes on your shoes as you look for a rock to kick in frustration. Surely, you thought, surely I’ll ingratiate myself into this fun young group once I tell them the one about the 12-inch pianist, but no. You are sad.
Maybe it’s your material. Maybe it’s your delivery. Maybe you just don’t know how to read an audience. But there’s hope for everyone! Take it from Allen Strickland Williams, professional comedian. Allen talked to Inverse about what you need to land a punchline.
OK, how do I tell a good joke?
First off, you need a joke. So you need to write one or find one. They’re often called “street jokes.” Those dad jokes that have been around for a long time and they’re all basically the same except for little variations. A street joke is like, a horse walks into a bar, the bartender says “Why the long face?” So if you’re going to tell a joke, have one. A lot of time people just say quotes from movies and that is not a joke.
You know how to write a joke. You’ve done Conan. I’m watching your set. Could you walk me through how you built that joke about your girlfriend catching you masturbating in a trap in the woods?
A lot of jokes I write are based on something that already exists. They’re based on situations people have been in, or a topic that everyone has an opinion on in some way. In the case of that specific joke, the premise is your girlfriend catching you masturbating. That’s a common thing, a common fear. You take that common thing and then what takes it to the next level is the twist. Why is it remarkable in this situation? Getting walked in on is funny. Getting caught masturbating, well, set up that it’s a hunt. My girlfriend, like, she walks in on me. No. She lures me into the woods. She set up a trap; I fell into it or something. You take a common thing, then put a spin on it.
I’m guessing most of us are just going to be telling street jokes. But, either way, once we have a joke, how do we deliver it?
You need to actually memorize the joke. A lot of time when someone tells a joke they’ll butcher it or they’ll leave out a key part. Meanwhile, they didn’t actually complete the joke. The thing that makes jokes kind of interesting is like, every word, and phrase, and pauses. All of those things work together to make it work. So if one thing affects something else, you won’t get a laugh at the end. A lot of it is people don’t know the joke. They think they do. At open mics you’re doing jokes over and over again, getting it perfect and getting confident you know it. Don’t underestimate how hard it is to be funny. There’s a lot of work going into it. It’s a lot of prep. You have to learn best way to say it, the best way to sell it. And that’s what a lot of people don’t do, they think it’s easy. And then they kind of mess up. A joke that should have taken seven or eight seconds to tell takes a minute.
One of our writers says that her dad tells this horrible joke all the time. She begs him to stop but he won’t stop. He tells it to every boy she dates. I think, we could have a moment that’s educational and healing. Can you give me a professional ruling on the joke?
I’m warning you in advance, we’re about to take a long walk.
A guy is driving around the back woods and he sees a sign in front of a broken down, shanty-style house: “Talking Dog for Sale.” He rings the bell and the owner appears and tells him the dog is in the backyard.
The guy goes into the backyard and sees a nice-looking Labrador Retriever sitting there.
“You talk?” he asks.
“Yep,” the Lab replies.
After the guy recovers from the shock of hearing a dog talk, he says “So, what’s your story?”
The Lab looks up and says, “Well, I discovered that I could talk when I was pretty young. I wanted to help the government, so I told the CIA. In no time at all they had me jetting from country to country, sitting in rooms with spies and world leaders, because no one figured a dog would be eavesdropping.
“I was one of their most valuable spies for eight years running. But the jetting around really tired me out, and I knew I wasn’t getting any younger so I decided to settle down. I signed up for a job at the airport to do some undercover security, wandering near suspicious characters and listening in. I uncovered some incredible dealings and was awarded a batch of medals.
“I got married, had a mess of puppies, and now I’m just retired.”
The guy is amazed. He goes back in and asks the owner what he wants for the dog.
“Ten dollars,” the guy says.
“Ten dollars? This dog is amazing! Why on earth are you selling him so cheap??”
“Because the dog’s a damn liar. He never did any of that shit.”
Honestly, I think it’s not a bad joke. It is technically a joke. It definitely makes me want to know more about her dad.
What’s the biggest mistake you could make trying to be funny?
Not reading your audience. A lot of times you’re the only one who finds something funny. Nothing more awkward than the guy who tells a really disgusting sex joke in front of four girls at the office. It’s like if you’re at the office and its your break, maybe that’s not the right time to tell that joke. If it’s a bar and your friends are drinking and you’re all laughing, that’s a better time. Not knowing the right moment to tell your joke is your biggest mistake. Less is more. The shorter and tighter it is the harder the joke will hit. Unless it’s like that dog one and it needs to be really long because the ending is so bad.