Set-Up and Punchline: Using Narrative to Tell a Joke
"Three blokes go into a pub. Something happens, and the outcome's hilarious!"
-- Bill Bailey
That's the basic recipe for any joke, isn't it? Set the scene, add a verb or two, and everyone laughs. But there's a problem with jokes, and it goes something rather like this:
"Three blokes go into a pub, and the whole scene unfolds into a tedious inevitability." -- Bill Bailey (again)
The formula to telling a joke is a bit more complex than just the basic recipe. The recipe is what you need to tell the joke; milk, eggs, flour, shortening, baking powder, saffron. But if you just look at the recipe, you don't really know what's going to happen. Are we baking a cake? Biscuits? Some sort of rock-hard bread that'll keep in the pantry for two million years? We don't know!
Telling a joke is the same thing. Just having the set up, verbs, and payoff without knowing how much of each, or if you should use the verbal equivalent to butter or margarine could possibly work in your favour, or it can fall very, very flat.
There's a common misconception that comedians these days don't tell jokes; they tell stories. But those stories are still (hopefully) funny, and we laugh at the end. So... isn't that then, by definition, a joke? Sure, Dylan Moran might tell stories about how awful it is being a parent, and how weekends are spent scraping dried cornflakes from counters and hiding in cupboards, but he surely doesn't mean it. He's using hyperbole a device used to make a situation seem far more grand than it really is. Jeremy Clarkson is famous for it to take a mundane situation and make it seem absolutely absurd. And he does it using the exact same recipe and formula as your standard punchline joke, only in a narrative format (for the sake of this lesson, "three blokes go into a pub" is not narrative, because it's a bit too simple).
Telling a story is different from doing a stand-up routine, though. And for the obvious reasons. For starters, you don't get the audience feed back until after everything's said and done. Even if you've been writing for a hundred years, you still don't know 100% if your joke is working until someone reads your story and leaves a comment. You can have a good feeling about it. It might make you laugh, but it's still a story, and it's only going to be funny to your reader if you pay attention to all of the individual parts. Let's start from the beginning, as that is generally a good place to begin.
Set-Up: Who, What Where, When, and Maybe Why
A gag story will begin just like any other story. The most effective punchline is the one that both fits naturally with the rest of the story but doesn't scream from the off, "Look at me! This is what's going to happen in 200 words from now!" Subtly unexpected should be your target. As such, your set up should probably not sign post that the reader should be expecting the unexpected. Set it up as you would any other story. You got your characters, and they're there, doing what they do. You might have a touch of humour in your set-up, but you want just enough to get the reader interested. Any humour before the punchline should be very light, as to not overshadow the pay-off.
The more believable and ordinary the situation, the more the reader is able to relate. If the characters are struggling to move a sofa into a third-story flat, for instance, the reader will likely be able to relate far more than they would if your characters are, say, frog people from Mars, trying to quantify the problem of getting goats to tap dance.
That is a punchline; not a set-up. Keep the premise simple and your pay-off will have a bigger impact. And keep the set-up as direct as possible. Don't waffle about, talking about things that don't matter to the pay-off. Writing a good gag story is exactly the same as writing a mystery novel. You only want to include in the narrative what is needed for the pay-off. Don't include anything unnecessary or unrelated to the pay-off, and make sure that everything needed is included. As we've discussed before, you know what's going on, because it's in your head, but your reader is not psychic. If you leave bits out, even if you think they're minor, your reader might have needed to know about those bits for the end to make sense.
The set-up should tell the story. That's where all of the verbs happen and the characters interact (if there are multiple characters). This is where you do all of your work to make the punchline funny. Very, very rarely will you ever just hear the punchline, and it will be funny just on its own.
The Pay-Off, or Punchline
You want your pay-off to be unexpected, but feel very natural to everything else. It's the unexpectedness that makes the pay-off funny, and by keeping the situation rooted in reality the whole way through, you don't have to get amazingly far-fetched in your punchline. In fact, some of the most effective punchlines are those that are perfectly ordinary, but when juxtaposed against everything that happened previous, the perfectly ordinary becomes quite funny.
When delivering your punchline, you generally want to be as direct as possible. Suggestion, while sometimes effective, doesn't tend to be as funny. Another trick widely used by comedians and actors is the use of certain letters. "K" is especially funny, as are words that start with hard consonants. It's funny simply through phonetics, but it's still effective.
Once you've delivered your punchline, your story is over. Character reaction, while it may be interesting to you, will take up too much time, and by the time your reader wants to comment, they will have already forgotten what they were laughing at.
Let's look at all of this pieced together:
"I'm sorry. I've never had that happen before."
Nicholas blinked, staring confused into the space in front of him. "No, it's... okay. It's fine."
"But it isn't. It's embarrassing." Danny looked away for a few moments before finally getting up, putting some distance between the two of them.
"What now?" Nicholas tapped his fingers awkwardly against his thighs. "I mean..."
"I dunno. I won't be mad if you go home."
"It wasn't that bad," Nicholas assured.
"You're such a horrible liar." Sighing, Danny ejected the DVD, picking up Karate Cop from the tray and shoving it unceremoniously into the case.
My preferred gag story is the "drabble." 100 words exactly; no more, and no less. Why? I don't know; there's just something funny about it.
The short format also allows for your setup to be quick-paced and direct. This particular example has the reader (in theory) thinking that the characters are talking about something vastly different from what they're actually discussing, and uses body language to accentuate the misdirection. When the pay-off comes, it's in a small, single-sentence package, and on its own, completely boring. But because it's not what the reader expects, and possibly because it has a K in it as well, the simple action of putting away a DVD is humorous. Once the pay-off is delivered, the story's done. The joke's been told, so there's no reason to linger.