So, you want to tell a joke. That’s great! Jokes have been a wondrous form of story-telling and communication ever since poultry and roads were first invented. Here’s a few tips on how to make sure your punchlines get the kick they deserve.
As any “Tony Robbins-style”, eye-rollingly earnest inspo meme will tell you, “preparation is the key to success” so, before you begin telling your joke, it is absolutely crucial that you ask yourself the following questions:
1. Is now the right time for a joke?
Look around you. Weigh up all the odds. Does your audience actually want to hear a joke? Don’t get me wrong, a good joke can be told at a funeral if the timing is right, but I’ve also had people try to tell me jokes while I’m in line at the chemist trying to buy medication for tongue thrush. Not cool, bro.
2. Do I have my audience’s attention?
Distractions are like joke kryptonite. Are you sitting in a sports bar, midway through the last play of the big match and everyone is literally just looking over your shoulder? Are you standing on a main road, which is going to require your friends to yell “WHAT?!” because you hit your punch just as a big truck drives past? Is a friend about to walk in to meet you all, and you’re going to have to start your joke again, thrusting the people who’ve already heard the set-up into a plunge-pool of boredom? Factor in possible distractions, and then unleash when the time is right.
On a side note, I would also suggest letting your audience know, very clearly, that you will be ‘telling them a joke’. They need to switch their heads into audience mode. If you start telling a story about chickens crossing the road, they could very well interrupt with a long rant about an animal rights documentary they just watched on Netflix and before you’ve gotten to your punchline, the whole group is discussing the plight of the Hawaiian Monk Seal and whether you might offer your bathtub as a possible conservation sanctuary. Also, the telling of jokes can really strike fear into the core of people’s anxiety. The whole time you’re telling your joke, they’ll be thinking, “Oh god. What happens if it’s not funny? I’m going to have to fake laugh. I hate fake laughing!” So get their permission first, and then let rip!
(For the record, if somebody asks me if I would like to hear a joke, I always say “Sure. But I might not laugh”. It sounds ice-cold, but trust me, it saves everyone a world of cringe.)
OK, so your audience is red-hot and waiting for your zinger. Next, ask yourself:
3. Do I actually know the joke??
I’ve seen too many bumbling fools commit crimes against humanity by completely butchering what should have been a super funny moment by not remembering what the hell they were supposed to be saying. It’ll only take a minute to clarify all the details. Are you sure it takes place in a doctor’s surgery? Then why is the doctor holding a ‘kaleidoscope’? DO YOU MEAN ‘STETHOSCOPE‘?! For god’s sake, please – just stop, pause, then engage.
Which brings us to the most important question of all…
4. Is what I’m about to say actually a joke?
A joke requires a set-up and a punchline. The set-up can be as short as a single sentence or question (“Why did the chicken cross the road?”), or it can be a long rambling story about a chicken’s teenage-like obsession with its cloaca. Either way you choose to go, remember one golden rule to joke telling: “the view must be worth the climb“.
Word economy is absolutely vital, so don’t bother saying anything that is not crucial to your punchline. If you tell some rambling story for 15 minutes that involves layer-upon-layer of puff pastry exposition, when you finally get to the punchline, that view better be fucking jaw-dropping. I mean some Machu Pichu-kinda shit.
But once you begin the joke, it’s like stepping off the high-dive platform at your local waterpark; provided you’ve done everything right in the preparation, you basically have to let gravity do the work. Just make sure your punchline is clear, and concise, so that your audience knows when it’s all over. Look for signs of laughter (“How To Tell If Someone Is Laughing” will be covered another week), or for your friends to be awkwardly avoiding eye-contact with you all afternoon because they hated it. Either way, give yourself a big pat on the back. You did it! Congratulations.
Now, you’re probably brimming with confidence and licking your lips like an old man at an early-bird special at the thought of telling more jokes, but don’t you dare just immediately launch into your next one. This whole process should be repeated over, because while some people will want to ride the laugh-waterslide again, others will want to turn their backs on the thrill immediately, and opt to enjoy their time pretending to be a giant turtle in the wave pool instead.
In fact, if the joke you’ve decided to tell is racist, sexist, transphobic, homophobic, fat-ist, ageist, vegan-ist, etc, there is a chance that whoever you’ve told will never want to talk to you ever again. Hell, if you’ve really missed the mark, you might even lose your job! But hey, with great jokes comes great responsibility. Be smart. Choose wisely.
Telling jokes is super fun, but it’s not for everyone. Just remember that the number one rule: if they don’t laugh, it’s their fault.
- Matt Okine – The Hat Game begins its run at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival from March 29. It runs until April 22. For tickets, visit comedyfestival.com.au or phone (03) 9245 3788.