At the risk of ruining all jokes for you forever, here’s the structure of a joke, why it works, and how to write one.
Structure of a joke
All jokes have two halves: a set-up and a payoff. Even the most complicated multi-part mega-joke can always be unscrambled to back to a set-up and a payoff.
The set-up lays out the rules. In the set-up we declare what is true and what is normal and how the world works. This, of course, is a fake-out. The whole point of a set-up is to give us something to subvert in the payoff.
The real, deeper, truth we hope to convey in a joke is revealed in the payoff, but to get there, we must open with its opposite and present it convincingly. You do this by leaning into whatever is true about the set-up, even as we are gearing up to upend it. This works not because we are good liars, but because the most effective jokes deal with the aching complexities of the human condition, and so offer in the set-up half-truths or “mutual truths” that could plausibly be the whole truth. A good joke works because we can see ourselves in some aspect of the set-up. The set-up reveals to us some slice of our own preconceived notions of the world. The set-up reflects back to us that which we fear about ourselves (but don’t yet know, or haven’t yet admitted). And the elegance of a well-structured joke is that we only realize all of this after the payoff.
The payoff inverts the set-up. We laugh (if we laugh) at precisely the moment we the realize that what is actually true is the opposite of our expectations (as handed to us in the set-up). The payoff works when we recognize our own transformation from what we thought before (during the set-up) and what we realize now (having seen the payoff).
The best jokes do this in a way that is generous towards the audience. Mean spirited jokes exists, where the teller tricks the audience and then spitefully kicks them while they are down, but this path doesn’t work in the long run. You either end up losing the trust of the audience (and your set-ups no longer work) or losing faith in yourself (at which point you are truly lost). Instead, embrace the audience, love the audience, and show that all of us can grow, even if we, too, sometimes make painful mistakes. The best jokes help us grow. The best jokes help us become the people we long to be (but fear we’re not). The best jokes offer the world more joy than suffering, even if temporary suffering has a role in the transformation.
A joke can be quick: where the set-up and the payoff happen within seconds or even a half of a second. A joke can be slow: where the set-up is left dangling for minutes (or hours) before paying off after many digressions and interludes. But a joke always pays off. If a joke doesn’t payoff, it isn’t a joke, it’s just an observation.
There are many ways to do it. You can turn everything upside down, you can reverse power dynamics, you can swap out an assumed context, you can insert a conflicting set of rules of behavior and then respond with the opposite set of rules than was expected. You can mis-direct attention to what’s important. You can leave out details. You can change the meaning with new details. There are as many variations as there are ways to write a symphony.
Speaking of symphonies… Beethoven wrote one of the most recognizable themes in musical history (da-da-da-dum) for his Symphony no. 5 in C-min. But if you really look at it—it’s just four notes—where the first three are identical (da-da-da-dum) and these four notes are repeated over and over, turned upside down, flipped backwards, stretched out, shrunk down, inverted, transposed, and transported—the entire symphony is more or less built from this single, straight-forward theme.
And what is the structure of this theme? It’s set-up (da da da) and payoff (dum). It’s a masterpiece. It’s a work of genius. And it’s our favorite structure (set-up, payoff) hidden in the fennel-stalk of musical greatness.
Why it works
Jokes work because we recognize our own ignorance and crave the pleasure of revelation. Jokes work because they show us both what we are (set-up) and what we can become (payoff). Jokes work because they contain the architecture of story in their 1–2 punch.
John Yorke’s Into the Woods , Robert McKee’s Story, and Aristotle’s Poetics all lay out an argument that there is a common structure for all stories. And in their own way, each deliverers the revelation that “story” enacts, mimics, and demonstrates the process of learning something new. We start off in our normal existence, something perturbs that existence, then we must go on a journey of understanding to incorporate, assimilate, and cope with the perturbation. We either figure it out and triumph, or fail and learn why we were wrong.
The feeling of a satisfying ending to a story happens when we achieve that sense of being whole again, because we’ve found a way to incorporate the new, hard-earned knowledge of the quest or problem back into our existence. The rupture healed. The wound sutured. The lacuna filled.
Within this framing, a joke is a compact, two-beat version of story. And story, well, really, that’s all we’ve got.
How to write a joke
There are many ways into a joke. You can start by designing the set-up. You can start by designing the payoff. You can start with the characters in the joke and imagine what they might think to be true, but where the opposite is, in fact, a deeper truth. You can start with an observation, where you have noticed something that other people often overlook. You can start with your fears, your hopes, your worries, your delights—the point is to start.
After you start, look at what you’ve got and ask how do I cause each part to do more work. How can I make my set-up stronger? What do I need to change to make the payoff land better? How can I up the stakes of what’s at risk? How can I widen the gap between what is true in the end and what we believe to be true at the start?
Ask yourself about every aspect. Relentlessly review and revise every part. Take your time. Some jokes come in a flash. Others takes years to get right. Is the joke more funny with different characters? Is the joke more enlightening if we change the setting or the severity of the circumstances? Can we make it more personal? More universal? Can I write a set-up that no one has ever experienced before, but where it instantly feels familiar and relatable? Can I write about something everyone experiences all the time, but where the payoff is novel, unexpected, and happens as it has never happened before to anyone, ever? Can I offer a new deeper truth that leaves us laughing (and transformed)?
When you are working on a joke, you test each element and adjust, refine, and rearrange it to get it to do the best work it can for the role it plays. Once you have it working, it’s a structure, not a script, so you can adjust your aproach as the context changes. You might deliver the joke one way in an elevator, and another way on stage. You might alter it for a children’s cartoon and adjust it for a late-night drama. You might offer it to the producers of Shrek in the punch-up room with one set contextual constraints, and a similar structure years later to Snoop Dogg in Twitter HQ. You might create a structure for a set-up and payoff for a TED talk that, with different elements and rules, turns into a lede for a best seller. You might soften a line and lower your voice and drop it on a raging adversary in a way that both destroys and embraces their hostility towards you and turns it to your mutual advantage and somehow into a career-long alliance. Or you might write something new and true and wonderful so that you delight the love of your life on your 10th, 20th, 50th, or 80th anniversary.
It’s up to you.