Let’s begin by understanding the terms. A joke is . . . well, it’s a joke. It’s a recognizable truth or exaggeration that’s expressed in such a way that it produces laughter among the listeners. For example, Rodney Dangerfield said, “If it weren’t for pick-pocketers, I’d have no sex life at all.” Funny line. Rita Rudner told a joke that went, “I was a vegetarian until I started leaning toward the sunlight.” Terrific one-liner.
A joke concept is an idea that has the potential for a joke – or for several jokes – embedded in it. For instance, the thought behind Dangerfield’s line above is that women don’t find him attractive enough to have sex with him anymore. The only intimate groping he experiences lately is the inadvertent titillation from strangers feeling around in his pockets. The concept behind the Rita Rudner line above is that she ate so much plant food that she began acting as a plant would.
Sometimes we comedy writers can allow ourselves to be mislead that the joke concept can be the joke. And occasionally that can be true. George Carlin’s observation about freeway traffic is a good example of that: “Have you ever noticed that anyone driving slower than you is an idiot and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?” It’s really a factual statement, yet just pointing it out to listeners produces a solid laugh.
Even though unique observations can often be funny on their own, most of them are rather bland without the innovative wording of the joke. Putting a twist on the idea and expressing it in a unique and surprising way produces the joke. Also, as we noted earlier, a good joke concept can produce many different jokes. As an example, Phyllis Diller would kid about her own cooking. One concept was that her food was dangerous. People could die from it.
One of her jokes based on this idea was “I serve my meals in three stages—set the table, serve the food, bury the dead.” Another was, “My Veal Parmigiana recipe has been registered with the local police as a lethal weapon.” Also, “No matter what recipe I follow, it always turns out tasting like Hemlock.” You could probably produce another half-dozen lines very quickly based on the idea that Phyllis’ cooking could be fatal.
In fact, we are also publishing an exercise that ties in with this instructional article. We will list several joke concepts and invite you to create solid laugh lines based on that premise. That exercise is listed under “exercises” and has the same title as this article—Write the Joke; Not the Joke Concept.
Before you turn to that, though, let’s cover one other bit of advice on when you should be aware that you’re writing the concept rather than the joke. In reviewing your writing be wary of anything that appears to read as a simple statement, such as “I think I married the laziest man alive.” Take that pronouncement and convert it to a full-fledged joke, with a set-up, and a strong punchline that shows why you believe you married the laziest man alive. Your writing will be much stronger if you write powerful jokes rather than bland statements.
Turn to the related exercise now and give it a try.