Thursday, July 14, 2016

Your punchlines

Thank you all sooooo much for participating in yesterday’s exercise. You had some GREAT jokes.   Mine is posted at the very bottom.

What I want to do today is use this as a teaching exercise. I’m listing some of the jokes I thought really scored along with a bunch that I felt didn’t hit the mark (and I will briefly explain why). I want to stress that these are just SOME of the jokes that worked. There were a lot more. 

I don’t list anyone’s name. Again, the point of this is to illustrate how specific joke writing is and how tough comedy writers are on the construction of a joke.

For Johnny to sense his girlfriend was seeing someone else either something about her behavior changed, which specifically led him to the conclusion she was cheating, or he discovered something. And there had to be some comic spin. For example: He found out she was getting married to someone else. That satisfies the requirement but there’s no spin. If he goes to his wedding but discovers there’s someone else at the altar that has more of a spin. Do you see the difference?

What’s a little tricky with this particular joke is the reader has to connect the dots. Without explicitly saying why “Kanye West dedicated his new album to her” the reader has to know the significance of Kanye West. A good joke generally requires three things:

Information, set up, punchline.

So that information has to be there. But it has to be clear and quick for the reader to make a direct connection. If the information is ambiguous – if it can be interpreted in different ways – the reader won’t instantly get the reference.

Sometimes in trying to give a joke some spin the writer will go overboard, giving the punchline twist after twist. If the joke gets too convoluted, if the reader has to connect too many dots you will lose him. So two big problems are “no spin” and “too much spin.”

Anyway, here we go.  First some submissions I thought worked well.  Again, the set up:


...he saw a new name under his on her list of back tattoos.

When she wrote "Have a good life" on his Valentine's card.

...when his toothbrush was always wet when he got home on Wednesdays.

when she shaved her legs before having lunch with her "mother".

...when Kanye West dedicated his new album to her.

...when her parrot suddenly starting saying "Oh Bridget, make me come!"

… when she said her hero was Tiger Woods. She didn't play golf.

...he felt three hands on his butt during sex.

when the bell hop at the hotel complimented him on his weight loss and new haircut.

when the cop told him, "Sir, I'm not telling you again. You don't live here anymore; you have to leave."

When they walked in to the Swingers Club for the first time, all the guys saw her and yelled, "Norma!"

When she accidentally sent Johnny a text saying "You are so good in bed."

Her phone automatically connected to his best friend's wifi.

... she became a Republican.

...she started buying condoms at Costco. (I have a joke just like this in A OR B?)

when he met the postman leaving the apartment....twice a day

"their" new baby was black and he's not. (That actually happened to a certain Major League ballplayer years ago.)

... when he took her out to dinner on Valentine's Day and the maitre d handed her the scarf she'd left behind at lunch.

Her Facebook status changed to "It's Complicated".

when he didn't see her on payday.

-When he called her and said "it's your boy friend", she asked him to be more specific.

... she went to couples counseling without him.

When a 2nd "His" towel appeared on the towel rack.

she asked him to be the godfather of her next child

when, upon meeting his girlfriend's mom, she said "Nice to meet you, Harry!"

...he read a 10th Wedding Anniversary announcement about her in the paper.

she returned from her scrapbooking class in a cocktail dress.

...she said she was going out for a pack of cigarettes -- and she took everything she owned with her.

he noticed notches in her dress belt.

... when he saw an Ashley Madison charge on his credit card.

... everybody kept consoling that other guy at her funeral.

... divorce lawyers began sending him kitchen magnets and notepads.

... she knew what an orgasm was.

... she called to say she'd be home late from work, but didn't have a job.

... she suggested they have date nights - Fridays for her; Saturdays for him.

when the minister at their wedding asked whether anyone had any reason why they shouldn't be wed, and half the men in the church raised their hands.

And now the ones that still aren’t perfect yet.

when her underwear started falling off him. (Funny idea but you have to go through a lot of steps to get there.)

She showed up wearing an "I'm With Stupid" T-Shirt. (that could mean a lot of things. He could be stupid for many reasons.)

When she put him at the kids' table for her wedding... (“kids” throws this off. Why not any other table at their wedding? Kids implies he’s immature.)

Her dog didn't hump his leg when he got there: in fact, it was already smoking its cigarette. (convoluted and huh???)

...the oven repairman needed to fix the faulty gas valve located behind the headboard of her bedroom. On the plus side, the "yes, yes, yes!" he heard clearly showed he was making good progress... (see comment from the last entry.)

... his wife asked him why he was so horny lately. (This suggests that Johnny is not getting sex, but there are many reasons why a wife would withhold sex.)

...she gave him a madlib to fill out: "I'm (Verb) on you with (name) because you never (verb). You bastard." (Also convoluted.)

Johnny knew his girlfriend was seeing someone else when she texted that she felt guilty and wanted to stop seeing him. (Real event that could happen. No spin.)

he heard her ringtone "Secret Lover." (Doesn’t necessarily mean she’s seeing someone else, just that she likes that song.)

he met her at a couples retreat. (He could assume he’d be the other half of the couple. Not clear. If she went to a couples retreat without him that’s a different story.)

Johnny knew his girlfriend was seeing someone else when he noticed her lazy eye. (“Lazy eye” is not a roaming eye. Not totally clear.)

...when she would only make love to him in the fetal position. (She could be in the fetal position for many other reasons.)

when she started referring to him as, 'oh, you again..' (There are many reasons why she might say that. She’s tired of him. He comes around too often, etc.)

-- his stuff was out on the curb when he came home... to his own apartment. (That could just mean a fight.)

when she said she was just kidding about that whole "why aren't we engaged" thing a few months back. (Lots of reasons why she might want to back out of the engagement.)

Johnny knew his girlfriend was seeing someone else when she called out the wrong name as they were making love... then corrected herself with yet another wrong name. (Implies she’s seeing two guys.)

...when her "me" time became "three" time. (She was having a threesome? Not clear.)

when she showed up to get her things in her new habits uniform. (This says she’s going to be a nun not seeing another man.)

...she re-tweeted Tony's podcast announcement. (I don’t get it.)

...he found his car's brake lines had been cut as he careened off a cliff down the Springfield Gorge. (She could have tried to kill him for numerous reasons.)

-- two years passed by without a word from her. He didn't jump to conclusions quickly, but when he did, he was certain. Well, pretty certain. He'd give her just six more months.... (Convoluted and it says that Johnny was incapable of confrontations.)

When the milkman stopped delivering. (Maybe there was a milkman strike. Multiple reasons why the milkman would stop delivering.)

when his mother called him and told him: "Don't worry, they won't last!" (Very straight forward. Not enough of a comic spin.)

bought bacon. (Why would his buying bacon suggest his girlfriend is cheating?)

... as he walked in to her bedroom as she finished getting ready for their date, and asked "What perfume are you wearing?" and a voice from the closet said "L'air du Temps." Nobody heard the voice under the bed mumble, "And it was damn expensive too!" (Let’s see – convoluted, this suggests a threesome, and the logic issue of why would these guys answer?)

...she enthusiastically replied: "Great! Have fun!" when he suggested going backpacking in Asia for three weeks. (That could means she just hates camping.)

she got into the Titanic's life boat and didn't wave good-bye. (Means she was glad to get rid of him, not necessarily that she was cheating. I know it’s a fine distinction, but just that little bit could be the difference between a line getting or not getting a laugh.)

...he caught his boyfriend wearing her panties. (Suggests he’s gay. It’s what we call a “joke on a joke” – the two sort of cancel each other out.)

She was waiting for him at the airport, holding a sign with his name on it. (This suggests she just can’t remember faces.  Or he's been gone so long she's forgotten what he looks like.  But that still doesn't clearly establish "affair.")

He saw a sex tape of her with another guy on a porn site. (Very straight forward. These are called “Like a Jokes.” They have the rhythm of a joke but the punchline is more of a straight line.)

... when she said, "I'm seeing someone else." (As straight forward as you can get.)

his DVR was filled with episodes of 'The L Word.' (That just says he likes watching hot girl on girl action.)

When I told her I bought a pack of condoms and she asked if I kept the Receipt. (That merely says she doesn’t want to have sex with him.) 

Okay.  'Nuff said.  

I know in some cases I’m really being a stickler, but that’s what we do. A tremendous amount of scrutiny goes into each and every line.   Comics will tell you they sometimes require five or six versions before a joke is just right. Taking out one word, or substituting one word could make all the difference. Oh, and on top of that – it’s truly an inexact science. You may craft the absolutely perfect joke and if the air conditioning isn’t working it dies a horrible death. But it’s sure fun trying, isn’t it? Thanks again to everyone for participating. You’re welcome to keep submitting.

And now, this was my submission in Andy Goldberg’s class:

…she got a Christmas Card from Bill Clinton.


Peter said...

Thanks for including two of mine in the ones you thought worked well, Ken!

Anonymous said...

Glad to know I made the cut. As Ralph Malph would say, "I've still got it."


Igor said...

Ken said... -- two years passed by without a word from her. He didn't jump to conclusions quickly, but when he did, he was certain. Well, pretty certain. He'd give her just six more months.... (Convoluted and it says that Johnny was incapable of confrontations.)

Ken, your reaction to that one is... interesting. To me that punchline is funny because of the reasons you say it's not. I think the writer picked an offbeat target and hit it. IOW, I bought the premise and think it delivers on that.

Yet I'm not saying that to argue - "No, Ken, that IS funny." Rather... Is that not "a punchline"? Or, do you like the premise but not its execution?

OK, I admit I'm not no clear where this comment is going. Just, on that punchline and a handful of others, I'm surprised by the reasons for your reaction.

VP81955 said...

The couples retreat joke needed another word or two, such as "unexpectedly" met her or "bumped into" her.

VP81955 said...

Oh, and my related distribution: ...a pair of extra-long pantyhose hung over the shower, and his girlfriend is 5-foot-2.

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

Thanks for the exercise and comments. I think it's great that so many readers can step up and take a swing at this just to see how their take compares to the process you use to create humor. More of this please. And I think it's a lesson for all of us in any profession that after a fine comedy-writing career, you're still taking classes to sharpen your comedy skills. THAT is very cool.

Mary Ann Lewis said...

Thank you for this! I did learn some things. I'm attempting comedic writing, and it's hard! I appreciate any assistance along the way.

Igor said...

Clarification about my comment above on -- two years passed by without a word from her. He didn't jump to conclusions quickly, but when he did, he was certain. Well, pretty certain. He'd give her just six more months.... (Convoluted and it says that Johnny was incapable of confrontations.)

I liked it because... it was convoluted (in a clear way) and because it says Johnny was slow-witted.

Rashad Khan said...

Ironically, the one (of mine) that you selected is the one I liked the least.

VP81955 said...

Contribution, not distribution. Autospell strikes again!

Rashad Khan said...

"(This says she’s going to be a nun not seeing another man.)"

Unless, of course, the other man is Jesus.

Rashad Khan said...

"But it’s sure fun trying, isn’t it?"

If by "fun," you mean "hellish," then yes. I'm not a joke writer by any stretch of the imagination -- but my hat's off to those who are.

Big3Fan William said...

Oh bummer I'm very last on the list of failed jokes. It was still cool to be included though. Hmm I think that makes me needy?


Herschel said...

I'm conversationally funny - at least people laugh at me when I talk!. Anywhoo, my joke was:
when she showed up to get her things in her new habits uniform. (This says she’s going to be a nun not seeing another man.)

You are correct, technically if she becomes a Nun she's not seeing another man, she's seeing God or putting God first. My thought was that she was seeing someone else so it didn't actually meet your criteria.

John said...

You should pull out the best 10 or so and have a vote on the winner.

Andrew said...

Wow! A writer for Mash, Cheers, and Frasier actually selected my joke! What an honor. I'd like to thank the Academy...

For the most part I agreed with the distinction you made between what jokes worked and what did not. But I still think this is one of the funny ones:

"Her dog didn't hump his leg when he got there: in fact, it was already smoking its cigarette."

I think the unexpected surrealism is what makes it work for me. Also because I picture the dog as Brian in Family Guy.

PS I had to pick, like, 12 street signs to prove I'm not a robot. What's up with that?

Lansing said...

…she got a Christmas Card from Bill Clinton.

I'm not a comedy writer, but this strikes me as needing work. Presidents' send Christmas Cards to tens of thousands of vaguely known acquaintances, but more importantly, what is the likelihood of those pursuing a passionate clandestine affair exchanging Christmas cards?

Joe Blow said...

I thought 2 of them were hilarious:
"She knew what an orgasm was."
The one that ends, ".....He'd give her 6 more months." I agree it was convoluted,
but it was convoluted on purpose---that was the point, plus I agree with Igor
that it shows he was dim-witted in a very funny way.

I didn't think any of the others were funny, but that is because I am lacking in
the ability to imagine how a comedian would deliver them.

Oh, and Ken's was also hilarious.

Jerry said...

Thinking up jokes is too hard. You guys can slave away at writing them, and I'll be the comedian and take all the bows for them when I deliver them.

Cat said...

I'll admit, I stopped reading after the back tattoo one. Perfect. Laugh out loud funny, absurd, crude, all the things you want in a good joke.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

You know, I hate to make trouble, Ken, and this really *isn't* my area of expertise, but I'm fairly sure that wearing a girlfriend's underpants doesn't make a man *gay*. It might suggest he's some other things on the LGBTQ spectrum, but ISTM that what makes a man gay is, you know, wanting to sleep with *other men*. Where do women's underpants figure into that scenario?

I also wonder if Bill Clinton's sex life isn't a bit old by now - I bet there are 30yos who wouldn't have a clue what that meant.

However. The setup reminded me of the old British song "Seven Nights Drunk" (sometimes compacted to five or four), in which the man comes home drunk every night and tries to buy his wife's increasingly unbelievable explanations for the things he's seeing - someone else's horse, hat, pants, head on the pillow... There are a number of updated-for-modern-times versions of this.


Rashad Khan said...

Question: May I share today's blog on my Facebook timeline? I'd like my FB friends to know my curious bit of good fortune. (If not, then I understand. Thanks in advance.)

Brian Phillips said...

To Andrew:

Andrew knew that his relationship to this blog was over when, he had to pick, like, 12 street signs to prove he was not a robot.

Just kidding, Andrew!

- Brian Phillips

By Ken Levine said...


Yes you can as long as you link to the blog post. Thanks.

ADmin said...


Andrew said...

No, I like it!

MikeK.Pa. said...

This was a great, and difficult, exercise. When he was alive, I followed Blake Snyder's SAVE THE CAT blog. Several times a year, to get the creative juices going, he ran contests, such as changing one letter in the title of a movie and creating a humorous logline (i.e.: The Sixth Tense — A deceased English teacher haunts his former students with new grammar parts. Dirty Rotted Scoundrels – Even in death, two con men can’t stop and dig themselves out for one final hustle.) Exercises like his and yours are great ways to think outside the box comically. Keep throwing them out to us.

Moses Fleetwood Walker said...

Johnny knew his girlfriend was seeing someone else when shaved her back.

DBenson said...

Very very last:
... he found out there hadn't been an ice man in the neighborhood since 1952.
... it turned out all those Clinton rallies she'd been attending were for the OTHER Clinton.
... She got all weird when he asked if the cable guy came.
Thank you, tip your waitress, good night.

Loosehead said...

The "...give her six months" line works if you imagine a neurotic and desperate Woody Allen doing a voice over.
I take my hat off to all of you. I had nothing, nothing.

Breadbaker said...

I agree with Lansing and Wendy Grossman about the Clinton joke.

If you dissect it, it comes out as, "he knew she was having an affair when [notorious Lothario]left [item associated with adultery in suspicious place]."

Being 60 and not particularly culturally aware, I'd pick Charlie Sheen ahead of Bill Clinton, who is, after all, a grandfather about to turn 70. I suspect the younger folks would pick someone even more current.

The Christmas card, I also agree, is not particularly indicative of adultery.

In 1999, the joke would have been pretty good with "he discovered the condoms on her bedside table had the Presidential seal." That wouldn't work today, of course.

andy215 said...

This is brilliant. my personal fav was "when she shaved her legs before having lunch with her "mother"

VP81955 said...

Somewhere, I imagine Gene Rayburn reading this to his heavenly "Match Game" panel...

Jahn Ghalt said...

These work for me:

…she got a Christmas Card from Bill Clinton. (pretty good)

When they walked in to the Swingers Club for the first time, all the guys saw her and yelled, "Norma!" (nice call back - but my kids would not catch the reference)

"their" new baby was black and he's not.

-When he called her and said "it's your boy friend", she asked him to be more specific. (Shades of Dangerfield)

And a nitpick:

This one belongs "below the fold"
... everybody kept consoling that other guy at her funeral.

(could be any male relative - or friend in a large circle)

Jahn Ghalt said...

And one other thing.

Does anyone in this crowd send line to The New Yorker Caption Contest? They could use the help.

David Peterson said...

Maybe a more 'recent' variation of Ken's entiry would be something like '...when Anthony Weiner sent her a selfie'.

I laughed with Bill though.

Matt said...

My favorite was the lazy eye line. It took the setup in a totally unexpected direction. Surprise is the essence of humor (at least according to a Dick Van Dyke episode) I can hear Steven Wright using a version of that joke. "I just found out my girlfriend is seeing other guys. I wish she'd get that crooked eye fixed."

Shaka Zulu said...

.. Bill Clinton started paying for her dry-cleaning.

Unknown said...

Ken, thanks for including three of mine both in the good and not so good list. I dashed mine off in about 10 minutes and did few re-writes in those 10 minutes. I followed the Sitcom Room rules of pitching as many jokes as quickly as possible - deadlines you know, and the Chinese food tends to "gelatinize" as the evening wears on. But it does bring about a topic on which I would like to hear your thoughts.

Do you find the best lines were the easiest/fastest to write, or do you consistently get better lines with iterations on the idea?

The line you picked of mine as being good came about quickly and with no re-writes (the shaving her legs...), and the one listed first as the not so perfect line was the one I spent the most time (ok maybe 3 minutes) trying to write it to keep it short and yet give the audience enough info to make the leap to the gist of the joke. Glad to see you made the multiple hops, and I agree, it was too many hops.

Johnny Walker said...

Fascinating stuff. I'm amazed that one of the "good" ones was one I discarded, and another was extremely similar (yet very specific). Some really funny ones that made me laugh out loud, that I never would have thought of. And yours was different to all of them. Brilliant.

Shame I was a bit late to class!