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Be Funnier With Scotty Meltzer: You Punch Like a Girl

For the past two months I’ve been writing about three methods to write lead away jokes: forward from the front, out from the middle, and backwards from the end. If you haven’t already read those introductory articles, Nice Structure and Structure? Genius!, now would be a good time. I’ll wait …

Tall and tan and young and lovely, the girl from Ipanema goes walking …

Done already? Let’s move on.

When writing Setup-Assumption-Connector-Shatter-Punch jokes forward from the front, the first steps can be quite algorithmic.

To find a new setup, you can just choose any line in your show that isn’t currently a joke and use it as a setup. Or choose one of your punches and use that to write a tag. Either way, this step can be trivial.

Listing the assumptions and expectations that your setup implies can also be mechanical. You don’t have to be an experienced joke writer to do that.

Finding a possible connector can be equally automatic. Just ask yourself: What else could each word, phrase, gesture, object, idea, or motivation in the setup mean?

Coming up with interesting and possibly funny shatters requires a little more creativity but even this step can be mechanical. For example: If an assumption is {X}, you can always shatter by saying {not X}.

For most people, those first steps: setup, assumption, connector, and shatter are straightforward.

But the last step: turning that shatter into a punch is where they get lost.

If I were a computer programmer, which I probably should have been, and I was writing a flowchart to write jokes, which would be a stupid thing to do, this is the step where I’d put in a black box with shatters as the input and punches as the output and label it: “magic happens here.”

So let’s pry open that box and see what’s going on inside.

An example

Let’s work with Greg Dean’s canonical setup: “For Father’s Day I took my father out …” Greg loves this setup so much he even built an interactive website to guide you through a joke writing process using it.

What are some of the things this makes us assume?

  • My father is alive;
  • I’m doing something nice for my dad;
  • He’s my real dad;
  • He’s human;
  • He’s the featured guest;
  • I took him to a restaurant;
  • It’s a nice restaurant;
  • Father’s Day is in June;
  • Father’s Day is for dads or males.

What are some possible connectors?

  • Father;
  • Father’s Day;
  • Took out;
  • For;
  • My reason for taking him out.

What are some other things they could mean?

  • Father = Priest;
  • Father = God as in: The Father, The Son, and The Holy Ghost;
  • Father = Father of our country;
  • Father’s Day = The day we all try to father a child;
  • Father’s Day = My father owns a day;
  • Took out = Killed him, gangland style;
  • Took out = Exhumed him from a grave;
  • Took out = Removed him from a retirement home or a hospital;
  • Took out = Removed his ashes from their urn;
  • Took out = Removed him from the freezer to be served as dinner;
  • Took out = Went on a date;
  • Took my father out = Eliminated him from a poker tournament;
  • Out = Coming out as gay;
  • For = In exchange for;
  • I could be taking him out because I lost a bet;
  • I could be taking him out because I wanted to sell his house while he wasn’t there.

As an experiment I asked several civilians to go through the steps above and they were all able to come up with lists like these. (Although none of them thought of using the word “for” as a connector.)

But when I asked them to turn those shatters into punches to create jokes, they slowed way down. So let’s look at some specific ways to turn your shatters into punches.

A punch in the face

The most obvious way to go from shatter to punch is just to state your shatter. Sometimes that’s all you need:

For Father’s Day I took my father out. We had a lovely private dinner. Just me and the urn.

Most of the time, it’s not:

For Father’s Day I took my father out. Not to dinner. I shot him.

As you can see, calling a joke “obvious” is not usually a compliment so let’s look at some other ways.

A glancing blow

When simply stating your shatter doesn’t give you a good joke, you can ask yourself: “What can I say or do that strongly implies my shatter without stating it? What’s the least I can say to make the audience leap from their assumption to my shatter?”

SETUP: Yesterday, I took my dad out for our family’s big Father’s Day dinner.
     ASSUMPTION: {He was the featured guest.}
     CONNECTOR: {Dinner.}
     SHATTER: {He was served as dinner.}
PUNCH: He was delicious.

Three simple words: “he was delicious” redefine the meaning of our connector: “dinner” and give us a nice little joke. You’ll also notice that I changed the wording of the setup. You’re allowed to do that. In fact, you’re supposed to do that!

But I don’t want to write just one joke. I want to write a bunch of jokes and then choose the best one. So let’s write some more, focusing again on giving the minimum information needed to jump from assumption to shatter:

For Father’s Day I took my father out. Two in the chest. (Make gun fingers.) One in the head. [TAG] Nobody rats out Scotty Meltzer and gets away with it.

For Father’s Day I took my father out. Family stuff is so hard. It took me hours to dig him up. [TAGS] And then the cab ride was really awkward with him just sitting there, decaying. Didn’t say a word to me the whole time. Just like when he was alive.

For Father’s Day I took my father out. Dinner. Dancing. (Wink.) Scored. [TAG] (Responding indignantly to the dirty laugh.) Oh you guys are sick. That’s not what I meant … I’m saving that for Mother’s Day.

Another way to create a punch is to pretend your shatter is true and ask yourself: “How would I react to that? What could cause it? What would the consequences be? What would I say or do immediately after that? What’s a specific example of that?” Instead of stating your shatter, you use the answer to any of these questions as your punch.

For Father’s Day I took my father out. Now all I have to do is get rid of the body.

For Father’s Day I took my father out. I’m going to miss him but hey, you know what they say, “Nobody rats out Scotty Meltzer and gets away with it!”

For Father’s Day I took my father out and now it’s all awkward ‘cause I don’t know how long I should wait before calling him again.

For Father’s Day I took my father out and it was really awkward because normally, I don’t feel good about sleeping with someone on the first date. [TAGS] I know it’s weird but I felt like we had a real connection. Like we’d known each other all our lives. Gross, huh? Him being an older man and all. But hey, I’m mature for my age.

[For an audience of poker players.] On Father’s Day I took my father out. Set over set? The hand plays itself.

It took me about an hour to write these jokes and tags. So what if most of them aren’t funny enough? Remember, comedy writing is a numbers game and I only need to find one good punch per setup. (After that, we work on tags.)

Keep your punches short

A. Whitney Brown, who was a street performing juggler long before he started writing and performing on Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show, did a fantastic lead away to close his first Tonight Show appearance. I can’t find it anywhere on the web but I believe it went something like this:

(After Whitney told a story about his dog, Brownie, eating his neighbor’s chicken.)

But sometimes when he’s sleeping, I watch his little paws going like this (mime dog running in his sleep) and I realize that he’s dreaming. Dreaming of a time, 10,000 years ago, before his species was stuck under this oppressive human thumb. Just dogging it. Running across a field, with a whiff of rabbit in his nose, ears flying in the wind. That’s when I like to lean over to him and say, “Bad Dog!”

It’s a perfect punch. A complete, vivid first story implying a rich and loving relationship shattered by just two words: “Bad Dog!”

Make your punches specific.

Target a specific person, not a group. Target a specific TV show, not a genre. Target a specific politician, not a party.

That’s why, instead of saying:

You can’t just convince a monkey to walk like that. You have to hit it … if it walks any other way. And then it knows, ‘This is how I must walk … so that the pain doesn’t come.’ This also explains how prop comics learn to do what they do.

Kumail Nanjiani says:

You can’t just convince a monkey to walk like that. You have to hit it … if it walks any other way. And then it knows, ‘This is how I must walk … so that the pain doesn’t come.’ This also explains how Gallagher learned to do what he does.

NOTE: Kumail Nanjiani doesn’t actually do either of those tags but if I’m hoping after reading this article he will. Although knowing Kumail, he’ll probably change “Gallagher” to “Dane Cook.”

End with the reveal.

The reveal is the part of your punch that causes to audience to start laughing. It’s the word or action that makes them jump from their assumptions to your shatter.

If you keep talking after the crowd starts to laugh, you’ll train them to stop laughing in order to hear what you’re saying. That’s why you want to end your jokes with the reveal.

Imagine if Whitney had instead structured his joke to end like this:

That’s when I like lean over him and say, “Bad Dog!” just to make sure he knows his place. “Bad Dog, Brownie. Bad Dog!”

The audience would have already been laughing after the first “Bad Dog!” and then they’d have to quiet down to hear the rest of the sentence.

“Bad structure, Imaginary Whitney. Bad structure!”

Sometimes good grammar will force you to talk past your reveal. So what? Grammar is not the boss of you. Just put your reveal as close to the end as you can without sounding too weird.

Punch. Don’t push.

You want to maintain the illusion of your first story all the way up to the reveal. You want to punch your audience with your shatter, not push them slowly toward it.

This is why a joke writer as skilled as Whitney Brown would never telegraph his punch like this:

That’s when I like lean over him, nice and close, so I can scare him when I say, “Bad Dog!”

It’s why I later rewrote this joke:

For Father’s Day I took my father out. Dinner. Dancing. (Wink) Scored.

to this:

For Father’s Day I took my father out. Dinner. Drinks. (Wink) Scored.

because the word “dancing” tips you off too early that it’s a date whereas “drinks” works in both contexts: an appropriate Father’s Day dinner with your dad and an inappropriate date with him.

This is one of the reasons that you have to be very careful when you’re front-loading your jokes like David Letterman did in this Xmas joke:

We have a mayor here called Mayor Bloomberg and he’s a little man. And this is the worst time of year for the guy, as you can imagine, because whenever he’s out walking around, everybody’s screaming, “Look, one of Santa’s elves!”

As you can see, if you have to first remind your audience that Mayor Bloomberg is short, you’re making it less of a surprise and weakening the joke when you call him an elf in the punch.

One way to fix this problem is to disguise your front-loading by slipping in the necessary info several jokes, or even several minutes, earlier than it will be needed.

“Punch don’t push” also reminds us to make our shatters more extreme, to build then from strong negative opinions, so they’re more like a punch in the face than a push on the arm.

Cute:

I was stuck in the hospital for an entire week. They have got to get those elevators fixed.

Funny:

I was stuck in the hospital for an entire week. It’s like my mom was never going to die.

Of course, you’ll need to adjust how hard you punch for each different audience. You’ll need to understand the limits and sensibilities of each venue. Otherwise you’ll end up with enough free time to produce an entire series of articles on comedy writing.

Use different words in your setup than in your punch.

You don’t want to reuse the same words in your setup and your punch. (This doesn’t apply to common words like: if, and, the, but, a, I, etc., only to words that are doing real work.)

So instead of saying:

Ted Cruz, the Florida senator who is fighting the immigration bill, described himself as Obama-phobic. You know your senator is Obama-phobic when he’ll fight an immigration bill even though his last name is Cruz.

Conan says:

Ted Cruz, who is fighting the immigration bill, described himself as Obama-phobic. One way to know you have Obama-phobia is if you want to deport immigrants even though your last name is Cruz.

One exception to this rule is when the repeated word or phrase is your connector, as in this:

SCOTT: We’re called Scotty and Trink. Trink is short for “Katrine.”
KATRINE: And Scott is short for an adult.

Or when your joke is powered by the parallel word structure between the setup and the punch, like this:

Optimize the logic gap

The logic gap, also called “the comic leap,” is the mental jump the audience has to make to get from where they think your setup is leading to where your punch actually lands. It’s the leap that takes them from the assumptions that make up the first story to the shatter that defines the second story.

The size of the logic gap determines how long it takes and how hard the audience has to work to get the joke.

When the logic gap is too small, your audience can beat you to the punch, leaving your laugh behind. When the logic gap is too large, not enough people will get the joke or it will take them or it will take them so long to get it that they lose the impulse to laugh.

There are lots of ways to adjust a joke’s logic gap. I’ll go into more detail on those — oh let’s be honest. I’m going to beat them to death in a future article.

A game

When I first started street performing, John Park, Mitch Barrett, and I would save up all the change we got in our hats for months. We would then drive to Tahoe, go to a casino, exchange that change for cash, and then lose it all playing craps. Throughout the whole 4.5 hour drive up, we would play a game we called “punch-line.” (On the drive back we would just try not to make eye contact.)

The rules of the game were simple. Someone would toss out a setup. The group would then call out as many punches and tags as we could. Whoever came up with the best joke got to throw out the next setup.

It also works as a drinking game.

Homework assignment

Play punch-line with your friends. Then play it with me at the next IJA festival. I’m not very good but I hear it’s more fun if you play for money.

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Scott Meltzer would to convince Google that he is the world's most experienced trade show juggler.

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