Former Head Writer of the Tonight Show Picks His Joke of the Week

Congrats to Laura Bruce for winning this week’s joke pick!

Pro comedy writer Joe Toplyn, Former head-writer of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Late Show with David Letterman, picks his joke of the week:

Winner: Laura Bruce, Follow her on Comedywire

Joe’s comments:

Setup: A naked man was seen swimming in the shark tank at a Toronto aquarium.

Punch line: Briefly.

Laura’s great joke is the product of Punch Line Maker #1: Link two associations of the topic.

One handle of the topic, “naked man,” has the association “defenseless.” The other handle of the topic, “shark tank,” has the association “shark attack.” Laura linked those two associations with a punch line that says that the defenseless man was almost immediately attacked by a shark.

But a punch line like “He was almost immediately attacked by a shark” wouldn’t have gotten a laugh because it wouldn’t have been at all surprising. Hearing that topic, the audience could easily have expected the man to get attacked.

So to create surprise, Laura edited her rough draft punch line using Joke Maximizer #11: Don’t be too on-the-nose. The word “briefly” communicates that the man was immediately attacked by a shark without stating it directly.

Needless to say, Laura also used Joke Maximizer #1: Shorten as much as possible. She might have started with a rough draft of an indirect punch line like “For a few seconds,” but then she reworded it so it said the same thing using the absolute minimum number of syllables.

Finally, Laura used Joke Maximizer #4: Make everything clear. Her punch line doesn’t mean that the man’s mangled body disappeared from the tank, which it wouldn’t have; it means that he suddenly stopped swimming. The logic is solid.

So take the time to edit your jokes if you want the biggest laughs possible.

Four-time Emmy winner Joe Toplyn is a former head writer for David Letterman and Jay Leno. He also wrote the book “Comedy Writing for Late-Night TV.”