How to Structure a Funny Story
When you tell a great joke, people remember the joke.
When you tell a funny story, people remember YOU.
I’m a standup comic in New York City, and I tell funny stories. I mean, I tell jokes, too. But I really like to tell stories where the character, plot and action are laid out using jokes — or to use jokes to comment on the action in stories where what happens isn’t necessarily that funny.
I’ve enjoyed a tiny and manageable sort of success with this method over the years, with some of my stories appearing on popular podcasts like “This American Life,” “The Moth Radio Hour” and “Risk!” — and an album called “And I Am Not Lying” that debuted at # 1 on the iTunes comedy charts and was quickly overtaken by Jim Gaffigan, that fat jerk.
I can’t possibly eat all the drink tickets I’ve earned over the years by telling stories and jokes in various bars and scandal-plagued improv theaters across the United States, so I also earn small amounts of money by teaching storytelling workshops out of my own apartment.
In this post, I’m going to show you how I structure a story so that I know what the story is really about, so the jokes have a purpose and build on something much deeper.
If there’s one thing that I’ve learned it’s this: everyone wants to be able to tell a funny story.
Some people think they’re great at it, and they’re not. Some people think they’re terrible at it, but are actually hilarious once they just relax and talk about their day.
Some people simultaneously think that storytelling as an art form is boring and overindulgent, then turn right around and say “Did you see Chappelle’s latest special? Oh my God, he’s just really such a great storyteller.”
They’re all right. Everyone loves a funny story, and everyone needs to be able to tell a funny story whenever they need to.
You may be saying to your computer right now: “How convenient, mister funny story man, that everyone on earth should value what you just so happen to love doing the most. Why should I care?”
Here’s why you need to be able to tell a funny story:
At some point in your life, you’re going to need to communicate an idea to a group of strangers, and if there aren’t a few laughs in there nobody will care. Oh, they might tell you they cared. But you’ll never know if they’re lying, and you may never believe them.
This could be a first date, a pitch meeting at work, a maid-of-honor-speech or your first attempt telling a story at one of the Moth’s prestigious open mics. Even a eulogy needs a few laughs in there, if only to remind the rest of us that we’re still alive.
The sound of a serious and thoughtfully engaged audience and a completely bored audience is the same: complete silence. Laughs are the signal beacon that let you know the plane’s heading for the runway.
On that first date, you risk boring your date and blaming the story when they ghost you. In the pitch meeting, you may not believe the client when they say “we just don’t have the budget for it,” and if you’re a maid of honor you may feel a bit deflated at your best friends’ wedding, and there’s already enough of that running beneath the surface as it is.
If you say something solemn, thoughtful and wise, best-case scenario somebody’s going to make an Instagram quote out of it and pass it around forever. If you say something funny, people will repeat it to each other the next day.
If you’re a comic that already feels like you’ve mastered the art of joke-writing, improv, etc, consider this:
When you tell a great joke, people remember the joke. When you tell a funny story, people remember YOU.
Laughter is an incredibly primal sound that means “I’m completely identifying with that idea.” And it’s a really powerful thing when you hear a lot of people loudly identify with an idea at the same time.
Laughter also lets the tension out of serious situation in a way that says “hey, it’s OK. I’m OK, and it’s OK that we’re talking about this.” It’s a great way to communicate some really serious concepts.
You probably know someone that’s a great storyteller. Maybe it’s your aunt at every family gathering, or that guy at the bar who can turn a trip to the store into The Odyssey. Maybe there’s a woman at work that nails every presentation and is a must-have in every pitch. Or a guy whose kids don’t even care that they don’t get screen time.
They may know this stuff already.
But you’re not here to only be funny and compelling when you’re surrounded by people that already understand you and get you in context. You’re here to learn how to tell a funny story to strangers that are 70 seconds away from screwing around with their phones.
And in the 21st century, everyone in every room is 75 seconds away from screwing around with their iPhones.
You need to learn how to establish context, get strangers to know who you are, and listen to what you have to say. And you totally can. This is something that can be learned like improv, screenwriting, or tap dancing. The more you think about it and the more you practice, the better you’re going to get at it.
When I started telling funny stories, I really wasn’t that great at it. I was acquainted with people that were, at least within the loose social structure of New York Moth regulars in 2008. The Moth didn’t have a podcast back then, and they only had story slams in NYC and LA twice a month and no place else. I just kept doing this and doing this every chance I got, and ended up here on this very, very tiny mountain.
These posts are meant to speed that ten year process up for you a bit. You can’t learn this just by reading blog posts at home any more than you can learn to cook by reading cookbooks and never turning on the stove.
But I’m hoping that this series of posts works like a cookbook helps you learn which flavors go with what and shows you a few pictures to get a sense of where you’re going. I didn’t know how to make kimchi last month, but I got this cool cookbook and bought some ingredients, and now I’m not only making my own, I’m putting it into other recipes.
You get the idea.
So, ON WITH IT.
In order to tell a funny story, first you’ve got to know how to tell a GOOD story. A lot of funny stories come from just reporting something funny that happened in real life — maybe you saw a guy slip on a banana peel. But the best funny stories are good stories told in a funny way.
So here, I thought I’d take a minute to lay out the basic guts and structure of a story. You may have heard the terms “story arc,” “three act structure,” and “inciting incident” before, if you’ve ever read a book on screenwriting or even just eavesdropped on a first date where a man with interesting glasses is talking too much.
Here’s what a story arc in a three act structure looks like when I’m talking about it:
It’s basically a graph, where the intensity of action in the story (Y-AXIS) rises and falls as we move through time (X-AXIS).
Billy Wilder once said, more or less: “in every story, you meet a man, and by the end of Act 1 you have him climb a tree. By the end of Act 2 you set the tree on fire. And in Act 3 you get him out of the tree.”
He wrote “Some Like It Hot,” and a number of other incredibly successful comedy films in the 50s and 60s, none of which I have seen personally but it makes me feel smart to reference him here. And his guidance is pretty spot-on, too.
Here’s what that looks like on our story arc:
That little circle marked 1A is the “inciting incident” : the thing that makes the man start climbing the tree. The circle labelled 2A is where the tree catches on fire.
This is all nice and metaphorical, but here’s what it really means for you.
Whatever story you want to tell, whatever incident from your life happens that you want to repeat — the inciting incident is where the story really gets rolling and there’s no turning back.
There are so many things that we can say in our lives that we can never, ever un-say. Circle 1-A is where the first one in the story gets said.
If this is a story about a strained marriage, 1A is where you say “you know, I’ve always thought your sister was the more attractive one.” 2A is where that gets repeated and you find out that the feeling is mutual at Thanksgiving.
1A is Luke Skywalker seeing his loving aunt and uncle burned to a crisp. The theoretical turns real, and the world has changed forever.
2A is where he’s flying in the trench at the Death Star.
I teach a five-part story structure that lies within this three-act structure. Every story is made up of 5 parts:
“You”: the audience meets a person, and that person is you. Who are you? What is your everyday life like?
“Need”: for purposes of this story, what do you need? If it’s just a sandwich, why do you want THAT particular sandwich? Why are you so hungry, in a developed world that struggles with obesity? Why did you skip lunch? Why did you skip breakfast?
Who made you hate yourself so much that you’ve been denying yourself delicious, convenient sandwiches?
“Go”: what makes you go get that sandwich? What do you do to go get it?
“Get”: how do you end up getting that sandwich? Is it as good as you thought it would be? (In a good story, the lusted-after sandwich is always a little dry and disappointing.)
“Return”: Have you broken your diet forever? Will you ever lust for a sandwich again? What will you say to the cruel monster that told you you looked fat enough to ruin sandwiches forever?
It’s a simple structure, but the permutations are endless.
I simplified my idea of story structure from this piece by Dan Harmon, the creator/showrunner of ‘Community.’
I broke his eight steps into five, but you’ll get the drift. There is a lot of great information in this post — some of it relates to video production, but enough of this works for our purposes as storytellers, too. You’re smart people, you’ll see what I mean.
Harmon’s piece is derived from a legendary storytelling book called “The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers”, by Christopher Vogler.
This book is really fantastic, but far from required reading. Vogler was a Hollywood development executive, and this book began as a seven-page studio memo. For our purposes, this is all you really need.
It lays out a story structure that is a little more complex than mine, or the one Harmon details above. But really, seriously, fantastic stuff. Harmon’s — and my — You/Need/Go/Get/Return is a simplification of Vogler’s Hero’s Journey in the Skeptic Files link above.
This is a story that I performed at The Moth about 15 pounds ago. It’s about being bullied as a kid and how that led to me trying to clobber a teenager in an IMAX screening of the Dark Knight Rises:
I’m attaching a photo of the way I laid the beats out on paper — I used Vogler’s “Hero’s Journey” structure which is a little more complicated, but ultimately reduces down to the you/need/go/get/return the same way.
We’re trying to learn a method of working, sure. But ultimately, this has to work for YOU. All of what we’re talking about is color theory and principles of composition. You can eventually Picasso this up however you want.
The mathematical precision we talk about here only goes so far. Follow the rules until you know them and can kill reliably in those confines, then you can trust your gut when it says the rules are inadequate.
When you cook you use a recipe until you know how the flavors go together, then you start innovating. Don’t be that dummy that comments on every online recipe to say “I substituted tofu for pork, applesauce for eggs and shredded wheat for cheddar cheese and this recipe really sucked!”
Ultimately, the “You” and the “Need” part are the most important part of any story. They’re the parts that make you the most relatable — and the hardest to communicate. The “Go” and the “Get tend to be what actually happened, more or less. And the “Return” is usually how the experience changed you and your life, and what you learned.
The next couple posts are going to cover all of this in a lot more detail, don’t worry. Hopefully this is enough for you to feel confident getting started, though.