Here’s a typical monologue joke:
Setup: Senator Bernie Sanders is holding an official kickoff event for his presidential campaign next week.
Punchline: This is his first kickoff event since he kicked some kids off his lawn.
Is it the best joke in the world? No, probably not. Is it a good joke? Well, it’s good enough to get on Late Night with Seth Meyers.
After I was selected for the Late Night Writers’ Workshop, people started asking me how I come up with monologue jokes. Many people don’t think they can do it themselves, or feel they aren’t naturally funny, but it’s not as hard as you think. It’s finding simple associations.
Seth started his show last week with this joke and got a good reaction from the crowd. It works because it finds the simplest thing people associate with Bernie Sanders and links it back to the word, “kickoff.” It gives the audience just a little time to think and surprises them with a punchline.
Bernie Sanders is old. What do we know about old people? They tell kids to “get off their lawn.” The word “kickoff” means the start of something, but it could also mean literally kicking someone off your property.
Joe Toplyn, a previous head writer for Dave Letterman and Jay Leno, explains this process in his book Comedy Writing for Late-Night TV. He devotes an entire chapter to writing monologue jokes. If you want to be paid to be a comedian, whether that means writing for a late night show or going on the road with your stand up, I highly suggest buying Joe’s book.
Joe gives you six different ways to make a punchline, which he dubs “Punchline Makers.” I’ll highlight the first one, which is linking two associations of the topic. It’s the one I use the most and is always your best choice. Getting to the heart of what people know about something creates a connection between you, the subject, and your audience.
Let’s take a joke that was on Comedywire.com this week, starting with the setup:
Setup: Time Warner Cable Purchased by Charter Communications for $55 Billion
It’s a boring headline. Your job is to find what’s funny by exploring the “handles,” which are the specific key words in the headline. The Seth Meyers joke, for example, wouldn’t have worked if it said “Bernie Sanders is holding an event announcing his candidacy.” They needed the handle “kickoff” to make it work.
To find associations, all you have to do is ask yourself one question. “What do most people know about THIS?” For the set up above, the question is “What do most people know about cable companies?” Start writing down everything you can think of.
•They are known for terrible customer service.
•There are always hidden service fees or long contracts.
•Cable has to be installed at an appointed time, and it’s always weird, like “sometime between noon and 4 pm.”
Now, do the same for a second “handle” in the joke. It could be something specific like Time Warner Cable, or something general, like the verb “purchases.” In this case, I asked the question, “What do most people know about purchases?”
•Money is exchanged.
•If you purchase something, you either buy it in a store or have to schedule a delivery.
•You might have buyer’s remorse.
And so on. Once you have your list, you find a way to link your handles together. I came up with this:
Punchline: They’re scheduled to complete the merger next Monday, at some time between noon and 4 pm.
This used the associations for appointed times to install cable and a purchase that requires a scheduled delivery. The connection was natural. But there’s always different takes and associations for the same handle. One I liked came from Jen Lap, another comedy writer:
Punchline: Prior to completion of the transaction, Time Warner was put on hold for about an hour and a half.
In this case, she linked the transaction together with the association “terrible customer service.” It was a different, but equally funny, perspective on the same setup.
It’s really that simple. Make a quick list, find an association, and link them together. If you get really good at it, you could be the next writer for Seth Meyers or Jimmy Fallon.
At the very least, you’ll start getting a few more laughs on Twitter. That’s almost as good.