GOOD JOKES REQUIRE GOOD REFERENCES: by Gene Perret

Most jokes are two ideas that collide.  They combine two separate ideas in an ironic, surprising, or ridiculous way.  Consider the following gags:

“I bet on a great horse the other day.  It took seven horses to beat him.” – Henny Youngman

“There’s so little money in my bank account, my scenic checks show a ghetto.”  -- Phyllis Diller

“My parents didn’t want to move to Florida, but they turned sixty, and that’s the law”  --Jerry Seinfeld.

In the first gag, the first idea is about race horses.  The second one is kind of ridiculous.  It makes it sound like seven horses in front of him were a badge of honor.  It simply means this horse finished behind seven others.  Funny.

In the second one, the first idea is the bank account.  The second idea is about “scenic checks.”  Normally, they’re beautiful pictures.  In this case, they were the opposite – a run down neighborhood.

The first idea in the third gag is moving to Florida.  The second idea suggests that at a certain age, that’s not an option, but rather a legal obligation.

They all combine two separate, but related ideas.  I call the first idea “the basic premise.”  It’s what the joke is about.  But it doesn’t become a joke until you tie it in with another related idea.  I call that second idea “the reference.”  One way to begin creating jokes is to decide on your basic premise and then start thinking of ideas that might be associated with that idea.  The more references you can gather, the more ammunition you’ll have for writing your jokes.

As an exercise, you can try taking the three jokes listed above and try to come up with other references for them.  Those references when combined with your basic premise will produce different jokes.

I’ll leave the three above for you to play with.  If I gave examples, it would make it harder for you to play with those ideas.  However, let’s generate another basic premise, then come up with references.  We’ll then use some of those references to create jokes.  It’ll give you an idea of how the process works.

Let’s start with the basic premise of “I’m a bad cook.”  Or if you like, you can alter it to read, “My wife is a bad cook.”  So we want to come up with funny lines that tell the audience just how bad a cook you really are.  So we’re going to start with some free association to gather a reasonable amount of references.  They might be:

Bad taste, dumb things done while cooking, food makes you sick, recipes, food could be poisonous, dog and cat won’t eat the food, better not to eat it, food as punishment, what the food looks like after cooking, what’s the best thing to do with the food after cooking, medication, antidotes, stomach pumped, spit the food out, other uses for the cooked food, etc. 

 

This list could continue on for quite a while, but let’s see if these references can produce any results.

Let’s think about some of the dumb things to do while cooking?  That might produce these lines:

= My wife is a bad cook.  I mean, how do you burn Jell-O?

= The other day my wife tried to fry ice-cubes.

=…she burnt them.

How about the idea of what to do with her cooking?  Try these:

= We took my wife’s cooking and gave it to the dog.  The dog gave it to the cat.

= We use my wife’s cooking to train the dog.  If the dog does the trick right, we don’t make her eat the food.

How about her recipes:

= My wife’s favorite recipe begins, “Take the juice from one bottle of Pepto Bismol…”

= My wife has one recipe that was included in the Iran Nuclear Arms Treaty.

How about the idea of using it for punishment:

= My wife’s cooking is why our kids behave so badly.  They want to get sent to bed without their supper.

= The CIA once wanted to use my wife’s cooking to replace water-boarding.

This should give you the idea of ways to generate gags by combining a basic premise with some related ideas or references.

This process serves two purposes:

First, It helps the gags form in your mind, which helps you write more quickly.  In TV comedy writing, we’d always ask of  writing candidates, are they good “in the room.”  That meant can they think on their feet and come up with suggestions for funny material quickly.  When a team is sitting “in the room” trying to rewrite certain parts of a bit or a sketch, it’s a plus to be able to come up with lines and throw them out on the spur of the moment.  Running the possible references through your mind can help do that.

Second, the references also provide a lot of fodder for your joke material which can increase your productivity.  By having a good supply of references, you can think of more jokes.  The more jokes you write, the more selective you can be in choosing your usable gags.  If you have a spot in your act that needs a strong comeback, it’s better to have ten or twelve to choose from than just one available line.

If you can get in the habit of thinking of jokes as two ideas that collide, and then can get some experience in running possible references through your head, you’ll be surprised at how many jokes you can originate and how clever they can be.

Give it a try and have fun with it.


Learn more from Gene Perret with his books, classes, and newsletter.  Information available at www.comedywritersroom.com/store.  Gene also has a free joke service,Perrets’ Humor Files, featuring original lines.  Take a look atwww.jokecrafters.com.  You can email Gene at RTComedy@cwo.com.

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