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KNOW WHAT A JOKE IS:  by Gene Perret

Almost all vent acts do comedy.  Their purpose is to entertain and they do that by getting laughs.  They get laughs by telling jokes.  So a good starting point is knowing what a joke is.  My favorite definition of a joke is that it’s anything that makes people laugh.  

There are three key elements to that definition and studying each of them should help to make your vent act funnier.  Let’s go through the key points one by one:

The first important element is the word “anything.”  A joke is not necessarily a one-liner, a snappy comeback, a story with a punch line, or any one specific statement.  A joke can be any one of these, a combination of several of them, or none of them at all.  Sometimes a joke is not saying anything or even moving.  I saw a hilarious dog act years ago where the trainer tried to get his dog to do tricks and the dog never moved.  The man implored and ran around frantically.  The dog didn’t care.  It was happy where it was and it was going to stay where it was.  The audience howled.  That’s a joke.

Jack Benny sometimes got his biggest laughs by turning to the audience with a doleful look.  He said nothing, but the audience laughed.  That’s a joke.

One comedian from years ago was an expert double-talker.  He could make gibberish sound almost recognizable.  Once the audience caught on to what he was doing, they laughed.  They didn’t understand a word he was saying, but they enjoyed.  That’s a joke.

Of course, Phyllis Diller told jokes.  Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy did routines.  George Carlin made funny observations.  These are all jokes.

The point is that as an entertainer, as a comedian, we shouldn’t limit ourselves to one style of funny.  If your stage partner says something funny, the people laugh at it.  If your dummy rolls his eyes at the right time, people may roar at that take.  Even if you say something and the figure’s shoe fall off at a strategic point, that can get howls.  

So keep in mind that a joke can be ANYTHING.

The next significant element in the definition is the word, “people.”  There is no laughter if there are no people.  That’s probably way too obvious.  However, what all comedy acts should remember is that if you can make your comedy apply to those listening, you will generate bigger laughs.  The more your comedy hits the folks right between the eyes, the harder they will laugh at it.  

It’s to your benefit to find out as much as you can about your audience and direct your material right at them.  You might ask, “How can I learn about the audience when I’ve probably never met any of them in my life?”

Some audiences you do know something about.  As an example, if you’re working on a cruise ship, all of those people are on vacation . . . they’re on the same ship . . . they’re eating the same food at most meals . . . they interact with the same captain and crew.  That’s quite a bit of knowledge about your listeners.

If you’re working a convention, all of the people are in the same profession.  They have similar problems.  They know the executive board.  Again, there’s a wealth of knowledge there.

All of the people in your audience are in the same place.  If you’re working on a college campus, they probably all root for the same football and basketball teams.  Every city you visit has unique problems that you can touch on.  

Sometimes you can learn much about an audience just by listening to which gags they react most to.  Once you perceive that, give them more of what they want.

With a little bit of effort you can learn which comedy will go over with which audience.  And this doesn’t mean that you have to write new material for each crowd you face.  If you can do that, fine.  But you can enhance your comedy just by knowing which material you already have will play best for each crowd you face.

The last key point is contained in the word “laugh.”  That’s the comic’s primary reason for being at the microphone – to get laughs. It may not be the sole purpose, but it’s the main one.  There are motivational humorists who combine an entertaining act with a message, but the laughs are still required.  Some comics may want to be political activists.  Fine, but be funny while doing it.  You’re free to deliver any sort of momentous message you want to, but if you don’t get laughs along with it, you’re not a comic.  

To be most effective, utilize any device you can create to get laughs.  Think of the audience and be sure that they are the listeners who will enjoy the type of humor you offer.  And finally be funny.  


Learn more from Gene Perret with his books, classes, and newsletter.  Information available at  Gene also has a free joke service,Perrets’ Humor Files, featuring original lines.  Take a look at  You can email Gene at


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