100 Hours of Humo(u)r – Hour 48: Humor Writing Tip – The One-Two Punch
By Dave Fox
Nearly every time you encounter something funny, a non-funny part precedes it. These two most basic elements of comedy are known as the “set-up” and “punch line.”
Set-up lengths vary, depending on the type of humor you’re working with. In humor columns and personal essays, non-funny set-ups can be relatively long – a few sentences, or even a couple of paragraphs before you hit the punch like. In stand-up comedy, on the other hand, the non-funny part must happen quickly or the hecklers get feisty. But whatever the length, the set-ups must be there for the punch lines to work. Everything funny has a precursor. Those precursors often aren’t funny.
A great place to observe set-ups and punch lines in action is at improvisational comedy shows. In improv, actors make things up as they go along. They create comedy sketches on the spot based on audience suggestions.
Watch how they do this, and you’ll notice the actors aren’t all trying to be funny. Some play the so-called “straight man” (nothing to do with who they fall in love or sleep with). They feed non-funny set-ups to their co-actors, who twist those set-ups into something unexpected.
In my previous post about how to write humor, I explained you must lead your audience partway down a path, then yank them off that path in a direction they’re not expecting. The path is your set-up. The yank off the path is your punch line.
I teach a variety of ways to do this in my online humor writing class. Some techniques work better than others, depending on the situation. When you’re starting out, finding the most effective technique requires trial and error… and patience. But practice, and you’ll discover you can find humor in nearly any situation.
When you sit down to write humor, begin with the non-funny. Then, brainstorm a little. Create conflict, surprise, or an idea or action that goes against the norm. Figure out how to knock your set-ups off their paths and you’ll have people laughing.
Keep this all in mind because next hour, I’m going to attempt a group writing experiment.