Joke's On

The annotated guide to being funny

Ever dream of being that beloved office clown who always seems to pull the funniest one-liners out of nowhere? Yeah, us too. Charlotte funnyman Tom Haines, head booking agent for Heffron Talent International, former writer for Jay Leno, and teacher at the Comedy Zone Comedy School, has made his living studying the formula behind funny. We asked him for some pointers on how to achieve that enviable comedic prowess; turns out stand-up’s more of a science than we thought.

Rex Bell, the cattle driver, (1) calls up his boss at the ranch one day and tells him, "Boss, I don’t reck- on (2) I can get to work today. I got a mighty bad headache, my belly’s right queasy, and my legs are achin’."(3) Bossman tells him, "You know, Rex, I could really use you today. You know what I do when I don’t feel well? (4) I ask my wife to sleep with me." (5) Rex says, "why, that’s a mighty fine idea. Thanks, Boss." They hang up, and a couple hours later, (6) Rex calls his boss back again. "You were right, Boss, that sure was a good idea. I’ll be at work in a few minutes . . . (7) you got yourself a real nice house, by the way." (8)

1. Get specific: Much of a joke’s pizzazz comes from lively images, so make sure you’re avoiding vague descriptions like "a cowboy." "It’s always better to be more specific than general," says Haines. "Remember, it’s a Pinto; not a station wagon."

2. Learn to talk the talk: When a joke has dialogue that invites an accent, it can be a great opportunity to have the audience in stitches, but tread carefully. Pro comics can spend years studying dialect, so make sure you know what you’re doing, warns Haines. "Read aloud the joke to make sure it sounds smooth."

3. Three times a chuckle: "Humor and joke-telling almost always follow the Rule of Three," says Haines. If you’re going to have a quick list like the one here, give it three items so that the joke’s rhythm isn’t too choppy or long-winded.

4. Beat it (sometimes): A well-timed pause in your delivery can pay when the time comes for the punch line. "If you put in a little pause, just a tenth of a second, it gives the audience the sense that something critical is coming, and drives the punch home," says Haines.

5. Take them down the wrong road: Here is one of the main ingredients of comedy: misdirection. The audience thinks they’re on the way to hearing a quip about Rex and his wife, but are actually in for a different story. "Suddenly the punch line is a surprise," says Haines.

6. Less is more: Being efficient with your words is key, so if you can say it faster without losing the lively details, do so. Spare your audience the banal details of the boss’s morning, or Rex’s pacing while thinking over the advice. "Get to the funny," says Haines.

7. Optional beat: It might seem natural to put a beat before the punch line, but Haines says to test out the final line with and without it. "A lot of times, a beat before the punch line isn’t necessary," he says. "Sometimes it’s better to just hit ’em in the face with it."

8. Knock it clear out of the park: Punch lines don’t work without exaggeration. Whenever you’re looking at a joke’s setup, remember that the best way to pull the humor out of any situation is to push everyday boundaries — sometimes, that means taking every word as literally as possible.

Web exclusive: Not in the mood to be funny? Let someone else tell the jokes.

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