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Joke Science December 13, 2006

Posted by TimTheFoolMan in Fun, Humor, Theater.

Yesterday, I was listening to an interview with Jerry Seinfeld, where he describes the process of telling a joke to an audience as the comedian getting the audience to “jump across a canyon.” He stops short of taking the analogy (at least during the interview) to its logical conclusion, but I think I can fill in the blanks.

Jumping Canyons

Fortunately, successfully telling a joke is somewhat easier than jumping Snake River Canyon in a jet-cycle. Well, usually.

The Approach
The approach is what comedians call the “setup” for the joke, as in the following:

Two nuns have been out drinking, and are sneaking back into the convent well past midnight…

This part defines the basic parameters for the joke. You are introduced to the key components or people, and the “boundary conditions.” In many ways, this sets the expectations for the joke. For example, one standard joke format begins with “X Y’s walk into a bar…” where X is a number and Y is some kind of occupation, animal, or thing, such as “Fifteen Bar Mitzvah candidates walk into a bar…”

Sadly, I’ve never heard that joke before. I wish I had. The setup sounds funny.

The Acceleration
This is one of the places where you can absolutely destroy the joke, and is actually still part of the setup. If you don’t get up enough speed (back in the canyon jump analogy), you’ll never make it to the other side, and will go down with an embarrassing splash when you hit bottom. Word choice is crucial here, because economy of words establishes the timing of the takeoff and the speed at which the vehicle–not the audience–is moving.

If you try to move too fast, the audience is left behind, the joke jumps, and… nothing. If you move too slowly, the audience goes with you, but down into the bottom of the canyon. It’s a delicate balance. Back to the nuns.

…Crawling on their stomachs to avoid being seen, one nun says to the other…

The Jump
As you might expect, this is the last thing before the punchline. This is your last opportunity to screw things up. If that sounds negative, it’s because telling jokes in public has so many opportunities for failure, it’s a wonder that standup-comedy works as often as it does.

If there is ever a place for careful editing (and Seinfeld echoes the feelings of many great comedians in the past at putting a heavy emphasis on his ability to edit out extraneous words), this is it. If you can make the jump with five words instead of twelve, you should do so. Unfortunately, the only way to know when you’ve gone too far is by judging from audience reaction (and the painful experience of having gone too far a few times with similar material).

So what does the one nun say?

“…You know, I feel like a marine!”

Too few words, and the audience responds with “huh?” Too many, and you’ve effectively turned the canyon into a creek, and they will figure out where the joke is going before you ever get to the punchline. They “get it,” but there’s no real “leap” to the joke, and hence, no thrill.

The Landing
The landing is (rather obviously) the punchline.

The other nun says, “So do I, but where can we find one at this hour?”

If you haven’t done so already, go back and read the joke to yourself out loud. (Yes, I know it won’t be as funny as it was the first time, which is probably not really funny, because of the way dissecting the joke messes with the timing. Get over it.)

Note the timing of the words The other nun says before the final quote. These words are very important! Without them, you could probably figure out who was speaking, but while your brain is trying to figure that out, the joke has already ended. These words, though appearing meaningless, are important because of the information they provide, but just as important because of the processing time they allow.

Lastly, the wording of the punchline is critical too, and here is another place that economy pays off. If you try to substitute “Margaret, I would love to have a marine too, but it’s after midnight, and the base is 200 miles away,” you’ll probably be greeted with blank stares.

P.S. I am somewhat qualified to speak on this subject. I have done a fair amount of public speaking, and long ago lost track of how many jokes I’ve told to an audience of fifty or more people. Sadly, I’ve bombed more than a few times, but as noted above, this is necessary to learn the skill of editing.

P.P.S. On the topic of editing, “thank you” to Tiffany for demonstrating the value of a good editor. She found two glaring errors in this post. AARRRRRGGGGHHHHH!


1. Tiffany - December 14, 2006

Here’s perhaps my favorite jump across the canyon. 🙂

A C, an E-flat, and a G walk into a bar.

The bartender says, “We don’t serve minors!”

So the E-flat leaves, and the C and the G have a fifth between them.

2. bonniekirk - January 13, 2012

Love Tiffany’s joke, which illustrates another rule – know your audience. Thanks for the dissection, Tim.

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