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What makes a good joke?

No one is born hilarious. How do comedians learn their trade? And where’s the line between funny and … not?

Sometimes, dissecting humour is like dissecting a frog, says cognitive neuroscientist Scott Weems, paraphrasing the American writer E. B. White. “In the end, the subject dies and you’re just left with a mess.”

Nevertheless, Weems – who wrote a book titled Ha! The Science of When We Laugh and Why – believes that understanding how jokes work can help those who tell them for a living.

“I liken it to classical music,” he says. “Just because you study music at a university, that’s no guarantee you’ll be good at it – but if you do want to become a good musician, you need someone to teach you the basics and you need to practise for hours, because no one is born an expert. It’s the same with humour; if you want to be a comedian you ought to learn the fundamentals of joke-telling – but no matter how much you dissect it, it’s still an art.”

While all jokes are a form of humour, not all humour is a joke: pranks and slapstick comedy, for instance, can elicit a laugh but neither is a joke in the strictest sense of the word.

Pranks can be funny, but not all humour is a ‘joke’. British and Irish Lions rugby player Manu Tuilagi later apologised for giving former British prime minister David Cameron bunny ears in 2013.Credit:CHRIS HARRIS

Jokes have been part of human discourse for millennia. In 2008 a group of British historians, led by Dr Paul McDonald from the University of Wolverhampton, determined that the world’s oldest recorded joke dates back to 1900BC. “Something which has never occurred since time immemorial: a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap,” ancient Sumerians are claimed to have said.

“Jokes have varied over the years,” McDonald writes in his report. “What they all share, however, is a willingness to deal with taboos and a degree of rebellion. Modern puns … and toilet humour can all be traced back to the very earliest jokes.“

With the 2021 Melbourne International Comedy Festival in full swing, now is the perfect time to take a closer look at the art and craft of joke-telling. Why do some gags land while others fall flat? How important is timing and non-verbal communication? And when does “edgy” humour cross the line into bad taste?

What makes a good joke?

“A successful joke is one that springs some sort of surprise on the listener,” says British comedian Mark Watson.

“You begin by suggesting one scenario and then somehow, you undermine it. People who are brilliant at delivering one-liners have a talent for taking you to a place that feels familiar and then twisting it in a way that you didn’t expect. That’s why people groan at jokes that have an obvious punchline,” he says, because without the element of surprise “there’s a sense of disappointment”.

British comedian Mark Watson says a good joke springs a surprise on the listener.

While most people give little thought to the construction of a joke, even young children demonstrate an instinctive understanding of the “punchline follows set-up” structure when they repeat schoolyard gags such as “What’s brown and sticky? A stick.“

At a neurological level, according to Weems, a successful joke triggers an observable effect in the brain.“There’s a part of our brains, called the anterior cingulate, that’s specialised in dealing with surprise – and then reorienting after a surprising event,” he says. “When you hear the punchline to a joke you get a release of neurochemicals like dopamine, which creates a sense of pleasure and motivates you to seek out similar experiences in the future.”

Why do we admire skilled joke-tellers?

“It’s a sign of mental dexterity,” Weems says. “If you’re quick with a joke, you’re generally a quick thinker. From an evolutionary standpoint, it’s good to have a mate who’s on the ball.“

Melbourne performer Rachel Berger, who runs workshops for novice stand-up comedians, believes humour helps audiences lower their guards, creating a bond with the person behind the microphone.

Melbourne-based comedian Rachel Berger.

“A good comedian is someone who is vulnerable enough to speak their truth, which is why the relationship between the audience and a comedian is one of profound trust,” she says.

“When you’re on stage, you’re very exposed. You don’t have an instrument and you don’t have props; it’s just you and your words.”

Laughter, Berger explains, is an involuntary reaction that precedes conscious thought.
“In that moment between someone laughing and then thinking about what made them laugh, you can create profound change because the chemicals in a person’s brain are working differently,” she says.

“That’s why it feels so emancipating for the audience – and physically, laughter feels good because your lungs are open and you’re taking in oxygen.“

How important is timing?

When a singer hits a bum note, our instinctive reaction is to wince. But sometimes, a singer may choose to vary the notes of a song; think of how many different performers have put their own spin on the John Lennon classic Imagine.

The fact that some singers deviate from the notes prescribed by Lennon does not necessarily render their interpretation “off-key”; indeed, some listeners may prefer a cover over the original.

Two seemingly opposing facts are true: hitting the “wrong” note sounds awful but not everyone can agree on what the “right” note should be. And so it is with comic timing – we only tend to notice it when it doesn’t feel right.

The pause between a set-up and a punchline, the speed at which a comedian speaks, their use of silence to underscore the point they’ve just made – all are critical in determining whether a joke succeeds and yet concrete rules about timing are near-impossible to determine.

“Robin Williams would use a lot of words and spoke very fast,” Weems says, “whereas my favourite comedian, Mitch Hedberg, would tell the same joke in a much slower way – yet both of them are hilarious.”

Fast talker Robin Williams in 2009. Credit:Reuters

While researching his book about humour, Weems encountered the work of Salvatore Attardo, a Belgian linguistics professor working in Texas who painstakingly analysed the routines of various stand-up performers.

“He measured comedic timing in every way possible,” Weems says. “But no matter how he measured it, he found no significant difference [in the timing] of jokes that worked and those that didn’t.”

Still, Weems maintains that bad timing can cause a good joke to fall flat. Consider how an ill-timed heckle during a live comedy show can backfire on the person who delivers it: even if their rejoinder is amusing, yelling it out just a few seconds too late can draw groans instead of applause.

So how do performers hone their sense of timing?

Observing masters of the craft and learning through trial and error is an ideal place to start, says Berger. “I encourage comedians to see as many gigs as they can. I’m not talking about watching gigs on YouTube; you actually have to be in the room, with the rest of the audience, to get a sense of what works and what doesn’t. Then you need to get as much experience on stage as possible. I’ve done thousands and thousands of gigs and even though I’ve been doing this for 35 years, I’m still learning.”

Non-verbal communication is an important ingredient, too. Tom Gleeson, host of the ABC’s comedic television program Hard Quiz, discovered the importance of gestures and facial expressions while performing in a pub band many years ago. “I was always being grandiose to make the audience laugh,” Gleeson says.

“But one time, when I was wearing sunglasses, I got no laughs at all. When I had the glasses on, I just sounded like an arrogant prick but when I wasn’t wearing them, the audience could tell by my expressions that I was taking the piss.“

For a performer such as Max Gillies (below), renowned for his rubbery-faced impersonations of Australian politicians, expressions are critical: to experience the full impact of his humour, audiences must pay close attention to his appearance and mannerisms.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays Selina Meyer in Veep.

If Selina instead mentioned a recent deadly explosion, a decent chunk of the audience would respond with a grimace instead of laughter.

What topics, if any, are off-limits?

The longest-serving director of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, Susan Provan, has attended more than 10,000 live comedy shows over the years. In her experience, no subject warrants complete immunity from jokes.

“We have a ‘don’t be a dickhead’ policy at the festival,” Provan says. “If you’re doing material that normalises homophobia, racism or violence against women – if you’re ‘punching down’ to vulnerable sections of the community – then the Comedy Festival is not the platform for you.

Comedy Festival director Susan Provan says ‘punching down’ is not on. Credit:Rodger Cummins

“While it’s hard to say that a particular topic should be off-limits, there are things that need to be handled carefully because not everyone has the life experience to speak about those things in a credible fashion.”

For Berger, it all comes down to intent. “I did a lot of material when the ‘children overboard’ incident happened,” she says, referring to claims made by federal government ministers in 2001 – later proven to be false – that asylum seekers had thrown their children into the sea. “I could hear people’s buttocks clenching as they thought to themselves, oh no, she’s not going to talk about this. But as the child of refugees myself, it gave me a place to speak from.”

Of course, supposedly “taboo” topics are the stock in trade of many comedians. When a performer such as Amy Schumer pushes past socially conditioned shame – finding humour in sex, farts and other bodily functions – her audience might wince but many do so while laughing out loud.

By spotlighting our insecurities and anxieties, she helps us reframe the way we think about them, taking the sting out of our own private embarrassments. And in her Netflix special Nanette, Hannah Gadsby argues that joking about certain traumas can inadvertently serve to diminish the seriousness with which we view them.

What’s the most common misconception about comedians?

Provan knows that it takes a lot of skill and hard work to make a stand-up show appear effortless and easy. “Some people think comedians just make up their routine on the spot,” she says. “They’re surprised to find out that the jokes are written down on a piece of paper somewhere.”

This misconception, she adds, explains why some amateur event organisers attempt to compensate comedians with “exposure” instead of money. “You wouldn’t ask a plumber to fix a leaky pipe for free,” she says. “When you think of how many years a comedian puts into building the skills that enable them to stand up in front of a crowd and do something that a diverse group of people will enjoy, that’s a skill worth paying for.”

Though each performer is different, most devote at least a few months to writing, testing and polishing a one-hour stand-up show before debuting it at a major festival.

Some spend weeks rehearsing in front of a mirror; others test their material before small audiences at discount comedy nights, notepad in hand to record which jokes landed and which jokes need refining.

While there are plenty of wannabe stand-ups in Australia, most will never summon the courage to climb on stage and give it a go. Of those brave enough to take this step, many end up mimicking – often unconsciously – the style and mannerisms of their comedic heroes.

“I don’t judge anyone for doing that,” Provan says. “If they’re good, they’ll pass through that phase quite quickly.“

Those who put effort into honing a distinctive style, Berger believes, will reap the rewards.

“I’m sure there are comedians who have their own unique style from the very start but the conventional wisdom is that it takes about three years to find your voice,” she says. “When you develop the confidence to interpret the world through your own personal lens, that’s what connects a comedian to their audience.”

The many ways to tell a joke

Knowing how jokes work can help you refine your material and raise the odds of getting a laugh.

  • Rule of three: A trio of events or characters that can make a joke more humorous or satisfying. Often, the third element functions as the punchline by breaking a pattern established through the first two elements, as evidenced in gags such as, “An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman walk into a bar…”
  • Callbacks: A “callback line” is a joke that incorporates a reference to an earlier joke; when used well, it can make an audience feel they’re sharing an “in joke” with the comedian on stage.
  • Exaggeration: Such as, “My fanbase could fill a Toyota Tarago.” Be careful, though: over-exaggeration can stretch a joke to breaking point.
  • Misplaced sincerity: A comedian pretends to be unaware of something the audience knows to be true.
  • Puns and double-entendres: Beloved by daggy dads the world over, who find humour in words or phrases with more than one meaning.
  • Meta-jokes: Jokes about jokes, often used to mock tired comic tropes. For instance: “An Irishman, a Scotsman and an Englishman walk into a bar. The bartender says, ‘What is this, some kind of joke?’”
  • Omitted punchline: A comedian deliberately excludes the last part of a punchline, allowing the audience to fill in the blanks. Often, a gesture or expression is used as a substitute for the missing word.
  • Observational: A style of joke typified by Jerry Seinfeld, generally used to illustrate the absurdity of everyday life. Self-deprecation: In which the comedian makes their own foibles and mishaps the subject of their humour.
  • Topical: The basis of most late-night comedy shows, which rely on rapid-fire gags about politics, current affairs or other newsworthy topics.

The Melbourne International Comedy Festival runs from March 24 until April 18. The Age is a festival media partner.

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