Set-Ups and Punch Lines

The set-up is the most common type of joke. You've heard it thousands of times; it's pretty much the staple of stand-up, late-night talk shows, and some sitcoms. It's a simple yet effective format: You state a fact or opinion, then give it a comedic twist. The audience expects one thing, but it gets much more than it expected — a joke. It's especially good for topical monologues because it's a good, quick way to use disposable information — something that happened in the news that day. You use the joke once and then move on. Here's an example of a set-up:

NASA announced that the Mars Rover found possible signs of life on Mars today …

It's just a statement of fact. That's it, nothing more — but notice the ellipse. That pause tells the audience the joke is coming. Here's the punch line:

A homeless Martian tried to squeegee its windshield.

This technique can also be used on a personal level:

I had French toast this morning…. Well, actually it was just regular toast — but it had a really snotty attitude.

There can be multiple punch lines for the same set-up. Think of how many jokes Jeff Foxworthy has come up with for the set-up: “You know you're a redneck if ….” He's probably used it hundreds, if not thousands, of different ways. There are probably thousands more to come, and they all work. In most cases, a comic will come up with a couple of possible contenders for the punch line before she chooses the one that works best. That might happen after she tries different punch lines on stage. Through trial and error, she finds the best fit.

The set-up and punch doesn't have to be a quick one-two punch. You can add an extra joke or two after the punch line to keep the laughter going. This is called a tag. The tag basically turns the original punch line into a setup and usually catches the audience completely off-guard. Think of it as a knockout punch line. Even better, a tag can be used to show how your character relates to the punch line. Here's an example:

I'm convinced that my car is possessed by the devil. The other day, I parked it, went into the store for a couple of minutes, and when I came back out — mysteriously, the words “WASH ME” had appeared on it.

And here's the reaction tag:

So I abandoned it. I'm not driving home in some haunted voodoo car.

It does two things; it adds an extra joke and tells the audience something about your character.

A good way to practice this format and flex your comedy muscles at the same time is to watch the late-night television monologues and write down the set-up — just the first part of the joke — and then try to think of alternate punch lines. You might even come up with one that is funnier than the one the host delivered.

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