On the Choice of a Joke
By Vern Crisler
The following are some guidelines that may prove useful to a beginning humorist, and perhaps to a few experts who do not mind revisiting old ground.
Difficulties of obtaining jokes. Some might say that if a man finds it hard to come up with jokes, he’s not really a humorist, but only a pretender. This is quite wrong. All jokes are difficult to find. The problem is that we sit around waiting for a joke, when the treasure map of humor tells us we must go out and dig for it. The race is to the swift, not to the one who sits on the bench, waiting for glory without effort.
How do we know if we have the right joke? One way to know if your humor is working is to go away from your joke for awhile, come back later, then happen upon your bit of humor by chance. If you are surprised by it and let out a horse-laugh, then you can be sure your audience will react in the same way. If it falls flat, mark it as a joke to be cancelled. Please keep in mind that any joke you anticipate cannot surprise you, and will fall flat. You must be away from your joke long enough that you’ve forgotten it, and are not expecting it around the corner of the next paragraph. Probably many a good joke has been thrown out because the writer did not stay away from his material long enough.
Select jokes that may cheer your audience. A doctor prescribes a medicine for the ailments peculiar to each of his patients. He does not prescribe one medicine for all, and the humorist must not think that a joke suitable for one group will be suitable for another. Select topics that your listeners can appreciate. Highly intellectual, or in-jokes, will fall flat on the uneducated. Witticisms that will cause the unlearned to collapse in convulsions of mirth may fire short when a volley is sent in the direction of the learned. Be all things to all people if you would see them laugh.
Consider what your previous jokes have been. It is not wise to tell the same joke over and over again, on the assumption that each new audience will be unaware of your repertoire. Let your jokes cover a wide range of topics, and you will seldom have to afflict your audience with gray-haired old jokes. A painter uses many colors to create the effect he wants, so let your jokes be many and varied that your canvass may be all the richer and pleasing to the senses. A man who refuses to gather in a harvest of new jokes, and instead remains content to eat up his stores, will soon find his audience traveling to other places for sustenance. Variety is good in both food and in humor. Likely, monotony in jokes will put the audience to sleep, or stir up a fine feeling of irritation toward the humorist, which will not be forgotten for a long while.
There must be proper preparation. You must work hard for a joke, with all diligence in study and thinking. As a woman gives birth in pain and travail, so the best jokes may sometimes be born into this world under similar labor. Only a mere dabbler thinks jokes fly down like birds ready to be fed out of a friendly hand. No, they are more like eagles that soar, and you must befriend them and coax them and even have great trouble in harnessing them. A joke easily obtained may cause a smile, but a joke hard won may bring mirth. A man who selects a joke without effort or thoughtful consideration is like a poor man who plucks at scraps for his next meal.
Read good books on humor. The humorist is like the prize-fighter; he must never stop training and preparing himself for the next bout. There are many books on how to do humor, some good, some not so good, but anything might help. Read books by humorists; study how they tell jokes. What are their tricks? Do you see patterns? Jot down anything you find humorous, and make a note of why you found it funny. Nine times out of ten, it will be because of some large incongruity displayed by the joke.
Do not be afraid to take a risk. When composing your first draft, always include every joke you can think of, no matter if you think it’s funny, or could be put in a better form. Do not let fear, or worry about whether it’s funny, stop you from venturing forth. There will be time later to cross out jokes that do not work. But many people are never funny because they are so afraid to try. They kill their jokes as soon as they create them, like Titans devouring their own children.
A joke is like a sculpture or a painting. It is sometimes the case that your first joke is funny as it is, but most jokes will require a bit of manipulation, or shaping, or touching up at least, before they are ready for display. This is where going away for a while will help. If you’ve gone away long enough that you’ve forgotten the joke, and you’re not anticipating, you’ll be able to read the joke in all its freshness. That’s where you determine whether it needs any final shaping or touching up.
Do not be afraid to strike out a joke. Sometimes, all of our efforts are for nothing. No matter how hard we try, no matter how long we stay away, and come back with a fresh eye, the joke never takes off. If your joke is as lifeless as a corpse, cancel it. If it doesn’t work for you, it probably won’t work for your audience. This is a hard thing to do. One tends to hold on to one’s jokes as if they were family members, and tossing them out is as hard as abandoning one’s children. Or so it seems in some cases. If you can’t rid yourself of the joke entirely, store it in your warehouse of old jokes. If you come by later and take an inventory, and the joke jumps out at you with freshness, then consider using it. If not, think of scrapping it and making room for other jokes that one day may be more productive.
Do not be tempted by puns. I’ve seldom heard a pun that did not set my teeth on edge. He who would inflict a pun upon his fellow man is a mere trickster, a bumbler who is more impressed with the play of words than with the richness of wit. Flee from puns as you would from a viper ready to strike you in the path.
If you cannot find a joke, pray for one. Do not forget that a joke is often like a healing balm to be applied to the sick of heart, and there is nothing frivolous about presenting your supplications before the throne of the Great Physician. If you cannot find the proper medicine on your own, perhaps the Savior of Souls may have a healing remedy to hand. If you but ask.
Note: the style of the above is loosely based on C. H. Spurgeon’s “On the Choice of a [Sermon] Text,” in Lectures to My Students. It is my belief that the humorist, no less than the preacher, must work very hard in his craft. He may even need the assistance of the heavens from time to time.