Basics: End on a high note

I was reading David Pogue’s NYT column about funny Twitter responses when I was heartbroken by a funny joke ruined by poor execution.

Pogue tweeted:

Whoa. Steve Jobs, Eric Schmidt, Mark Zuckerberg to meet with Obama, 2/17:

The list of funny responses includes this:

Finally, the most powerful men in the world, and the president, are getting together. (@dmj)

I was saddened by this missed opportunity (more saddened than is probably healthy). The joke is an old one, a simple bait-and-switch. It’s a classic and it’s still funny as ever, given new life with each new setup that comes along. And this setup about Jobs, Schmidt, Zuckerberg, and Obama is a good one, considering our tech-obsessed culture.

But then @dmj goes and blows the punchline halfway through the joke, before you even realize what the joke is supposed to be. For this kind of joke, the audience shouldn’t even realize it is a joke until a split-second after the end.

PSA time.

The way it’s currently phrased, the audience subconsciously pauses halfway through to process the joke: Wait, he said “powerful men and the president”. Is he making a distinction? Probably. I see. He’s saying the president isn’t one of the most powerful men. Funny. Time to continue reading: “are getting together.” OK.

For maximum effect, punchlines should come at the end. This is true almost always, for comedy and for writing in general. End with the point you want your audience to carry away with them. In a bait-and-switch routine like this, it’s absolutely essential.

With a hat tip to @dmj, the intended joke looks more like this:

Finally, the most powerful men in the world are getting together. And the president will be there too.

The mental process for this one goes more like this: “…are getting together.” Yeah, that’s true. Oh, what’s this? Another sentence. The president will be there “too”? He’s making a distinction. He’s saying the president isn’t one of the most powerful men. Funny.

By getting the audience to accept the setup in its entirety before they’re even aware of the joke, the unexpectedness of the punchline is heightened, making it funnier. Plus, they walk away with the funny part fresh and unspoiled in their mind. ((Other variations could include a hard return or two between the setup and the punchline, forcing a longer pause for the audience to more fully accept the premise and heighten the punchline contrast. Or, for something more subtle: “The most powerful men in the world are getting together with the president,” which increases the pause between the end of the sentence and the realization of the joke (although I think in this case it is too subtle). In all cases, the punchline comes at the end.))

That’s all for today’s class. Read Chapters 12 and 13 in the text for next time. And don’t forget, your essays on “Why I Think My Favorite Funny Movie Is Funny” are due next Friday.