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The Fiction Issue 2008

How Do You Write a Joke?

Comedy isn’t as respected as other, more “literary” forms of writing, but it’s one of the most unforgiving. We talked to a few of these luminaries to ask them the toughest question in the world: How do you get people to laugh?

Comedy isn’t as respected as other, more “literary” forms of writing, but it’s one of the most unforgiving. Unlike fiction or poetry, when you fail at comedy (and comedians fail constantly) you do so publicly and embarrassingly, usually in front of an audience of strangers who may shout disgusting insults at you. So when comedians succeed—as in, they are paid to make jokes and appear on TV occasionally and stuff—it’s a strange, rare thing. We talked to a few of these luminaries to ask them the toughest question in the world: How do you get people to laugh?


Start with a sound. There are sounds that are funny. K sounds and T sounds (koo-koo, totesamazeballs) are funny, while M sounds and Sh sounds smooth your mind, pulling it further and further from the desired laugh. Of course, by this logic, Carrot Top sounds funnier than Mary Shelley, and you can see why (he plays Vegas; she plays dead). Sound good?

Comedy’s about breaking rules. Think about a normal thing (cereal, streets, lawns) and juxtapose it with a “left turn” or a surprise (clowns, 10,000 dogs, Tracy Chapman). You just took a rule and broke it. Imagine two circles—one with “normal things” and another with a bunch of left turns. Somewhere on this Venn diagram lies the funny. Find it, and when you do, don’t tell anyone or they may “Carlos Mencia” it (steal it and give it a Latin twist) or write it online (LinkedIn,, etc.). Have fun doing comedy. Just about everyone is a comedian now, so you’ll be able to meet mad friends!

Writer and actor from Kroll Show and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

The jokes should flow out like tears, but you have to keep your mind from distractions. Otherwise it gets cluttered up and nothing comes out. It is a painful process. I don’t recommend it.

Comic whose next album, First of Dismay, will be released July 22 by Drag City

Study the masters. Like Rembrandt. He was hilarious. Write down every funny thing you think of. Many comics think of something in the moment but then make a snap judgment about whether it will work in the “act.” Don’t edit while you’re coming up with stuff. You can decide later whether you still like it.


Comedian who has appeared on Late Show with David Letterman and Maron; his upcoming album, Hence the Humor, will be released this summer by AST

Try to look at the world like a stupid, idiot child would. That’s funny! Do they think the men in TVs are ACTUALLY that small? That’s a joke!

Writer for Parks and Recreation and author of the upcoming book Science… for Her!, out November 4 from Scribner

Think of the darkest, worst thing you could say in a given situation and then say it. Hit Control-Alt-Save and voilà, you’re a comedy writer.

Writer and actor from The League and host of The ArScheerio Paul Show

I use a lot of tricks of the trade. For example, I talk about topics on stage and insert fart noises as needed. When applicable, I’ll refer to the internet as the “inter webs” for a sure-fire chuckle. I always wear a funny shirt or a wig so the audience knows I’m serious about comedy, unless I’m doing a corporate gig, where I always wear a suit.

Co-host of The Bone Zone podcast, available
on All Things Comedy

In Houston, Texas, when it is 90 degrees in April, take a paper and pen from your Holiday Inn hotel room and begin walking along the freeway and through an industrial park. Talk to yourself, out loud, about anything that generates emotion—a fight with your sister, your cat’s belly, deviled eggs. Write down—on your now sweaty pad of paper—whatever words come to mind. Reach your destination, an abandoned mall with a dollar store, and buy a giant pink hat. Walk back to the hotel with the hat on and rehearse what you have just written. This should take about two hours, if you stop for a water and a Diet Coke and peanut butter Clif Bar at a liquor store. Celebrate with a nap.

Comedian whose The Special Special Special! is now streaming on Netflix

Jon Daly: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Variety, Neil Hamburger: Jonathan Pirro