The Structure of a Joke By Good Comedian

The good comedian builds a joke up carefully: all the necessary details appear one by one (and sometimes some unnecessary details too, partly to distract the listeners from predicting the ending); the events move forward towards a climax; and everything falls suddenly into place when the point of the joke finally emerges, like a revelation, in the punch line.

How not to structure a joke is the subject of the following parody . The teller, in her impatience to raise a laugh, delivers the punch line at the beginning rather than the end:

Anyway, there’s this old  Jewish man who is trying to get into the synagogue during the Yom Kippur service, and the usher finally says to him, ‘All right, go ahead in, but don’t let me catch you praying.’ (PAUSE) Oh, did I mention that the old man just wants to go in and give a message to someone in the synagogue? He doesn’t actually want to go into the synagogue? He doesn’t  actually want to go into the synagogue and pray, you see.

(PAUSE. FROWN)Wait a minute. I don’t know if I mentioned that the old man doesn’t  have a ticket for the service. You know how crowded it always is on Yom Kippur, and the old man doesn’t have a ticket, and he explains to the usher that he has to go into the synagogue and tell somebody something, but the usher isn’t going to let him in without a ticket. So the old man explains to him that it’s a matter of life and death, so then the usher thinks it over and he says to the old man, ‘All right, go ahead in, but don’t let me catch you praying .’ (PAUSE. FROWN. STAND AND BEGIN EMPTYING ASHTRAYS) Ach, I don’t think I told it right, Al, you tell it.

-the mother, in Dan Greenburg (U.S.),

How to Be a Jewish Mother

Crucial though the joke’s structure is for the effectiveness of the joke, it is in fact a rather unusual structure. Like suspense stories, jokes are designed to keep the reader or listener guessing. The structure serves to conceal the point of the text . . . until the last minute, that is. In most texts,

however – from telephone message to Annual Reports – the point needs to be revealed at every stage. Constant clarity, rather than obscurity, is the aim. The object is to keep the reader informed, not to keep him guessing. He wants the punch line right away, as it were: only then will he begin to take a proper interest in the details, the explanation, and the background.

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