how to write jokes Archives - GOLD Comedy

Are any jokes off-limits? How to know if you’re punching up vs. punching down

A student in one of our workshops once tried out a joke about wanting to hide a knife in her hijab to cut the boys who tried to take it off.

Can she do that? It’s edgy, but sure.

But could a white dude do a joke about trying to take off a girl’s hijab? NOT RECOMMENDED.

This is all a way of answering the very, very common question: Are any jokes off-limits? The answer is YUP! But the real questions are: Which ones, and how do you figure it out?

Put another way:

Is stabbing people funny? NOT REALLY.

Can you do a joke about stabbing people? MAYBE!

It all depends on your joke, on your intention, and on you.

This is why people talk about punching down versus punching up.

Simply put, punching down means making jokes about people with less power than you. Punching up means making jokes about people with more power than you. When you make fun of a mean principal, you are punching up. When you make fun of the dweeby kid, you are…bullying.

Comedy is better when you punch up.

Punching up is morally preferable, generally kinder, and most likely to make the world a better place, as awesome comic and beloved friend of GOLD Negin Farsad notes. “It’s vital to understand the job comedy can do in actively providing a counterbalance to bigotry and prejudice, as well as understanding the types of humour that reinforce negative stereotypes,” she says. “I want to make sure I’m punching up, not punching down.”

But let’s also look at it simply from the level of craft. A punch line is a surprise. A punch line takes some work. A punch line reveals something new, or says a familiar thing a new way. A punch line may even, at best, not just be a rando wisecrack, but a joke that only YOU can tell: a window into your unique point of view.

So for instance when you make fun of someone short, you’re revealing that they are SHORT—and showing us nothing about what makes YOUR POV unique. When you make fun of the mean principal, you’ve got much more to work with: you can reveal something about how you relate to the grownups who boss you around, and you’ll get people on your side without ganging up. And bonus: no one in the crowd will think, “Eeep, that comic’s kind of mean.”

At the level of craft, it’s lazy to write the easiest joke about the easiest target. Comedy is about being CREATIVE and getting people to LIKE you. Do the harder work on your end and you’ll make easier for them.

Where are your up and down?

Up and down are different for different people. It all depends on how up or down YOU are on the existing power structure (#fighthepower). Straight cis white dude, up. Young woman of color with a hijab, farther down. Let’s call them Norm and Nora. Nora could make jokes about Norm. Norm probably should not make jokes about Nora.

But wait. It’s not really that simple. If Norm makes a joke that puts Nora down for being female, of color, Muslim: that’s punching down. If Norm makes a joke ABOUT sexism, racism, Islamophobia with Nora as his main character: bruh, that’s punching up. Because then he’s making fun of the existing power structure itself. Go, Norm.

#elephantintheroom

Can you make rape jokes? YUP!

Quiz: Will the better jokes be about (a) rape victim(s) or (b) perps and the culture that excuses rape, etc. etc.?

If you answered (b), go write some jokes!

There it is: there is no TOPIC that is off-limits. Not even rape! It’s the joke—the target, the POV, the intention—that requires evaluation.   

When in doubt, answer these key questions.

  1. Who or what is my target? Starting point: make sure the target of your joke—the who or what you are making fun of—has more power than you. (Margin of error: one bratty kid sibling.)
  2. Who is my audience? Do they have roughly the same up/down as you? You should be good. If not, tread more carefully. (This interesting counterpoint to the up/down idea is relevant here.)
  3. How’s my tone? YOU KNOW (and so does the crowd) if a joke is coming from a place of snarky mean, or a place of legit anger. (Sometimes legit anger can justify snarky mean, but that’s an advanced move.)
  4. How’s the joke doing? If it’s crushing with the people you want it to crush with, then you’re probably doing fine. (If it’s crushing with a**holes, maybe let it go.) And if it’s just not working at all, even after some tinkering, it’s just not working. Let go of the idea (usually pushed by people on the higher end of the up/down) that COMEDY IS SUPPOSED TO MAKE PEOPLE UNCOMFORTABLE or whatever. Naw. It’s supposed to make people laugh.
  5. What does my gut say? How do you feel when you tell this joke? Delighted and energized, or a little tight and squinched up? Your gut knows what’s up. Your gut is a tough crowd, but a good one. If your gut feels off, maybe the joke is, too. If your gut feels good, punch on!

Read Lynn’s bio here.

How to write a six-word memoir that’s worth a thousand words

Somewhere between waking up at 3 a.m. on a Monday with keyboard marks on my face and getting a C on my latest calculus exam, I’ve learned that I miiight have an issue with time management. Maybe I should cut down on the comedy, I thought to myself.

Haha. Just kidding! I just switched to quicker comedy. And you can, too! All you need is six words and a pen.

What am I referring to? Well, there’s a little (and I really do mean little) writing challenge called the six-word memoir, and the goal of it is to summarize who you are in just six words. Filmmaker Nora Ephron, for example, wrote: “Secret to life: Marry an Italian.”

But Nora Ephron makes clever look so easy. For most of us, putting pen to paper and coming up with this kind of alchemy is … difficult, challenging, frustrating, rage-inducing, and two other adjectives.

To help get that ball point pen a-rollin’, here is a handy step-by-step guide to finding your funny in just six short words, with a little help from some women you know and love.

Think about who you are as a person.

Just take this first step as just an opportunity to get to know yourself a little better and write down who you are. You basically want to barf out everything you think about yourself, and sort it out later. The GOLD goddesses have curated a great list of questions in GOLD’s new online comedy course, which includes helpful prompts like these:

  • What makes me interesting is…      
  • I am/was proud of myself when….    
  • If I could change one thing about myself…
  • I would be so happy if…          
  • I would just like to thank…

You can also try finding ideas by taking these prompts and writing about them, stream-of-consciousness style, for one minute (timed!).

  • Write a rough timeline of your life.
  • Describe what you look like and what stands out in your appearance. How has your look changed over time?
  • Describe your family or your friends.
  • Describe your childhood.
  • What is your typical day like?

The point is to expand how you think about yourself — to fill your mental palette with all the colors you can find inside yourself. You’ll only use six, but you want every option possible.

Find common threads and representative anecdotes.

Look over your brainstorming. Does anything jump out at you? What elements of what you’ve written really represent who you are? Are there any themes that get repeated throughout, or any moments that really encapsulate your persona? Where can you find pieces of who you are that make you laugh? Mark these, and think back to them as you start to draft your memoir. This will help you get your introspective juices flowing so that your personality is really at the heart of what you have to say.

Be Your Funniest Self - Join The Club!

Write, write, write!

Now, set a timer for 10 minutes and write as many six-word memoirs as you can, using the elements of who you are identified in the steps above. Don’t think too hard. Just do a ton of them. When you think you’ve exhausted yourself, do three more. And then one more.

Once you’ve spit out a few, think about structure. Many six-word memoirs read like awkward haikus, with missing words sort of glaring out at you between the lines. Some are just a list of connected words. That can be good, it can even be powerful. But as you get used to packing all this feeling into a tiny container, you can expand your horizons and try applying joke structure.

I know, I know. Six words! But stay with me. Even in this abbreviated format, you can use  “setup … punch!,” the queen of all joke structures, in which you set people up to expect one thing and turn in a completely different direction. Author Amy Sohn does this perfectly in her six-word memoir: “Gave commencement address, became sex columnist.” By initially defining herself through the life event of addressing her own graduation, Sohn leads readers to believe that she’ll go on to a highbrow, cerebral career, which is why her ending about choosing to make a living writing about sex is such an unexpected twist.

Triples can also be easily incorporated into six word memoirs. If the “setup … punch!” is the most basic joke structure, a triple is a “setup, setup … punch!” with the last item a bit of a surprise. Journalist Katie Couric uses a triple in explaining her life story: “Secret of life: Family, friends, bacon.” The last word of the three definitely takes the bacon for its originality and humor in comparison to the two preceding words. If you want even more structure ideas, GOLD founder Lynn Harris has got you covered. You can apply any of these to the six-word form.

Keep these ideas in mind, but also let yourself see what comes out naturally. Some six-word gems don’t follow any structure at all. Like this, from Joan Rivers: “Liars, hysterectomy didn’t improve sex life!” Or see how Amy Schumer handled it: “At least you know he’s circumcised.” When it comes right down to it, the best six-word memoirs come from the heart.

Share away!

Now that you’re equipped with a boatload of six-word memoirs, go forth and release them into the wild!

Don’t forget to send your genius our way at @GOLDcmdy on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, and to tag @six.word.memoirs so that your work can really get noticed.

And if you’re really excited to impress everyone with your six words and more, check out the full GOLD Comedy online class to learn how to find your funny and deliver it to the stage!


KAITLIN GOLDIN is a student, writer, actress, and devout McJew based in the Bay Area.

How to write jokes: use our patented set of comedy “wrenches”

As you know, the punchline of a joke is the surprise. The switch, the twist. But what KIND of surprise? What direction is the twist?

Or, if you think of the shift from setup to punch as where the comedian throws a wrench into the joke, this is about what KIND Of wrench it is.

Let’s look at the most common wrenches that comedians have in their toolkits. I’m using one-liners for the clearest examples, but wrenches are at work in almost any type of joke.

OPPOSITE wrench.

  • Emika: “I love to inspire people [SETUP]. I also love to see them fail [PUNCH].”
  • “I believe that each person can make a difference [SETUP], but it’s so slight that there’s basically no point [PUNCH].” —Lauren Lapkus
    • These jokes go in the exact OPPOSITE direction from what you expected. (Inspirational/cynical; positive/negative)

WORDPLAY wrench.

  • “I got my hair highlighted [SETUP], because I felt some strands were more important than others [PUNCH].” — Mitch Hedberg
    • Hedberg takes a wrench to the word HIGHLIGHTED. Highlighting hair turns into highlighting like you do with a book. So it’s a good old fashioned wordplay wrench.
    • You could also call it an ABSURD wrench.

ABSURD wrench.

  • “I’m a lousy cook. I burn sushi.” —Joan Rivers
    • Rivers uses an ABSURD wrench to how just how bad a cook she is, because you don’t cook sushi in the first place.
  • You could also call this an EXAGGERATION wrench.
  • “So I met my boyfriend’s parents recently, which stressed me out. Because he’s white, so his parents are white. Hate when that happens. Why can’t it just skip a generation?” —Phoebe Robinson
    • Phoebe Robinson uses an ABSURD wrench — race can’t skip a generation — to underscore how un-psyched she is to meet her boyfriend’s white parents, and generally how stressful situations like that are. “Hate when that happens” is also absurd. He’s white because his parents are. It didn’t just “happen.”

EXAGGERATION wrench.

  • Sasheer Zamata, hating that women are expected to be un-hairy: “I found out that Native Americans would keep all their hair long because it helped them with battle and hunting. It made them more aware of your surrounding, and if something was coming to attack you you would feel it and sense it quicker. So if that’s the case, women—of all people—should have ALL OF THE HAIR. We’re at risk of being attacked just for walking out of our house. For safety purposes, I want to be Chewbacca-level hairy.”
    • Chewbacca is as hairy as you can get. (Also a funny word.) Women will not actually get that hairy if they don’t shave, so, exaggeration.
  • Here’s GOLD student Romaissaa on her obsession with YouTube: “I  can’t breathe air without knowing my favorite YouTuber’s opinion on breathing air.”
    • Do we think that’s actually true? No. But the exaggeration effectively illustrates her obsession.
Be Your Funniest Self - Join The Club!

UNDERSTATEMENT wrench.

  • “I broke up with my girlfriend. She moved in with another guy, and I draw the line at that.” —Garry Shandling
    • He’s using an UNDERSTATEMENT wrench because for him to “draw the line” at her OBVIOUSLY breaking up with him is a tiny reaction to a huge move. What’s great here is that he uses that understatement to make fun of himself.
    • “I don’t know if you’ve ever been sad on a roller coaster. It’s doable.” — Ryan Hamilton

DOUBLE DOWN wrench.

  • Thea: “I am not just a nerd [SETUP]. I am also a geek [PUNCH].”
    • You thought Thea was going to say I’m more than “just” a nerd. Instead she doubles down.
  • “I get so frustrated when people think I’m trying to look like Ellen Degeneres [SETUP]. It’s so frustrating because I’m trying so hard to look like Nick Carter [PUNCH].” —Emma Willman
    • You expect Emma to to say she’s frustrated because she’s not trying to look like anyone! But she’s like, I AM trying to look like someone. Just someone ELSE. (She’s taking the wrench to “Ellen DeGeneres” rather than “trying to look like.”)
  • “It wasn’t that no one asked me to the prom. No one would tell me where it was.” —Rita Rudner
    • You think she’s going to say…LOTS of people asked me to the prom. But then she doubles down on not being asked. They hid the entire prom from her.

So, when you’re writing a joke, you can look at your topic or setup and ask yourself: what kind of wrench could I throw in here? Play with different ones and see what works.

1. TOPIC/PREMISE. What you want to talk about…PLUS

2. ATTITUDE/EMOTION. How a person with your persona would feel about it…PLUS

3. TYPE OF JOKE. Which type of joke would best match what I want to say?

4. TYPE OF WRENCH. Which type of wrench will make the joke work best?

Read Lynn’s bio here.