Remember the running gag in Finding Nemo when Marlin the clown fish (whom others keep thinking will be funny) painfully tries to tell a joke? “Okay, a mollusk walks up to this sea cucumber, well he doesn’t actually walk, he’s just there, and he turns to the sea cucumber, and. . . Well, wait, there’s a mollusk and a sea cucumber and . . . Normally, they don’t talk, sea cucumbers, but in a joke everyone talks. So the sea mollusk says to the cucumber. . .”
When speaking in public, it is usually best not to tell set-piece jokes. (“A priest, a rabbi and a minister walk into a bar . . .”) As Marlin discovered, they are hard to tell well without sounding artificial. Such jokes can all too easily fall flat, especially since these jokes make the rounds and it is likely many people in the audience will have already heard them. A winning way to any audience’s heart is, rather, to be (in the fashion of Dave Barry and Garrison Keillor) humorous. (More on that in a future post.)
But if you feel compelled to tell a set-piece joke, here are some guidelines.
Structure. Put the funny part at the end of the sentence.
I was having breakfast one Sunday morning before church with my two youngest sons, Phil and Dave, who were eleven and nine at the time. In our morning stupor, munching on our cereal, no one was saying anything till the older one, Phil, said, “Dad, don’t you think we should tell Dave?” My other son Dave and I looked at each other uncomprehending. So Phil repeated the question more insistently. “Dad, don’t you think we should tell Dave?” Once again getting no response from his bewildered breakfast companions, in exasperation he turned to Dave and said, “Dave, this morning in church, you’re going to be sacrificed!”
What is the funniest word in the punchline? Sacrificed. So that word should be at the end of the sentence–not in the beginning (“You’re going to be sacrificed this morning at church”) and not in the middle (“This morning you’re going to be sacrificed at church”) but at the end, as the climax.
Volume. They call it a punchline because you are supposed to punch it. Don’t let your voice drop at the end. Make it louder. Your volume should steadily increase throughout that last sentence, hitting the last word or phrase with extra emphasis.
The Set Up. Think about what you need to say before you get to the punchline. What can you reasonably expect your audience to know and not know. For example, telling a joke about Dave and Phil to my extended family needs little set up. Others will need to know they are my sons and what age they were at the time.
Timing. Don’t talk over laughter. Listen to the audience reaction. Start talking again when it has almost completely (but not completely) died down.
Recovery. What if they don’t laugh? Don’t ignore the failure. Acknowledge it by being ready ahead of time with a recovery line. Stand-up comics do this all the time. For example:
* “I told my joke-writers that one wouldn’t work.”
* “I’m sure what made that joke so funny was all the practice I put in.”
* “My mother always told me not to try to make a living on stage.”
Practice. Just as with any public speaking, practice the joke with friends or in front of a mirror. Know exactly what you are going to say and how. Then you’ll end up rattling it off confidently, just as Marlin finally does at the end of the movie: “. . . and the sea cucumber turns to the mollusk and says, ‘With fronds like these, who needs anemones?’ “