One-liner comedians and Christmas cracker joke writers actually employ many of the same techniques. I explore the cross-over plus I offer a few tips on writing cracker jokes should you be in the unlikely position of having to write some…
So, you think Christmas cracker jokes are lame? Think you can do better? Here’s how you write them and how one-liner comics like Milton Jones use many of the self-same techniques.
First up, structure. Christmas cracker jokes tend to be in the Q&A format. The question is the set-up to the joke and the answer is the payoff. The humour is based on wordplay. There are many ways of coming at a wordplay gag. One common approach cracker joke writers use is to play with rhymes. Here's one based on the word 'cracker' itself:
“What do you get if you cross Santa with a duck? A Christmas Quacker!”.
The word 'elf' and its various rhymes does a lot of work in Christmas crackers. Here are a couple of 'self' ones:
“Why did Santa's helper see the doctor? Because he had a low "elf" esteem! “
“Did Rudolph go to school? No. He was Elf-taught!”
In writing these jokes the author began with the payoff – elf-esteem/ elf-taught – and then worked backwards to write a set-up to fit. This is exactly the process that one-liner comics often use. Start with the payoff and work backwards.
For stand-ups however, rhyming wordplay is rather less common. Maybe it just sounds too much of a groaner when it's a rhyme. But for cracker writers groaners are their bread-and-butter gags so you’ll find loads more based on rhymes, many of the elf/self variety. Can you think of one for an 'elf help' book? How about this?
"One of Santa's helpers really wanted to change his life. So he read an elf help book. "
Another kind of wordplay uses the homophone and it’s here that Christmas cracker joke writers and stand-ups meet. A homophone is when two words are pronounced in the same way but differ in meaning or spelling; for example ‘bear’ and ‘bare’. Here's a simple homophone cracker joke:
“Why does Santa have three gardens? So he can 'hoe hoe hoe'!”
The homophone here being ho/ hoe. For the writer, the joke begins when you notice the homophone, then you have to think of some kind of plausible context where Santa might say 'hoe, hoe, hoe.' Once you've figured out a gag, do try different wordings of the same idea. A different version of this gag could be:
'What did Santa say to his three gardeners? Hoe, hoe, hoe.'
Whilst few stand-up comedians would deliver this kind of punning Q&A joke on stage, one-liner merchants like Milton Jones will use homophones. For example, these two from Milton:
“When our daughter was born she had jaundice. She was small round and yellow. We called her Melony.”
"You know the animal that kills the most people in the world? The Hepatitis Bee."
The jokes begin with noticing a playful or surprising homophone: for instance, Melanie/ melony. The task then is to write a set-up. Here's another homophone cracker gag:
“How did Scrooge win the football game? The ghost of Christmas passed!”
To write a homophone joke think of some Christmas phrases and look for homophones. This writer has spotted Christmas past/passed. Your homophone becomes the payoff. Now the task is to write the set-up. This is where the real creativity happens. The words “How did Scrooge win the football game?” sets up the homophone clearly and economically and that is where the writing craft has been deployed. Here's a particularly neat homophone one:
“How does Good King Wenceslas like his pizzas? Deep pan, crisp and even!”
In your crackers you will also find a lot of what you might call near-homophones. The sound is not precisely the same but close enough for the gag to work:
“What do they sing at a snowman's birthday party? Freeze a jolly good fellow.“
“For he's” sounding close to “freeze”. One-liner comics too can indulge in near homophones. Here are three from Milton Jones: