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:
"My aunt Marge has been so ill for so long that we've started to call her I can't believe she's not better."
"So I phoned up the spiritual leader of Tibet, he sent me a large goat with a long neck, turns out I phoned dial a lama."
"A lot of people like cats. Take the Pope, for example: I read recently that he was a cat-o-holic!"
Another approach is to take a Christmas or wintery sounding word and find an alternative meaning for it. In the following cracker jokes we have 'frostbite' and 'ice caps.' They have their commonplace meaning but here the joke writers have found alternative meanings and then written a set-up to fit:
“What do you get when you cross a snowman with a vampire? Frostbite!”
“What do snowmen wear on their heads? Ice caps!”
And here Milton Jones finds a different meaning in an everyday phrase, this time reversing the formula in that the phrase he is working with (‘sitting in traffic’) is in the set-up rather than the payoff:
"I hate sitting in traffic, because I always get run over."
Another way of finding an unexpected meaning in a phrase is to take one that is normally figurative and take it literally. Here's a cracker one:
“What is the best Christmas present in the world? A broken drum, you just can't beat it! “
And now one from Milton Jones:
"About a month before he died, my grandfather, we covered his back full of lard – after that he went downhill very quickly."
The idiomatic phrase 'went downhill quickly’ means of course that the person’s health rapidly worsened. Milton Jones would have seen it's potential for being taken literally. He'd have then explored situations where someone might have literally gone downhill quickly. Again, the next step is to write the set-up that makes the phrase into a payoff. The cleverness of it is that the payoff has both the literal and figurative meanings operating. The grandfather literally went downhill very quickly but also after that dangerous indignity his health would have plummeted too.
Stand-ups of course have the advantage over cracker joke writers as they are writing gags for their own persona (rather than for anyone to say) and playing to a grown-up audience (rather than all the family). They also overwhelmingly make the gags personal and they can explore any topic under the sun. And, of course, the above is just a selection of the techniques they use. Despite all the differences though between stand-up and cracker gags certain techniques apply across the board when it comes to one-liners.
So now you know how it’s done, if you’re not satisfied with the jokes in your crackers you can do something about it…
For more on one-liners see this blog.
Find details here of Chris' next stand-up courses.