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Lesson 11: Writing One-liners

Updated: Jan 23



Note: This is by some margin my most popular blog! I originally wrote it in 2018 so in view of how many people are reading it, I've just sat down (in Feb 2023) and done a comprehensive rewrite to include even more info. Enjoy!


How do you write one-liners? There are lots of ways of approaching it and you can learn all sorts of methods. For example, Greg Dean has his 'joke mine', as explained in his "Step-by-Step to Stand-up Comedy" book, Sally Holloway has her "Serious Guide to Joke Writing" and Logan Murray talks about working with 'afterthoughts' which you can read all about in his "Teach Yourself Stand-up" book. My own approach which I set out as part of my "Director's Guide to the Art of Stand-up" is to work with both 'afterthoughts' and 'beforethoughts'! My book also has a unique chapter on rewriting jokes and making them suit your persona.


When writing one-liners, write them in the spirit of:


* most will be rubbish!


* you probably won't use most of them, it's about working a muscle.


* But you might end up with some that will find their way into your set.... (And we consider how they can fit into a set at the end).


And once in a while when I teach one-liners someone in a group finds that one-liners are their thing and this is what they want to do for the whole set!


Let's begin. When you are writing one-liners, a good stimulus is words and phrases that you encounter (or seek out) in life.


AFTERTHOUGHTS


Imagine hearing (or reading) someone saying:


"I hate people who think it's clever to take drugs".


It's obvious what they mean. But one day Jack Dee (or maybe Pete Sinclair who he writes with) noticed there is a second meaning and they wrote this joke:


JACK DEE

I hate people who think it's clever to take drugs. Like customs officers.


So they've used the found phrase as a set-up and added a payoff. The gag of course hinges on two meanings of the word 'take' - to ingest and confiscate. When we hear the set-up our mind goes to the obvious meaning. On the payoff we flip to the surprise meaning. So the set-up misdirects us. (More on this below).


One aspect of writing one-liners then is being alive to phrases in life that could function as set-ups. I call these 'found phrases'. Some examples:


* Statistics

* Sayings

* News headlines

* Political slogans

* Advertising slogans

* Song titles or lyrics

* Movie titles

* Quotes

* Facts

* Things people say to you (eg "I hate people who think it's clever to take drugs")


And sometimes you might have written or said the phrase yourself - perhaps without realising initially that it has comic potential... eg: "When I was ten, my family moved to Downers Grove, Illinois" (for more on this see Emo Philips below).


FACTS & STATISTICS


Here's a statistic.


"Half of all marriages end in divorce."


You can image Joan Rivers coming across this stat and realising it could be the set-up for a gag:


JOAN RIVERS

Half of all marriages end in divorce —and then there are the really unhappy ones.


So this kind of one-liner gag is not about wordplay like the Jack Dee one - it's about your attitude to a subject. Most people coaching one-liner writing will talk about MISDIRECTION. And this is indeed a key aspect of the process. When we hear the start of the Joan Rivers joke we are misdirected to assume that this level of divorce is a bad thing - and it is usually taken to be bad when someone quotes this stat - and the surprise is Rivers thinks it's good.


In the Jack Dee one we assume he is being judgemental about drug users, but then we discover he had drugs taken off of him by customs officers. So in both cases the set-up is misdirecting and the payoff is a SURPRISE. In the Jack Dee one our whole idea of what he is talking about changes, but in the Joan Rivers one it's a surprising shift of attitude to the subject.


Here's another statistic based one. This one is not about attitude however - it's about deliberately misunderstanding the stat.


MARK SMITH

Apparently 1 in 3 Britons are conceived in an IKEA bed. Which is mad because those places are really well lit.


Again, this has misdirection. When we hear the stat, we assume the beds have been bought and taken home. (And this is obviously what anyone saying it straight means). But Mark Smith plays it dumb and surprises us by his misunderstanding that the intercourse took place on the display beds in the store. Notice too how IMPLICATION can be a big part of one-liner writing. He doesn't say something like: "Apparently 1 in 3 Britons are conceived in an IKEA bed. Does that mean people were shagging on the display beds in the stores?". He says it in a more playful way that makes us work out what he's saying. (Note: you might start off with a more on-the-nose way of saying it and work out a more playful indirect way).


* Try this! Find some statistics and then add your own comment that turns it on its head. You could take a surprising attitude to the stat - or deliberately misunderstand what it's saying. How about these for example? What afterthoughts could you add to turn them into one-liners?


8% of people pronounce Wi-Fi “wiffy” ...


60% of people can't get through a ten-minute conversation without lying. ...


Another starting point can be a factual statement about your life that you give a surprising payoff to. For example:


ELLEN DEGENERES

My grandmother started walking five miles a day when she was sixty. She's ninety-seven now, and we don't know where the hell she is.


You could imagine Ellen saying this as a fact then realising there is a surprising interpretation of those words. This too has misdirection in that when she says the set-up, we assume the grandmother has done a five mile walk that ended up back at home. Here's another example of this approach:


EMO PHILLIPS

When I was ten, my family moved to Downers Grove, Illinois. When I was twelve, I found them.


Again the set-up misdirects us - we take it as any reasonable speaker would mean it to be taken, that the whole family including Philips moved. Then Phillips surprises us - he was left behind. You can imagine he said this fact many times and then at one point noticed this ambiguity and added the payoff.


* Try this! Write out a list of ten facts about your life - about your family, your job, your likes and dislikes... Don't try and be funny here. Just make them factual statements that you might tell someone in a straightforward way. Then leave it for 24 hours and come back to it and try adding payoffs to these statements. Now you're looking for an unexpected twist or a sudden change of attitude.


AFTERTHOUGHTING SAYINGS

A classic starting point for one-liners is sayings. Here you take a saying as a set-up then add a surprising comment after it as the payoff:


PETER KAY

My Dad used to say 'always fight fire with fire' - which is probably why he got thrown out of the fire brigade.


This phrase is meant figuratively - give as good as you get - but Kay takes it literally - fight an actual fire with more fire. In the writing of the joke he also puts the saying into a context - his dad used to say it - which allows him to bring it up more naturally and conversationally. Here's one where Stewart Lee does the same thing:


STEWART LEE

My uncle always used to say “never judge a book by its cover”. Which is why he was sacked from the book cover design of the year award.


Again there is misdirection. When we hear the saying, the original meaning comes to mind: "never judge a book by its cover" meaning "don't judge someone on appearances". Then the surprise is Lee taking it literally. And, being the king of meta comedy, Lee adds the tag: "See I can write jokes, I just choose not to".


You can also start a saying (or any famous phrase) and then end it differently:


STEVEN WRIGHT

If at first you don't succeed - skydiving definitely isn't for you.


When we hear the saying start, we assume we know how it's going to end - "if at first you don't succeed then try, try and try again" - but the start of the phrase is misdirection and then we're surprised by the new ending. And here's a great one from Gary Delaney where he starts a familiar saying... then ends it very differently!


GARY DELANEY

Red sky at night… light of shorter wave lengths is being dissipated by water vapour and atmospheric dust. Red sky in the morning… same.


This takes us from folk wisdom to an abrupt shift to science. So the bigger the change from the set-up to payoff, the better.


* Try this! Look up sayings and then add your own afterthought - or take the start of one and then end it in a surprising way.


Okay so that's an introduction to afterthoughts with some joke writing prompts along the way. Now let's look at the flip side, beforethougts.


BEFORETHOUGHTS

Now, sometimes when people coach one-liner writing, they only talk about the previous kind - the afterthoughts - and it's all about misdirection where the set-up creates an assumption that you subvert with you payoff. This is a very common kind of one-liner for sure, but there is another kind of one-liner. It's written in the reverse way and often doesn't feature misdirection at all - instead it works with creating intrigue, interest or even puzzlement.


With these next ones, the phrase that inspired the joke is the payoff. So you start at the end and you write a set-up. (a beforethought!). Here are some examples:


MASAI GRAHAM

My dad suggested I register for a donor card, he's a man after my own heart."


So like the above examples - fighting fire with fire and judging a book by it's cover - this is taking a saying and taking it literally. Normally the saying that someone is 'after your own heart' means that the person is like you. Here Graham reveals the person is literally trying to get their hands on your heart organ. But, unlike the saying gags above from Peter Kay and Stewart Lee, this time the saying is the payoff. So you start at the end and then write a set-up. We see here Graham has written an introductory statement before his found phrase - "a man after my own heart".


If it were an afterthought joke, it would play out like this:


My dad is a man after my own heart. He suggested I register for a donor card.


But this gag doesn't work so well that way round. I think one reason is that the payoff becomes stilted. In the way Graham actually does it, the payoff is more punchy.


Often the payoff does work better if it's shorter than the set-up - it's not called a punchline for nothing - and it can feel rhythmically right. But you can have longer payoffs than set-ups and sometimes it doesn't matter - some of the examples I quote in this blog have longer payoffs than set-ups. And in special cases the sheer verbosity of the payoff is all part of the comedy (see Gary Delaney's red sky one above). So any 'rules' of joke writing tend to be rules-of-thumb that are typically helpful - but if your gag works better flouting a 'rule', go for it.


I'm working here, by the way, with British English sayings, idioms and common phrases - some of which will be international too - but apologies if you are not from the UK and some don't translate. Here's another example - and in fact the payoff is longer with this one:


STEPHEN FRY

I hate Russian Dolls. They’re so full of themselves.

So this is another example of a wordplay jokes written backwards —the comic notices the potential in a word or phrase and then adds a beforethought as a set-up (here the found phrase is someone being 'full of themselves' and in an inspired leap realising that Russian Dolls literally are.)


Here are some further commonplace phrases as payoffs. In this first Tom Ward has brilliantly noticed a literal meaning to a very common phrase:


TOM WARD

I usually meet my girlfriend at 12:59 because I like that one-to-one time.


I have heard - and used - the phrase 'one-to-one time' a million times, but it has never occurred to me that it could mean one minute to one o'clock.


Another good rule-of-thumb for wordplay one-liners by the way, is not to use any key word from the payoff in the set-up. Sometimes you can get away with it, but often it ruins a gag, as here:


I usually meet my girlfriend at one minute to one because I like that one-to-one time.


The elegant solution to avoid saying 'one' in the set-up is to say '12:59'. Here is another wordplay one-liner joke from Rob Auton, that won the Dave Joke of the Fringe Award, that is based on an idiom "Chinese whispers") and exploits a homophone (as created by the branding industry).


ROB AUTON

I hear Cadbury are bringing out an Oriental chocolate bar. Could be a Chinese Wispa.


In this case, using the word 'Oriental' avoids saying 'Chinese' in the set-up, which if you did would really trip it up.


I hear Cadbury are bringing out a Chinese chocolate bar. Could be a Chinese Wispa.


Comedians work hard on finding synonyms and round-about ways of putting things in order to avoid having key words from the payoff in the set-up.


And Samantha Baines who I've worked with - and who I speak to in my "Director's Guide" book when we look at rewriting jokes - has this one where she finds an unexpected meaning in a common financial phrase:


SAMANTHA BAINES

I’m selling my old tennis equipment, but I can’t work out what’s the net worth.


Note that these kinds of gags don't really rely on misdirection. Look again at these set-ups:


My dad suggested I register for a donor card

I hate Russian Dolls.

I usually meet my girlfriend at 12:59

I hear Cadbury are bring out an Oriental chocolate bar.

I’m selling my old tennis equipment,


In the set-up we are NOT being misdirected to assume something that will get turned on its head. Rather, we are intrigued, interested - or even puzzled.Here's another example of this kind of one-liner, from pun maestro Tim Vine.

TIM VINE

When I returned to my car the other day, there was a compliment on my windscreen... It said, 'Parking Fine'.

As we've seen, writing this kind of joke starts with noticing the double meaning in a commonplace phrase. Here it’s ‘parking fine’. Having noticed the potential – that it both means a penalty and also that something is okay – then you put it in a context and work on a set-up. And in this case, the set-up is puzzling or intriguing rather than misdirecting.


So there are one-liners where the set-up is more like a riddle in that it presents us with something a bit puzzling - "When I returned to my car the other day, there was a compliment on my windscreen" - and the payoff gives us the answer to the riddle.


Try this: As per the homework below, you can try using an online dictionary of idioms as a starting point for one-liners. Use an idiom as a payoff and write a set-up.


A word of warning: working with common sayings or idioms, can also lead you to think of jokes that have already been written - for example Rob Auton found out that other people had already thought of his Chinese Wispa joke - but some genuinely good, new ones do emerge, especially if you use more personal, specialised or unusual starting points.


I have just googled ‘idioms’ and picked out the phrase: ‘against the clock’, which of course ordinarily means under time pressure. Let’s try taking it literally. (Taking figures of speech literally is a good starting point.)


The first question is: how could you be literally against the clock? Well, leaning against a clock is one way. And as with Rob Auton’s joke where he avoids the word ‘Chinese’ or Tom Ward where he avoids using the word 'one' in the set-up, here you have to find a way of saying ‘clock’ without using the actual word. It struck me that naming a famous clock would do the trick which suggested Big Ben. (Yes, I do know that Big Ben is technically the bell). Then I tried to think of a situation where you could both be against the clock literally and figuratively and a joke (such as it is) was born:

‘I was rushing to catch a tube in Westminster, got tired and leaned against Big Ben. But I had to move on as I was against the clock.’

Not a joke that would win the Dave Joke of the Fringe contest as Rob Auton's one did, but you get the idea. With Rob Auton’s joke the word ‘rumour’ in the set-up does the job of making both meanings operate in the payoff (it’s a Chinese Wispa and it might be a Chinese whisper), here the word ‘rushing’ brings both meanings to the payoff (leaning against the clock and being under time pressure.) When both meanings are operating in the payoff it can be more satisfying.


So, what’s the secret? Well, there’s native wit and a facility for this kind of wordplay of course. But more simply it’s practice and quantity. The real secret of joke writing is this: if you want ten really good jokes write thirty (at least!). If you write one hundred you'll probably end up with ten incredible ones (plus lots of other decent ones).

And of course one-liners seldom come out fully formed. You have to work at them. You can spend a long time tinkering with a one-liner before it works. As Jimmy Carr notes:


“Jokes are about 10 per cent inspiration and 90 per cent whittling and crafting”.


PUTTING WORD-PLAY ONE-LINERS IN A SET

One-liner acts who focus on this approach are specialists and in the minority. To make them your entire act you need a particular kind of brain (if you enjoy words and language you may well have that kind of brain). A challenge for the one-liner comic is that there is only a finite amount of time an audience can tolerate completely unrelated random jokes (Gary Delaney says it’s fourteen minutes). So, you need to mix it up, for example, by grouping some together that are on a similar topic and making it into a routine on that subject. Alternatively, you can create a narrative flow and weave one-liners into it. Milton Jones has recently taken the step of doing an entire show that has a narrative to hang the jokes onto … and the narrative itself inspires the writing of the jokes.

Even if you aren't a one-liner act, it is still worth trying to write some of these kinds of gags. You can slip some one-liners into a chatty set, or you might open on a one-liner, or even a few, before marking the transition to the more conversational material with a comment: “that’s the jokes out of the way.” It's also a lovely way to react to that most tricky of heckles: "tell us a joke". You just tell one.

Alternatively, you might even drop a few in randomly, as long as the delivery marked them out as something separate. Or you might finish like this: “Let’s end on a proper joke” and then do one. Most comics can drop one in once in a while. When I interviewed Samantha Baines, she discussed with me how she uses wordplay and punning jokes in her club sets:

'One-liners work well, especially if you've got a rowdy drunk crowd. Often, I'm the only woman on the bill and sometimes I walk on and I can feel the hostility: “Is she going to be funny?” So, if you can fire some one-liners at them that will make them laugh quickly, then you can prove that you're funny and they'll give you more time to do a longer bit. Or a one-liner is good [to drop in] if you feel like you're losing their attention a bit.’

For more on writing one-liners , including more from Samantha Baines and a unique chapter on REWRITING one-liners, see my Director's Guide to the Art of Stand-up book.


Homework:

I gave you multiple writing prompts as we went along with this one, but let's end as usual on a homework.


AFTERTHOUGHTS


INSPIRATIONAL QUOTES Look up some inspirational quotes. Use these as a set-up and then knock them down with your mocking or cynical comment that becomes the payoff.


NEWS HEADLINES You can also use these as set-ups - go to any news website and harvest some - then you add your own comment or viewpoint. At the time of writing here's one from the HIGNFY Twitter feed. "Rishi Sunak promises to release his tax return ‘soon’, shares in Tipp-Ex go up 300%." So the headline - Rishi Sunak promises to release his tax return ‘soon’ - is used as the set-up, then you add a payoff that makes a point.


BEFORETHOUGHTS


Google ‘idioms’ and pick a site that has a good selection. You are looking for ones with a double meaning, or a phrase you take could take literally. Having found your idioms that have potential, use them as the payoff line and add a beforethought as a set-up. For instance, this from Stewart Francis:

"Standing in the park, I was wondering why a Frisbee looks larger the closer it gets... then it hit me."

The idiom 'then it hit me' means, of course, a sudden realisation. Stuart Francis would have noted this idiom and seen its potential for being taken literally. He'd have then explored situations where he might have literally been hit physically by something. The next step is to work backwards and write the set-up, the beforethought, that makes the idiom into a payoff. The cleverness of it is that the payoff has both the literal and figurative meanings operating, as in the Chinese Wispa and ‘against the clock’ examples above.

A warning before you embark on this: as I say above, you will almost certainly write ones that have been written already! Rob Auton found this with his Chinese Wispa joke and so did Ken Cheng with his winning joke in Dave’s Funniest Joke of The Fringe Award 2017:

“I’m not a fan of these new pound coins. But then again I hate change.”

It was quickly pointed out on Twitter that others had written the gag before him. (Notice too that is a figure-of-speech “I hate change” where he’s found an alternative meaning and written a beforethought.) Even if it turns out not to be entirely new, writing these gags is good practice, and new ones are possible to find – particularly if you choose more unusual source material; provided the reference is shared by your audience. I remember getting a huge laugh in a corporate emceeing gig where I made a gag out of the slogan of the company. (Using exactly this process.) It was a very simple gag and wouldn’t work anywhere else but that audience loved it.



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