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Lesson 11: Writing One-liners

Updated: Dec 4, 2021



HOW TO WRITE ONE-LINER JOKES

How do you write one-liners? It all starts with words and phrases the comic encounters (or seeks out) in life. Here's an example of a one-liner, this based on a common phrase, from pun maestro Tim Vine.

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

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.


I describe the kind of approach as adding a 'beforethought'. You're using the phrase as a payoff then writing a set-up (the beforethought). This term was inspired by Logan Murray refers to the opposite approach (when you use your key word or phrase as a set-up and add a payoff) as coming up with an 'afterthought'). Please use this word 'beforethought'. Together we can get it into the dictionary.


Okay, let's back up a moment here and explore afterthoughts and beforethoughts more closely. Here are examples of the two types of jokes. Both kinds are based around 'found phrases' from the world but:


- In the first kind the phrase is the set-up and the comic added a payoff. (An afterthought)

- And in the other the phrase iss the payoff and the comic added a set-up.(A beforethought.)


AFTERTHOUGTHTS - PHRASE (underined) AS SET-UP

We noted how the above phrases all came from different sources - indicated in brackets.


These first two are really about attitude. The set up misdirects with the attitude, to flip it to a different attitude in the payoff:


1. JOAN RIVERS

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


2. JO BRAND

They say men can never experience the pain of childbirth; but they can, if you hit them in the goolies with a cricket bat for 14 hours. (TRUISM)


So this kind of gag is not about wordplay or taking a phrase literally - it's about taking an attitude to a subject, hiding that in the set-up then revealing it in a big way in the payoff. Here's one that is based around taking the original phrase literally.


3. PETER KAY

My Dad used to say 'always fight fire with fire' - which is probably why he got thrown out of the fire brigade. (SAYING - TAKING IT LITERALLY)


BEFORETHOUGHTS - PHRASE AS PAYOFF

With these next ones, the phrase that inspired the joke (underlined) is the payoff. So this time the comedian has added a set-up before it (a beforethought!). So you can see it's the flip-side of the above:


1. Masai Graham

"My dad suggested I register for a donor card, he's a man after my own heart." (TAKING THE SAYING LITERALLY)


2. Tom Ward

"I usually meet my girlfriend at 12:59 because I like that one-to-one time" (DOUBLE MEANING)


3. Samantha Baines

“I’m selling my old tennis equipment, but I can’t work out what’s the net worth.” (DOUBLE MEANING)


IDIOMS & BEFORETHOUGHTS

These kinds of jokes can start with phrases from everyday life - for example 'one-to-one' time and 'net worth' that the comedian notices an alternative meaning to. Then as we've seen these gags can be based on sayings or idiomatic phrases like 'he's a man after my own heart' - a British idiom basically meaning "we are alike".


Let's look more closely at idioms as the basis of jokes, where they are used as payoffs and the comedian has added a set-up, a beforethought.