Lesson 11: Writing One-liners

Updated: Dec 4, 2021


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.)


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:


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


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.


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)


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)


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.