Lesson 11: Writing Wordplay One-liners
How do you write one-liners? It all starts with words and phrases the comic encounters (or seeks out) in life. One approach to turning a phrase into a one-liner is misdirection which we explored in lesson 8. Misdirection jokes work on the ambiguity of phrases. Typically misdirection jokes are playing with assumptions, but sometimes there is a wordplay element too. In this blog we focus on wordplay jokes, including ones that are born of phrases. Let’s begin though by considering gags that are based around unpacking a single word.
Words like ‘inkjet’ are compound words and can be unpacked to their constituent parts: in this case, ink and jet. For comic effect, you can also unpack words that are not actually compound words but you treat them as if they are. Here’s Milton Jones doing just that:
“If your name is Andre I suggest you don’t sign your text messages with a kiss.”
....“Andrex”, says Jones by way of explanation to an apparently slow member of the audience. (He has unpacked the toilet roll brand ‘Andrex’ to find ‘Andre x’.) Explaining it gets him a second laugh. Milton Jones has another memorable joke written using the same approach. He started with the word Catholic and saw ‘Cat holic’ and went from there to write a joke around the Pope’s relationship with cats:
“Some people like cats, some people don’t. I was reading the other day about the Pope - he’s a cat-o-holic.”
Milton Jones will happily spend an entire morning on a joke, getting it just right. Spending time trying different wordings and phrasings is an important part of joke writing. As Jimmy Carr notes:
“Jokes are about 10 per cent inspiration and 90 per cent whittling and crafting”.
With these two gags, the inspiration was spotting a pleasing way to break the words down - and then the whittling and crafting was turning it into a neat set-up/payoff. In a joke writing class I was teaching at the City Lit college in London —yes you can formally learn to write jokes in a college (let’s hope the government don’t find out they’re funding that) —the projector screen in the room was showing the homepage of the staff portal. Seizing on the opportunity to illustrate this 'compound word' approach I picked some words from this unexpected selection. The promising ones I identified were:
Unpacked these became:
Lice n sing
Exam in nations
As in the ‘cat-o-holic’ joke above, we used the key word as the payoff so next we needed to write set-ups. After some pondering and trying different wordings, I arrived at two gags. The first I think can be discarded (although it’s recognisably a joke, it barely raised a smile in the lesson):
My nephew is doing his geography GCSE. He’s taking his exam in nations.
But the second I rather like as a silly gag and it did get a laugh (although the class may have been humouring me):
Did you see the new karaoke bar in town? The council shut them down as the carpet is infested with nits. They're having trouble with the lice ‘n’ sing.
To arrive at this joke, I first of all had to think of a situation where there could be both singing and lice. Next I wanted to have 'lice 'n' sing' as the last thing you hear in the joke. So I had to construct a wording that would introduce singing and then lice - but crucially without saying the word 'lice'. (Hence 'nits'.) Having a key word from the payoff in the set-up can be the kiss-of-death for a gag. The key ingredient however is getting the idea of licensing in there too, so when you get to the final words you're hearing both 'lice 'n' sing' and 'licensing' at once. These jokes tend to work best when two meanings are co-existing in your head simultaneously.
Writing it is like solving a crossword puzzle. Once you've cracked it you then find out if the end result is funny or not... If not, you can tinker with the wording - cutting words to make it tighter or adding words to make it clearer... cutting out distracting detail or bringing in helpful detail - then maybe it'll work. Or maybe it really isn't funny.
Probably the earliest one-liners many of us come across are Christmas cracker jokes, usually round the family dinner table. Cracker jokes tend to be in the Q&A format. For example:
“How does Good King Wenceslas like his pizzas? Deep-pan, crisp and even.”
Here we find different starting point: a homophone. This is when two words are pronounced in the same way, but differ in meaning or spelling. Here, ‘deep-pan’ and 'deep and' are close enough in sound for the gag to work. (Your audience of course also need to know the carol being referenced. If they don't it's a non-starter. Shared references are key in comedy.)
The Q&A format tends to feel too old-fashioned for modern stand-ups. But here’s a playful homophone example from up-and-coming one-liner comic Adele Cliff (one of the new female one-liner comics breaking the traditional male monopoly):
“Why is Henry the eighth's wife covered in tooth marks? Because he's Tudor."
(You may have to say it out loud). Here's a gag, another from Milton Jones, that is based around a surprising homophone:
“When our daughter was born she had jaundice. She was small round and yellow. We called her Melanie.”
Melanie / Melony. Notice this gag is in a three-part structure, as a lot of (misleadingly named) one-liners are. Notice the first two 'homophone' examples (Tudor and Melanie) have the key word in the payoff. In this case, you work backwards from the payoff to write a set-up. You're looking to create a set-up that is intriguing or is a puzzle and then when you reveal the word it all makes sense. Here’s one where Emo Philips heard a second meaning in the name of a historic location, also in three parts:
“So I'm at the Wailing Wall, standing there like a moron, with my harpoon.”
This gag is also based on a homophone: 'wailing' and 'whaling' are the same sound when spoken. And here’s an ingenious one from Stephen Fry (another one you may have to say aloud). Like the Wailing Wall gag, the key word is also contextualised and in the set-up:
“I was walking in the countryside and I stopped to pick a buttercup. Why people leave buttocks lying around I don’t know.”
(Buttercup = buttock up. )
These latter two gags (wailing wall and buttercup) have the key word in the set-up. So this way round the audience know the word, then you give them a surprising alternative way of looking at the word. So you are starting with the word and writing a payoff.
To get started with this kind of joke, you first find a promising word that has two meanings in one sound that you feel you can work with. Then you might initially try putting the key word in the payoff and then work on set-ups that prepare the ground (as in 'Tudor'/ 'Chewed her'). Or you might put the key word in the set-up then try writing payoffs (as in 'wailing'/ 'whaling'). Try it both ways and see which works best. For instance with 'bear/bare', an innocent one occurs to me straight away with the key word in the set-up:
'My daughter's teddy was a little bear. So I said put some clothes on it.'
But what about if the key word is in the payoff? Could that be made to work? I've pondered it for thirty seconds and can't see an angle, but there must be one. Actually, I've just googled and found this whole page on bear puns.
IDIOMS, PHRASES AND EXPRESSIONS
Here's an example of a one-liner, this time 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.
Now let’s move on to exploring idioms as the basis of jokes. An idiom is also a phrase, specifically a group of words whose meaning cannot be predicted from the meanings of the constituent words, as for example “it cost an arm and a leg.” One-liner comics will happily spend their time trawling through dictionaries of idioms, as well as being alive to words and phrases they come across in everyday life. Working with idioms, can tend to yield corny jokes—and often, as we shall see, you find they’ve been thought of already - but some genuinely good, new ones do emerge. Here's an idiom joke as tweeted by Stephen Fry:
“I hate Russian Dolls. They’re so full of themselves.”
A lot of wordplay jokes are written backwards in this way—the comic notices the potential in a word or phrase and then adds a beforethought as a set-up (here it’s “I hate Russian Dolls”.) (The homework below sets you up with a joke writing task using idioms.) Here is a wordplay one-liner joke from Rob Auton, that won the Dave Joke of the Fringe Award, that is also based on an idiom and exploits a homophone (as created by the branding industry).
'I heard a rumour that Cadbury is bringing out an oriental chocolate bar. Could be a Chinese Wispa.'
Note how he is at pains not to have the word “Chinese” in the set-up. As we saw above, this is an important point with one-liners—ideally no key word from the payoff should be in the set-up. Sometimes you can get away with it, but it often ruins a gag. Look how clunky it would be if it were like this: ‘I heard a rumour that Cadbury is 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.
As per the homework, you can try using an online dictionary of idioms as a starting point for one-liners. 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 a clock? Well, leaning against it is one way. And as with Rob Auton’s joke where he avoids the word ‘Chinese’ 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 I wrote a beforethought and 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 contest 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.) As we saw previously, when both meanings are operating in the payoff it can be more satisfying (but no guarantee of hilarity – it is perhaps necessary but not sufficient). 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 one hundred.
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 and a while. When I interviewed Samantha Baines for my A Director’s Guide to the Art of Stand-up book, in a quote that didn’t make the final text*, 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.’
* But there is tons of good stuff from Samantha in the book, including lots on writing and re-writing one-liners.
Try this. 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.