Anatomy of a Joke

Comedy and magic are a splendid blend, and a little bit of humor makes every kind of magic more commercial and bookable in the real world. More people enjoy laughing and smiling than being fooled. A trick is the chief building block in a magic show, and a joke is the primary unit of measurement in any comedic situation. Let’s begin with a brief dictionary definition of a joke. 


1 A thing that someone says to cause amusement or laughter, especially a story with a funny punchline: she was in a mood to tell jokes. A trick played on someone for fun.


1 Make jokes; talk humorously or flippantly: she could laugh and joke with her colleagues | [with direct speech]: “It’s OK, we’re not related,” she joked.

Joke. The dry dictionary definition always manages to wring out most of the vibrancy of the word with its clinical description. Let’s see if the dictionary’s long time playmate, the thesaurus, can paint a better portrait of the word. I am a big fan of the power of the thesaurus to shed better light on any situation. 


1 They were telling jokes: funny story, jest, witticism, quip; pun, play on words; informal gag, wisecrack, crack, one-liner, rib-tickler, knee-slapper, thigh-slapper, punchline, groaner.

2 Playing stupid jokes: trick, practical joke, prank, lark, stunt, hoax, jape; informal spoof.


1 She laughed and joked with the guests: tell jokes, crack jokes; jest, banter, quip; informal wisecrack, josh.

2 They didn’t realize you were only joking: fool, fool around, play a trick, play a practical joke, tease; informal kid, fun, pull (someone’s leg), pull/jerk/yank someone’s chain, make a monkey out of someone, put someone on.

Well, a few exciting new words jumped into the mix here. Let’s expand our current written vocabulary to include some of them. Witticism, pun, gag, one-liner, wisecrack, quip, banter, lark, stunt, trick, and punchline; Yes, we are entering territory now that resembles something bearing more resemblance to what goes on between a comedy magician and his audience.

If you include the aforementioned rib-ticklers, knee slappers, thigh slappers, and groaners, you are starting to get into a positively “Orbenesque” landscape. We will discuss Robert Orben in more detail on some future occasion. To say I have mixed feelings about his influence would be an understatement.

The Perfect Joke

My definition of a joke is “a completed statement, or insight, that amuses someone other than the person that makes it.”  In comedy circles, it is often asserted that old-time gagster Henny Youngman created the classic joke with his signature; “Take my wife, please!” There it is, an almost perfect joke lean, mean, and universal. In just four words or sixteen letters, there is;

1  a topic

2  a premise 

3  a setup

4  a punchline

1  my wife

2  sudden twist of meaning

3  “Take my wife…”

4  “…please!”

Henny’s one-liner is a perfect example of how great comedy is constructed. There is not a wasted letter. If there is one thing that I hold as primal in creating comedy, too many words spoil the joke. Having spent 11 years headlining in comedy clubs worldwide, I have watched many great comics scribbling in notebooks. Their neverending quest begins with finding original ideas to turn into material. Part two in the process is finding the ideal words to make them funny, and this primarily consists of cutting down the number of words by choosing the right ones. One thing I never saw in those 11 years was a comedian reading a joke book!

The bottom line is that any word that doesn’t move a joke forward is holding it back. There are certainly moments when adding specific details or color are an essential ingredient in contributing to the impact of a joke. However, since these words are, in essence, additional material, it is imperative to be exact and precise in applying them. Think of all the times a non-performer has told you a joke that would be “just perfect” for your act. The joke probably seemed to go on forever, and you guessed the punchline before the setup was halfway completed. Since I am primarily writing for magicians, let me put it this way: the words you use should be as sparing and carefully chosen as Dai Vernon’s finger movements were when he was performing a card routine.

Here are a few simple rules to assist in making a joke more successful to an audience. I should point out that in reality, there are no firm rules to follow in comedy any more than there are in magic. However, it is always a good thing to know what the “rules” are so you can break them when you want to. It takes serious performance time to know when old rules don’t apply to a new joke.

Five Golden Rules About Jokes

1 Do not use words that your audience does not understand. They will not appreciate your erudition—they are more likely to be slightly irritated, and this is not a good state of mind for laughing. Say what you mean and make it simple enough that everyone can understand the joke.

2 Know precisely what you are going to say and then say it in as few words as possible. While this approach doesn’t guarantee the audience will laugh, it certainly makes it more likely.

3 Don’t rush your punchline. Your audience must hear what you say and then have time to register why it is funny.  Equally important is to wait long enough after the punchline that people realize they were supposed to laugh.

4 Make the joke appropriate for the people to whom you are telling it. I personally don’t care if you use slightly risqué material but select the right material for the right crowd. Remember that it is impossible to “un-tell” a gag.

5 Be prepared to move along smoothly if nobody laughs at your joke. Now and then, even the most experienced performer tells a joke that doesn’t get any response. There is no reason for it; it just happens. Do not let it throw off your timing.

The Law Of Three

Many things in life seem to align with the slightly mystical law of three, and comedy is one of them. When you are putting together blocks, or hunks, of comedy, it is certainly worth putting them through the law of three filter. A single joke may be great, but it is merely a building block if you are constructing a comedy routine. If you find a topic and a funny joke; it is comedy tradition that you should attempt to turn that joke into a triad. It is strange but demonstrably true that two jokes are a tad too little, and four may be going to the well once too often.

Comedy is a little bit like riding a bicycle. Once you get started moving, you find your balance, and it becomes a lot easier to keep moving. The first joke gets them laughing, and the next two keep them laughing. Of course, all three jokes shouldn’t be constructed in the same manner or have identical premises. However, they can certainly be on the same topic.

An excellent exercise for a comedy magician is to search his act for single stand-alone jokes that are getting a good response and then see if there are two more laughs/jokes to add to the mix. There is a definite rhythm thing going on in comedy, and this is a great way to begin to explore it. Good magic has a definite rhythm also, and it is your job to integrate these two elements into one solid structure. You will learn a great deal by inserting these extra laughs. 

At first, don’t worry much about whether it is fully formed/structured jokes that you are adding. Maybe they are more of a comment or statement about that first joke that is the foundation of your new triad. Perhaps the second joke in the trilogy expands or amplifies the initial laugh. Maybe the third joke is something of a call back to the first. There are plenty of possible options here, and none are right or wrong as long as that initial laugh multiplies into three. As you become more accomplished at this process, you will find that third laugh may even become an applause point. 

This post is adapted from a chapter of a new book I am writing called “Serious About Funny.” I wanted to share a little taste of the book. I hope it gives you some interesting tips on the comedy magic scenario. 

If you are interested in learning more about the art of creating original comedy material, then you might also be interested in the video download of my recent ZoomCast “The Serious Side Of Funny” with Fielding West and Louie Foxx. It is a great 2 hour video that teaches you a great deal about mixing comedy and magic, and it cost a VERY reasonable $9:95.

To purchase it  CLICK HERE

~ by Nick Lewin on May 30, 2021.

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