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Sometimes in the process of writing dialogue, I wish to insert a joke in the exchange. I could copy an existing joke, or I could come up with one. The latter option seems preferable if I could tie the new joke with the on-going dialogue.

Of course, one could simply be creative, without any technique, and come up with the right idea. The same is true for any art, yet we practice to achieve speed and familiarity with basic and standard techniques so that we do not have to re-invent them each time.

Is there any basic/standard technique/algorithm to create simple jokes primed by the previous few lines of dialogue? They do not need to be award-winning strokes of genius. Even just bringing a smirk to the reader would be sufficient.

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  • The question seems fine, but I can't answer it without being ridiculously broad. There are types of humor that should be tied to certain personalities, and there is also the narrative voice…. Who is telling the jokes? Who is the foil or target or "straightman"? A criticism against Joss Wheadon is that all characters tell the same jokes (this is of course after a decade of of being hailed as the greatest script writer for the same reasons), but it shows he is just "punching up a script" with banter, not building realistic characters or integrating the humor. What are you going for?
    – wetcircuit
    Apr 3 '19 at 10:48
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    I agree with @wetcircuit, your question is too broad, so I'll give you a broad answer: a joke occur when the answer to a question is unexpected or out of place. If I show you my hand with three raised fingers and I ask you what you see, a joke answer could be anything between "pink sausages" and "a graysy man with a mustache". The more it blends in the context of the scene, the funnier it is.
    – kikirex
    Apr 3 '19 at 12:14
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    Let's make it clear - you are interested in quick jokes as a response to random, ordinary remarks and events, not deliberate creation of humorous anecdotes or situations that lead to a punchline?
    – Alexander
    Apr 3 '19 at 17:02
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    @kikirex you could expand that into an answer, actually. It is not as broad as you may think.
    – NofP
    Apr 3 '19 at 17:31
  • @Alexander quite the contrary. In the middle of a conversation, based on what has been said, one character goes "what you just said reminds me of a joke" and <bang> there goes the joke. The witty, sarcastic replies to ordinary remarks are fairly trivial to create.
    – NofP
    Apr 3 '19 at 17:33
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Jokes happen when someone is missing the point.

Most of the time, a joke happen when the answer (payoff) to a question (setup) is unexpected or out of place. Bonus point if the joke answer is a correct answer. For example, if I show you my hand with three raised fingers and I ask you what you see, a joke answer could be anything between "pink sausages" and "a graysy man with a mustache". Still technically correct, it's not what the setup made us expect.

But the payoff of a joke can not come from thin air: it has to be related to what was happening in the scene to work better. If, for the same example as above, I had answered with "the miserable grass of autumn", we are entering non-sense zone and it's either hit or miss, depending on a lot of factors (from the overall tone of your story to the very personality of the character).

The more the joke blends in the context of the scene, the funnier it is. The perfect example for me are "What is it?" jokes from Airplane:

“Excuse me, sir, there’s been a little problem in the cockpit.”

“The cockpit? What is it?”

“It’s the little room at the front of the plane where the pilots sit. But that’s not important right now.”

There is your joke: unexpected (yet accurate), and mixes with the flow of the scene without interrupting it.

The setup of a joke is not necessarily a question

In my above examples, I used the question/answer format, which works well in dialogues between characters. But setup/payoff can work in context with literally anything, as long as someone is missing the important point.

Let's say one of your character has an important thing to say. The jester of the group will focus on how he is poorly dressed and all of his lines will be about what he perceived instead of what the other wants to say.

Or, one character needs help (for a simple task or even in danger of death), and the others keep talking as if nothing was happening or just don't seem to be troubled at all.

Another point to take into consideration is that, in my opinion, the best jokes do not mock a person, but the teller (for his misunderstanding of the question/situation). In the last example, if people were mocking the person in need of help, they are no longer jokers, they are salty a**holes, which gives a very different view on the character for the reader.

This is not exact science of course, because what make people laughs depends of a lot of variables. Or, if I had to rephrase this as a joke: "Flying a plane is no different than riding a bicycle. Just a lot harder to put baseball cards in the spokes" (still from Airplane).

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According to Comedy Writing Secrets by Mel Helitzer, there are two main reason people laugh:

  1. Surprise (shock)
  2. Feeling superior

Here I'll add a third I've seen elsewhere:

  1. to avoid embarrassment -- like when you trip and you laugh at yourself to relieve the pressure of the seriousness of the moment.

He also adds that people laugh out of

  1. instinct
  2. incongruity
  3. ambivalence (love and hating at the same time)
  4. for release (as you sense a resolution to something, relief of pressure)
  5. when we solve a puzzle - somewhat related to surprise, in that you are surprised at finding the answer.
  6. to regress (back to childishness)

If you take these in to account you can take your sentence and then twist it toward one of the reasons for laughing and it may help.

The book provides example jokes for each reason so it is quite helpful to see them in action.

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Jokes are just humor where you provide both the set-up and the punch-line yourself.

A stand-up comedian talking to a room full of people has to reel off jokes one after the other, as they have no input from others (unless they're responding to a heckle or doing audience participation). In regular real-world conversation, you may need to divert to your own set-up in order to tell a joke.

However, in the context of story dialogue, it will seem very jarring to have a character suddenly stop everything in order to tell a joke. Unless that is the point (for example, writing a character that constantly diverts conversations to tell jokes) the reader may be confused as to how that is relevant to the story at all.

The benefit of writing the entire exchange is that you can make a joke out of the back and forth. Consider this one-liner:

I've decided to sell my vacuum cleaner... well, it was just collecting dust.

You can change this in the context of a dialogue by making it:

"Do you need a vacuum cleaner? I'm getting rid of mine, I don't use it much."

"Sure, I'll take it. Seems better than it just collecting dust."

Obviously this is based around the fact that one character needs to dispose of a vacuum cleaner. But this works better than someone mentioning a vacuum cleaner, and another character telling a joke about vacuum cleaners.

Putting humor into an exchange isn't the same as having a witty back and forth, it is by definition a joke, as you are controlling both sides of the exchange. You're just allowing one character to provide the set-up and another to deliver the punch-line, as it sounds more organic to the reader.

So whilst writing dialogue, you may either know a pre-existing joke that you steer their conversation towards in order to be able to tell it, or you may have a character say something that naturally sets up a punch-line without it feeling forced. You may even want to have the same character deliver both the initial set up and punch-line by having another character provide the filler (like with a knock-knock joke).

The point is that you aren't required to have one character tell a joke to another in an attempt to make them laugh, because your objective is to make the reader laugh. This means that you can use the tools you have at your disposal to make the most effective joke, one in which you provide both the set-up and the punch-line within the story, even if the characters themselves don't find the situation humorous at all.

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Sometimes the best jokes come from pointing out the absurdness of a situation. It's commenting on the unusual nature of the situation. In my life, I watched a lot of scifi movies with physicists, which is going to be funny because they have a low threshold of tolerance from breaking from physics. In one situation, I was watching the Transformers movie (The Animated One from the 80s). At the climax, the robot protagonists transform into vehicles (almost all cars, but one helicopter) and drive/fly out of eye of a planet eating robot before he explodes. The physicist friend of mine drops this line as the scene plays out:

"Helicopters can't fly in space!"

Which prompted me to point out, with skepticism, that he just watched a movie where the villain is a planet eating robot and "Helicopters can't fly in space" is his only complaint about the movie. (And then there's the time where a big group thirty minute long debate over whether Doc Brown's Flux Capacitor fluxes capacitance or capacitates flux.).

Sometimes, the humor occurs by leaving out the specifics. Like the Great Flux Capacitor Debate of '08, I can't recall the specifics of the actual fight, but that's not important... it's the concept that such a debate could be sustained and passionately argued for a half-hour. This can be funny, because it's a stupid debate that really no one should put any energy in, but we all have passionate support for stuff that doesn't matter. One famous example is from the TV show Angel, where the story opens on one member of the cast hearing Angel and Spike (to guys who often speak in raised voices when they converse with each other often) arguing inside of Angels office... he's warned it's been like this this for 45 minutes but he needs to talk to Angel and goes in and interrupts the fight. Before he can bring up his legit concerns, curiosity gets the better of him and he asks what they were fighting about. The response: "Who would win in a fight between Cavemen and Astronauts?" The character responds by pointing out this argument has been going on for over 45 minutes and they both stare at him as this is the stupidest statement uttered in the entire debate, which prompts him to try and settle the matter so everyone can move on. He asks "Do they have weapons?" and both men respond with "NO!" in a fashion that suggests not only was the matter settled, but that the entire question itself was one of the most contentious points in the debate.

A few scenes later, not only do we see the entire rest of the cast knows, but they've all taken sides and are passionately arguing the points of merit.

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