Elements: Surprise 9/10

Posted on 28 December 2010

Surprise is probably the most significant element of comedy. You could almost rename “punchline” as “surprise line”. The whole point is to follow a mundane set-up with an unexpected conclusion.

My spaniel likes licking himself—lick, lick, lick—as if he were a popsicle. One day he stopped and melted. Left a poodle on the floor.

Dogs and cats lick themselves. People lick popsicles in a similar fashion. No surprises in the simile. But to take the simile literally and create an absurd image of a pet melting—the swift shift into the unexpected becomes cause for laughter.

The difficulty with surprise humour is that once the surprise is gone, so for the most part, is the joke.

A musician can play a song to the same audience over and over again. Some books bear re-reading. Once a joke has been told and its surprise revealed, it rarely bears retelling to a crowd familiar with your material. There are exceptions.

If a joke is part of a larger story people enjoy, then they may be happy to hear a punchline again. The joke is saying something about a character or situation. People laugh at the memory of their first surprise and laugh in recognition of the wit involved. Bill Cosby’s stories are classic examples.

If a joke speaks of something meaningful to its listeners, then hearing it again is a confirmation of their thoughts, concerns, and beliefs. George Carlin’s Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television is practically a mantra to those dedicated to preserving free speech.

If a joke is part of a running gag, then the audiences’ recognition of that humorous formula will also gain laughs. However, the trick here is that you aren’t really telling the same joke. You are finding surprising variations and new contexts within which to apply this joke.

These exceptions should in no way denigrate surprise humour. People love it as much as they love opening wrapped gifts. They experience set-up and punchline as anticipation, surprise, and enjoyment. It was a good surprise.

Since surprise is so crucial here, comedians need to keep in mind certain principles. First and foremost, your humour must be economical. Keep your audience engaged with efficient word use, so that they still care when you reach the punchline. Avoid telegraphing your jokes. If you give away too much too soon, your audience may arrive at the joke before you do. Regularly write new material. Cycle through a set of jokes within a year, then move on. As soon as you tell a joke on television, film, or YouTube, stop using it. This is known as burning your material. Too many people are likely to have seen it to keep the material fresh for your live performances.

The element of surprise in comedy is really what keeps this field so vibrant, creative, and original. This could be interpretted as meaning “more work”, but it’s well worth it. Surprise!

Peace and kindness,


Elements of Comedy Introduction

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