I’m going to be honest with you: I have next to no understanding how joke-writing works. There is zero correlation between what I think is a good joke, and whether that resonates with an audience at all, and vice versa. I tend to preview a show about 50 times before I go to the Fringe, changing nearly every single joke each time until it’s in the right place with the right wording. A joke 17 minutes into the show might be said to complete silence, but when said after 32 minutes, gets an applause break. A joke might get a titter when said on its own, but get a huge laugh if I say it while touching my forehead. WHY?! I do not understand the logic, and nobody ever will.
A joke might get a titter when said on its own, but get a huge laugh if I say it while touching my forehead.
Here’s an example of how many different re-writes a joke can have on its journey to being effective. Here’s one I did that went down quite well on Twitter:
Apparently it's weird that I have a poster of Obama on my wall. Probably because she's not as famous as her dad.
Now, this isn’t me saying that’s the best joke I’ve ever written (I cannot stress enough that it isn’t), it’s just for the example of how jokes end up changing. That worked on Twitter, and the night I wrote it I tried it out at a new material night, and it worked. However, the next night it got complete silence, not even the recognition that a joke had been told. And on the nights after that, it got a tense ‘ew…’ from a slightly disgusted audience. So for four and a half years (no exaggeration), I have been tinkering with this joke to make it work in a live context again.
Firstly why was it getting a bit of a ‘yuck’ from the audience? Johnny Pelham off of that Live At The Apollo suggested that a guy talking about a poster of a girl on his wall immediately puts it in a leering, sexualised context. Furthermore, despite them being in their 20s, everyone remembers Malia and Sacha Obama more when they were in the public eye and were also children. So even though in my head for the joke I’ve got a poster of some random girl’s graduation ceremony or something, that’s not what others are picturing, so that makes the joke very gross and that is not my intention.
So does alternative wording work? Let’s make it about Michelle Obama: ‘Probably because she’s not as famous as her husband’. That got zero laughs because it’s not an insane idea for someone to have an inspirational poster of her. And she’s as famous as her husband.
Mark Simmons off of that Mock The Week suggested we make it about a different person altogether. I tried it with Trump and the punchline ‘Not as famous as her husband’. Well Melania was a model, so that again makes it seem like it’s not mad to have a poster. ‘Not as famous as her dad’, who am I talking about here then? Ivanka? That other daughter who wasn’t invited to family events?
Let’s make it about a non-US politician then. It doesn’t work with Cameron, May or Johnson because they aren’t known just by their surnames, so it’s not clear enough from the set-up. Trump and Obama are basically those guys’ first names. So I tried it with Blair. “Apparently it’s weird that I have a poster of Blair on my wall.” Turns out that sentence alone is astonishingly unpopular with audiences. As is admitting to an audience you have a poster of Trump on your wall. It’s not worth the tension.
Let’s make it non-political. Who would you have a poster of, who is known entirely by their surname? In a desperate last-ditch attempt to try the joke, I went with Beckham. “Probably because Romeo’s not as famous as his dad.” And sure enough, the joke worked in front of a live audience. After about 50 different iterations, I have a working joke. A joke that would have been really effective in 2007 and now just sounds incredibly dated. I’ve been trying to make that joke work since January 2018, and after all that, it’s not even in my show this year. Honestly, joke-writing is a nightmare.
Glenn Moore’s new stand up show Will You Still Need Me, Will You Still Feed Me, Glenn I’m Sixty Moore will be at the Pleasance Courtyard Cabaret Bar at 4.05pm for the month of August for tickets go to www.edfringe.com