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9 Secrets to Telling a Great Joke, According to Stand-Up Comedians

Do your jokes fall flat at parties? Step up your game with these tips from comedy pros.

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microphone and stool on a stand up comedy stage with reflectors ray, high contrast imagePhoto: FER GREGORY/SHUTTERSTOCK

Know the Difference Between Stand-Up and Jokes

There’s a big difference between the standard jokes we tell each other and how stand-up comedians get their laughs. “Stand-up comedy is not the same thing as jokes that we exchange with each other at a party,” says Stephen Rosenfield, author of Mastering Stand-Up. “Really good stand-up is so tied to the performer telling the joke that it might make no sense if someone else is telling it. A really good joke is one that anyone can tell.” The other issue—stand-up requires setting up a series of laughs in quick succession, while a joke at a party can go on for quite a while before you get to the punch line. “At a club, the audience is looking for three or four laughs a minute, but at a party, they have no such expectations,” Rosenfield says. “There doesn’t have to be laughs along the way, and that’s fine.”

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Don’t Forget Key Info

“I would say the biggest mistake and the biggest challenge is to get the words right,” Rosenfield says. “There is the setup to a joke, and that’s everything leading up to the punch line that gets the laugh. In the setup to the joke, there is always crucial information that if you leave it out, they can’t get the joke. You can colour them a little bit yourself, but you have to make sure that you’re not leaving out something crucial in the setup.”

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Think About What Matters to You

As a comic, ask yourself what defines your sense of reason,” says New York stand-up veteran Becky Veduccio. “This should be different based on the individual. Talk about what matters to you. Talk about what is true to your life. If you don’t care about what you are talking about, why should the audience?”

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Have a Plan B

The best comedians have a “save” that they use when a joke fails to land—which can help make it less scary to start telling the joke in the first place. “If the joke doesn’t work and isn’t getting a laugh, and if you don’t feel embarrassed, you can still get a laugh,” Rosenfield says. “A great setup for a laugh is a joke that doesn’t work.” Try saying something like, “That’s not my joke, that’s my husband’s joke,” or, “I’ve only made one other vow in my life, and I swear to you I will never tell that joke again.” “The essence of a save is acknowledging a joke doesn’t work and moving on from it.”

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Be Confident

Your stage presence (even if you’re nowhere near a stage) can make a difference in whether your joke lands. “Confidence is everything,” says stand-up comedian Cormac O’Brien. “It allows you to have fun on stage, which is the attitude that underpins good comedy.”

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Know Your Audience

Some types of humour only work if you really know your audience well. For instance, you may not want to tell a political joke if you aren’t completely sure of your audience’s leanings. “If it’s your friends and you’re all of the same mind, a good political joke is fine,” says Rosenfield. “If you’re unsure, steer clear of it.” And one type of humour is definitely on its way out: Jokes about nationalities, types, or ethnicities. “Those jokes make fun of people just for who they are, based on negative stereotypes of groups of people,” Rosenfield says. “No one likes to see a negative stereotype about a group of people. A good joke doesn’t have to hurt anybody.”

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Pay Attention to Your Delivery

“Personality and communication is the key,” Veduccio says. “I’ve seen comics light up the room without an actual ‘joke.’ Be present. Be emotive.” And keep in mind that the “punch line” is called that for a reason—stress that part when you’re delivering the joke to maximize laughs.

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Keep an Eye Out for Material

While a stand-up comic should never borrow another stand-up’s material, there’s no law against you stealing that killer Stephen Colbert one-liner to share around the water cooler tomorrow. “You’d never say that to a stand-up, but the Internet is a phenomenal place to get jokes,” Rosenfield says. “You can search ‘jokes about the weather,’ and hundreds will come up. If you come across something funny, write it down to build up your repertoire.”

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Have Fun

The most important thing that’ll help your jokes land? Let your audience know that you’re having fun. “When you take center stage, people are picking up their cues from you,” Rosenfield says. “The most important thing about performing the joke is to have fun doing it. If you have fun, they feel that sense of fun.”

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Reader's Digest
Originally Published on Reader's Digest