Apr 03

Punchlines vs. Jokes

If you want to learn stand-up comedy, or how to give funny presentations, I came across something very interesting. I read an interview with British comedian Michael McIntyre recently. He tells a story where he was at the Montreal Comedy Festival and was approached by David Letterman’s people. If you’re interested in how to learn to be funny it’s important that you read this. Here’s the quote:

“This man was in my face shouting “I love what you do! But what you need is material.” I said “What are you talking about?” He said, “I love you, you come onstage and talk about your day, and everyone’s laughing, but you need jokes” So I said, “I’m not going to change, you can put me on your show as I am or not.” He said, “not.”

In my opinion it’s madness.

This story highlights one of the things I often talk about on this blog, you don’t need jokes in order learn to be funny. What you need is punchlines. Now, I know I have advocated knowing how to handle joke stories in the past and I still think it’s important. I think they are an important part of a humorous speaker’s arsenal. But the easiest way to create humorous material for a speech is to capture your own natural sense of humour.

Whilst I haven’t seen McIntyre live or his DVD, I have seen clips of his act and I do find him funny. He’s talking about subjects that he is enthusiastic about. Just the same as Eddie Izzard who, in contrast, has been on Letterman.

McIntyre’s job is to go on stage, talk and make people laugh. That’s what a comedian does. So  I don’t see why the Letterman people had such a problem with that.

Check out this 9 min 45 sec clip

In his first minute of speaking he gets 5 laughs. He’s bang on the average laughs per minute (LPM) of a headline comedian, which is 4-6 LPMs. If you’re getting laughs like that, would you care if you had jokes or not?

I do believe that it is an important skill to be able to learn how to edit and tell jokes effectively. But these are mainly ones that you have sourced elsewhere rather than ones that you’ve written yourself. But if you don’t it’s not going to effect your ability to learn how to be funny.

I can tell jokes with the best of them; I’m just not very good at writing them. This is partly because it’s a skill that takes quite a while to master and also partly because I can’t be arsed. Bit lazy that way. I figure I can make people laugh with my own wit and sense of humour, so why do I now need to learn how to write jokes? Doesn’t make a lot of sense really.

If you want to truly learn how to be funny, what you do need to master is how to conquer the sense of humour that you already have. It’s not about writing jokes. Personally, one of the best approaches I’ve found for this was in the Top Comedy Secrets method. The process laid out is so simple and obvious it made me laugh out loud because I had missed it over the years before I purchase this product.

I actually reviewed it a while ago on this blog Top Comedy Secrets review. There are of course different methods for capturing your sense of humour. McIntyre’s got his, Izzard has got his. But this happens to be one of the most systematic that I’ve come across.


  1. Nick R Thomas

    This reminds of the time I showed a wedding speech I had written for a client to a fellow speechwriter, a chap who freely admits that he only uses jokes he collects from others. The speech had been a great success, I got a very good unsolicited testimonial for it and the family later spent part of their Christmas Day watching the video of it again!

    The other writer’s reaction to this collection of reworked humorous anecdotes, original observations and asides was ‘Anyone looking at this would say “But where are the gags?”‘

    Well, apparently the audience didn’t, perhaps because they were too busy laughing…

    Nick R Thomas’s last blog post..Salisbury Strain

  2. Jason Peck

    Hey Nick,

    Good to hear from you. I also think part of the problem is that some people are concerned whether or not the material reads funny on paper.

    I remember digging out on old stand-up routine of mine once. I looked at it on the page and thought “this doesn’t even look funny”. Right there, I fell into the same trap. The routine wasn’t perfect by any means, but it didn’t stop it from getting laughs when I performed it. A lot of it is to do with the delivery as well as what we’re saying.

    If you write a humorous essay, then there will be more concern about how it looks on the page.

    And you’re right. If the audience is laughing they won’t care if you’re doing jokes, personal anecdotes or dancing a jig.

    We tell jokes or we don’t tell jokes. The laughter goal is the same. Clearly it hasn’t stopped McIntyre having one of the fastest selling DVDs Christmas 2008.

    Surely our job boils down to this: we open our mouths, say some words, those words make the audience fall about laughing, we collect our cheque and go home.



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