How to Write a Joke – Advice from Christopher Titus
When I was first starting comedy, I got golden advice from Christopher Titus on how to write jokes based on stories. First write out exactly what happened without trying to be funny. Then go back and start from the top and go detail by detail and find the joke. Every sentence should be the set up for a punchline. So I recently broke down one of my jokes in the same way.
I first told the joke in February with a 2 or 3 lines. Then after a few months of trying the joke every time I’m on stage and adding new parts, it’s almost 6 or 7 minutes.
First. Here’s what actually happened:
I was in Spokane, Washington. A Guy after the show told me he had a bomb shelter under his house. He asked if I wanted a tour. I said sure. I followed him to his house and he showed me his bunker. He showed me a bunch of his guns. I was nervous and tried to crack a couple jokes about the government watching. He cracked a couple jokes back including “Don’t worry, the government knows about all of my guns. Except for one.” I wasn’t sure if he was still joking. He pulled an AK47 out of a closet and asked if I wanted to hold it. I didn’t want to but I did anyway. He took me downstairs and showed me his bomb shelter. There was buckets of rice and gas masks and body armor. He demonstrated which bullets would go through which pieces of armor. I laughed nervously. He told me his day job was teaching womens self defense classes and that if I’m ever in a fight. Yell “No, stop, don’t” so witnesses know it was self defense. Even if it wasn’t self defense. Nobody see’s the start of a fight all they hear is you saying “no stop don’t” and when the cops come, you’re probably not going to get in trouble. Then we talked about the fighting in Syria and pipelines and a bunch of other stuff that I had to google when I got home and realized the guy might not be as crazy as I think. We’re now actually pretty good friends and every time I come through Spokane I give him a ring and we grab lunch and I leave with more stuff to google.
Mark Twain (often described as the first comedian) is quoted as saying “First learn the facts and then distort them at your leisure.” which is a succinct description of Titus’ comments.
Here’s how I currently tell the joke. I’ve added Bold to the punchlines. So you can see, there are the facts from the story and then the jokes (distortion) that I added:
I was in Spokane, Washington (which is a town in the middle of nowhere [added in if I’m traveling out of the PNW]) and a guy after the show told me he had a bomb shelter under his house. You ever go to a town and the thing you expect to happen, actually happens? When I first met the guy, I thought; “He’s kind of crazy.” And then we elected Donald trump and I was like “Ya know I think this guy has a point.”
He asked if I wanted a tour of his bomb shelter. I was like “I don’t know if I’m allowed to say no to that.” That’s kind of my job. Do stupid shit and then tell you guys about it later. Which is a bad way to go about life. “Oh man. This is gonna be a great joke… if I live through it.”
So he takes me to his house. Well. I drove myself there. Just to be clear. You’ve gotta have an escape route with these kind of situations. I texted 3 friends on the way “This is the address. If I don’t check-in in 20 minutes. It wasn’t a bomb shelter…… it was a rape dungeoun!”
We got to his house and it was a bomb shelter. … To the best of my knowledge. I’m sure nobody can hear me scream down there either. But there was rice and gas masks, so I was pretty sure this guy is a prepper. Or he’s into some kinky shit.
He started showing me all of his guns. Which is making me nervous because I’m not really a gun person. I think he could tell that I was nervous because he started trying to tell me jokes to make me feel at ease. The problem is, he wasn’t good at jokes. Here’s a joke for ya. “If I tell the government I have 7 guns. And Obama takes 7 of my guns. How many guns do I have left?” “umm.. 0?” “…27 ha ha ha”
“I’m just kidding, the government knows about all of my guns…. Except for one!” “umm I’m not sure if he’s still joking.”
“Don’t worry. All my guns are for hunting…… people! Ha ha ha”
“Ok… did you take the serial numbers off or do they come that way.”
He was just a crazy dude. And by the way, when I say crazy, I don’t mean “INSANE” – I don’t think crazy people are crazy. I think they’re just people who know too much. You ever have a conversation with someone who knows too much about Star Wars? “Of course the Millenium Falcon is better than the Starship Enterprise. It did the Kessell Run in less than 12 parsecs.” And you’re like “…. Ok… this guy… shouldn’t be around people.”
Same thing. Some people collect Pokeman. Some people know about the different types of bullets. He’s not crazy. But the missing teeth don’t help. It’s all about presentation.
So then he pulls off an AK47 off the wall and goes “You wanna hold it?” and I was like “I don’t think I can say no. Because. You have a gun.”
So I’m holding the gun and he’s rambling more about the government is out to get you and the Syrian pipelines and a bunch of shit I googled later and it slowly is hitting me: I think he’s using me for my fingerprints right now.
I actually keep in contact with the guy. Which surprises people. But you know what they say. Keep your friends close, and your friends with bomb shelters closer. You can make fun of me if you want, but when shit goes down. I’ve got a hiding spot.
He’s actually a cool guy. He teaches womens self defense classes during the day. That’s his day job. I’m not sure what he does at night. Probably… fights crime? He’s probably batman. Or the Punisher. Batman doesn’t believe in guns.
He told me that if I’m ever in a fight, I should yell “NO STOP DON’T” so witnesses know that I’m defending myself and they can tell the police. I was like “I appreciate the sentinment, but I think if I’m ever in an altercation that’s serious enough for the cops to come. They’re gonna know. They can just walk in and be like ‘Yep. That’s the victim. Case closed!’”
Here’s the joke after one month:
You can see it’s only about 90 seconds or 2 minutes. It was a slow start in part because of my touring schedule, some shows you get more freedom than others and because I wasn’t confident in it. Now you can see from the text how much it’s grown in another month and a half.
Comedy is a constant evolving process. Each joke is a living breathing entity. So of course I’m trying to add jokes. This guy is a freaking gold mine. Just the mention of a bunker creates unique tension in an audience. Tension is what you need for laughter. So here’s a couple examples of Untested Jokes I’m still currently trying to add from more facts:
I started asking him more questions about his place. What’s even in Spokane that anyone is going to bomb here? He said there’s an Air Force Base. I said how far away is that? He said Well, I was running the simulator the other day. If they drop a 1 megaton bomb, I’m probably safe upstairs, just don’t look at the flash or you’ll go blind but the problem is you don’t know how big the bomb is until it’s too late. Ah yeah. That’s a good point. “Wait? You have a simulator? How do you get one of those? Also. Are you sure you’re not just playing Call of Duty? “ITS NOT A VIDEO GAME. IT’S A SIMULATOR.”
“So why do you live next to an air force base? Why don’t you just move to Nebraska or something?” “That’s even worse. That’s where they keep the nuclear missile silos.” “Is anywhere safe? A beach front house in Hawaii?” “PEARL HARBOR!” “Fuck. How about a city?” “One dirty bomb on a subway, gonna kill everybody.” “How much do Bunkers cost again?”