How To Tell A Joke Like A Professional Comedian
How to tell a joke: comic timing, good storytelling ability and comfort in front of an audience eager for laughter.
If you talk to any professional stand-up comedian, they will all tell you that telling a joke in a way that will guarantee a laugh is terribly hard to do. Indeed, professional comics refer to the story-telling element of their jobs as 'selling' the joke. For most jokes to succeed, they must overcome an audience's natural biases and sensibilities and come up with a satisfying 'twist' punchline that is so unexpected that the audience can't help but react. If you want to share a joke around the watercooler just like a professional comedian would tell it, here are a few pointers:
1. Size up your intended audience and occasion first before launching into any joke. Stand-up comics may look like they're naturally flowing one joke after another, but the good ones are editing themselves as they go. You should do the same at home. That joke you're about to tell may work at the gym, but could be highly offensive in front of the ladies' auxiliary. A great joke depends on the right audience, so think long and hard about the appropriateness of your joke with that particular audience.
2. A good joke starts with a good setup. Resist the temptation to rush through the opening of a joke so you can get to the 'good part'. Part of what sells the joke is having a good mental image of the characters involved. If they're stock characters that should be familiar to everyone hearing the joke, then you can move a little faster. "Superman and Aquaman walk into a bar, and Superman says..." would not need a real elaborate setup, but "A farmer comes to the big city, and he sees this pigeon..." might need a bit more setup. What kind of farmer is he? Is he one of those wise old farmers who likes pulling one over on city people, or is he more of a fish out of water in the big city? The setup is important, because the rest of the joke hinges on our knowledge of how these people SHOULD act.
2.Once you've established the setup, use your best storytelling skills. Rarely will you hear a professional comedian tell a traditional 'joke' from start to finish. They might start out with a premise- this old farmer goes to the big city- but embellish the story to cement this character in the audience's mind. If you have the time, you may want to do this yourself. Tell a side story about how this same farmer did something else that ties in with the main joke. Really punch up the element that will pay off in the end. "Now you have to know, this old farmer was really stubborn. I mean, stubborn as a mule." His stubbornness leads to the punchline, so take the time to emphasize it at every turn of your story.
3. The punchline is the high point of your joke, so build towards it with timing. Comic timing can make or break a joke. Allow for laughs throughout the joke by pausing long enough for most of the audience to get your reference, but continue with the setup and story before the laughs completely die down. If the story involves two characters having a comical conversation, take a moment to show a physical reaction by one of the characters. Professionals call these pauses 'beats', and they are crucial to comic timing. Beats allow an audience to keep up with the joke as it progresses, and allows the comic to show facial reactions of the characters or slow down the action. Waiting a beat before continuing is especially effective if the comic is part of the joke, as if the situation involved him personally.
4. The punchline may be the end of the joke, but not the end of the performance. If you've done your job well, the punchline will sell the joke to the audience by itself and you'll receive the laughs you were aiming for. But a professional comic knows that the punchline itself is only part of the ending. Once you've delivered that one line that should break the audience up, keep your own reactions to a minimum for a beat or two. Look to see if the audience is still with you, and then feel free to react to the joke yourself. Professional comics work very hard on establishing an emotional connection to their audience. Let your audience know that you're sharing a funny story with trusted friends. People will overlook certain mistakes in the setup if they trust the person telling the joke.
Nothing beats practice, so rehearse that joke you heard enough times to make it sound natural. The more times you tell the joke, the more details you can add. Professional comics sometimes tell the same basic joke for years, but the audience still laughs. It's all in the delivery, so work on your own delivery and timing and you'll reap the benefits of a joke well-told.