Jerry Seinfeld appears in this frustrating New York Times video teasingly entitled “How to Write a Joke.” In the video he calls comedy writing “a secretive thing.” He also says about his handwritten draft of a bit revolving around Pop Tarts, “I’ve never shown anybody this stuff.” Jerry then proves how secretive he is by hinting at, but never actually spelling out, some key techniques for writing jokes.
As one example, at 2:23 Jerry tells a joke that ends with the line “and we were like chimps in the dirt playing with sticks.” He explains, “What makes that joke is you got ‘chimps,’ ‘dirt,’ ‘playing,’ and ‘sticks.’ Seven words; four of them are funny.” But he never tells you what makes those words funny. So I will. There are two reasons:
1) Shorter words are funnier than longer words. One of Jerry’s four funny words has only two syllables. The other three words have only one. The four words are short.
2) Words with stop (or “hard”) consonants are funnier than words without them. The stop consonants, in which the flow of air through the vocal cords stops completely, include B, D, G, K, P, and T. Jerry’s four short words contain a high concentration of stop consonants: six. Why are stop consonants funnier? My theory is that the sudden change in air flow they cause is a little surprise, and surprise is one of the keys to generating laughter.
Those two comedy principles also explain why the words “Pop Tart” themselves are funny. Each of those two words is short–one syllable. And each word has two stop consonants. At :56 Jerry says, “It’s a fun thing to say…Pop Tart.” And now you know why that is.
Why didn’t Jerry explain those comedy principles to us? Maybe he thought that viewers of a New York Times video, even one entitled, “How to Write a Joke,” wouldn’t be interested in the nuts and bolts of how to write a joke.
Or maybe Jerry thinks that comedy writing really should be a secretive thing. In the documentary film Dying Laughing, Jerry says that comedy is “beyond art–it’s magic.”
So maybe he feels that if he reveals the techniques that he uses he’ll be like a magician who reveals how he works his illusions and he’ll lose the admiration of the audience.
But Jerry, with his stand-up comedy and his brilliant show Seinfeld, has already more than earned our admiration.
Whatever Jerry’s reasoning, people who want to learn how to write a joke will not find that video illuminating. For more techniques that Jerry doesn’t want you to know, buy my book Comedy Writing for Late Night TV.
In his new Netflix special, “Jerry Seinfeld: 23 Hours To Kill,” Jerry reprises his Pop Tarts bit and adds one about texting in which he says this:
We like that word, don’t we? “Text!” It’s fun to say. It’s got that short, tight, got the X in there, a little bite to it. “Text it! Text!”
In saying that, Jerry comes a little closer to sharing the comedy principles that words are funnier if they are shorter and contain stop consonants.
As Jerry points out, “text” is short–only one syllable. And “text” contains a K sound, along with another stop consonant, T, which occurs twice, the same way it does in “Tart.”
Three stop consonant sounds in only one syllable–that’s why “text” is “fun to say,” and funnier in a joke than, for example, “email.”