Writing political jokes is trickier than writing jokes about non-political topics. How do you write political comedy when a large segment of your audience might boo you instead of laughing?
A miscalculated political joke can split your audience in two.
Political topics are very tempting for a comedy writer because an audience is likely to care about them, especially in an election year. If an audience cares about the topic of a joke, the joke tends to get a bigger laugh.
But political issues, personalities, and news stories can be very polarizing.
So how do you write a political joke to maximize audience laughter?
Do what you should do when writing any joke: write punch lines that are true. That is, consider your audience very carefully and only write punch lines that say things that most of your audience would agree with.
For example, this joke would probably get laughs at a Hillary Clinton fundraiser:
But at a Donald Trump fundraiser, the same joke would probably get muttered complaints.
On a comedy/talk show on a broadcast network, that joke would probably split the audience. That’s because any general audience probably includes a lot of Trump supporters who wouldn’t agree that Trump University was a scam.
So if you’re aiming for mass appeal, write punch lines that pretty much everybody will accept as true whatever their political leanings.
That doesn’t mean you should only write easy, hacky jokes about overused associations like Hillary’s pantsuits…
…and Trump’s hair.
Instead, build your jokes around fresh associations that almost all of your intended audience will still accept as true.
For example, this joke would probably make a general audience laugh.
Yes, that joke is about Hillary. But it doesn’t say anything negative about her personally. It only says that her sending emails using her personal Blackberries has caused political problems for her. And that’s hard for even her supporters to dispute.
To decide whether a general audience will accept some association of a topic as true, absorb a lot of news and commentary from across the political spectrum. If both left-leaning and right-leaning media outlets are saying the same thing about someone or something, your punch line can, too.
Of course, a few members of a general audience would probably be offended by the mere fact that you wrote a joke about Hillary. To keep those people on your side, make your next joke about Trump.
Here’s a Trump joke that’s unlikely to split a general audience:
Comedy craftspeople may notice that I wrote that last joke using my Punch Line Maker #1: Link two associations of the topic.
For more about my six Punch Line Makers, get my book Comedy Writing for Late-Night TV.
Pingback: Joke About the Impeachment Inquiry – Joe Toplyn
Thank you for this post about writing political comedy. Politics can’t be ignored but there is a way to do it as opposed to trashing either side with a bullet at the end of the punch line. “Write the punch line as something true that everyone knows.” Very valuable. LOVE your book too, Joe! One day I hope to be able to write as good as you. =)
Thanks very much for your kind words, Joy. I’m really glad the book has been helpful.
Concidentally, my post today in my Joke Writing Workshop dissects a political joke I just wrote. Yes, a topical joke writer can’t ignore a story like an impeachment investigation!
Thanks Joe. I grabbed your book a while ago because I wanted to learn writing for late night, but I’ve found myself writing for a show with a more political tone. I’m seriously grateful that you’re willing to share this information!
Thanks for saying so, Eddie. I enjoy writing political comedy because it’s a little more challenging than writing jokes about, say, the Kardashians. Have fun with your writing!
Very cool, Joe. The Department of Agriculture joke was Hillar-ious.
Thanks, Terry. Jay Leno and his monologue writers had to fill every monologue with 30 or more topical jokes. They couldn’t afford to steer around the big political stories; they had to mine comedy from them. Plus they had to attract 5 million or so viewers every night. A tough task, but they figured out how to do it.