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How to Tell a Joke

Do it right, or leave it out.

By Larry Getlen 

You’re at a party. Your friend’s sister’s cousin from Montana tells a joke about a talking flounder, a one-armed fisherman, and a Jesuit priest from Nantucket, and you haven’t laughed this hard since your Uncle Mel accidentally turned the Thanksgiving turkey into a stew. But your memory for jokes is not the best, as you learned that time you told your co-worker, “Take my wife...ummm...tonight?” 

So, if you hear a joke you love, how do you ensure it stays in your memory? 

Write it down 
Excuse yourself, find a pen and jot it on a piece of paper. If you can’t find paper, use a napkin or a matchbook cover. 

But if you can’t find a pen, pick up your cell phone and tell the joke to your voice mail. Not only can you write it down later, but this also gives you your first shot at telling the joke. 

In fact, try to tell the joke to someone else in the next 24-48 hours, and do it more than once. If you wait several weeks to tell it, you may have forgotten the important points. Also, keep a “joke” file on your computer. Update it whenever you hear a joke you like, making sure to include the important words, phrases and punch line. 

Hand out parts…in your head 
If the joke is about three city guys trying to corral a herd of bison, what if you imagine your dad, your brother, and that nerdy guy Jim from your office as the three guys? I mean, dad trying to herd bison? He can’t change his oil without ruining a shirt! And Jim, the computer geek who once got his tie caught in the copy machine? 

You get the point. The more you personalize the joke in your head, the more visual you make it for ­yourself, the easier it will be to recall at a later date. 

Get to know the joke - rehearse 
Repeating jokes out loud gets you used to the act of telling them and that’s what will make you remember them. Repetition is key in memorizing anything, and being comfortable with your jokes is key to being funny. So print out your joke file, stand in front of your favorite mirror and speak as if you’re talking to a good friend.
 
Repeating your jokes also helps you gauge their pace and their rhythm: where to pause, where to speed up and where to edit. One important tip – if you’re saying the joke out loud and you start to bore yourself, shorten the joke. Figure out what can be cut without killing the laugh. Remember: The shorter the joke, the easier it is to remember.

One last word on memorization and preparation: If you don’t have a joke sufficiently memorized so that you’re 100 percent sure you can tell it with confidence, hit every key piece of information and get the punch line exactly right – don’t tell it. Period. 

How to do it wrong
So now here you are, at your nephew’s wedding. You hear laughter from the other side of the room, and it’s your Uncle Jack, telling jokes to several of his fishing buddies and some ladies from the other side of the family. Here’s your chance. 

But before you wade in, let’s listen in on ole’ Uncle Jack: 

“Alright, my turn, my turn. This joke is the funniest joke you’ve ever heard – you’re gonna die! Alright – so a priest, a rabbi and an octopus are floating in a hot-air balloon over the Eiffel Tower. The three of them are starting to sink, and they’re afraid they have too much weight to land safely. So the rabbi says to the octopus...hold on. So the priest says to the rabbi...wait, I mean, the rabbi says to the octopus...yeah, that’s it. The rabbi says to the octopus...”

We’ll stop here; this is painful enough. Now, let’s examine the many mistakes dear Uncle Jack has already made – mistakes you’ll want to avoid any time you’re telling a joke: 

Don’t tell racially sensitive jokes. There is a difference between jokes involving race, and racist jokes. However, everyone has a different barometer for this, and what may seem harmless to you may offend someone else. Unless you’re absolutely sure that you know the sensibilities of the people involved, err on the side of caution and keep race and religion out of it.
 
The same goes, by the way, for sexual material and profanity. Unless you know your listeners well enough to know they’re cool with it, leave it out. 

Never start off by telling your audience how funny the joke is. There’s no upside to it. Just tell the joke, and let the listeners judge. Comedians don’t come out on stage and tell the audience how funny they are, and neither should you. 

Make sure you have the joke memorized, and in order. Once you have to double back and inter-rupt your momentum to give the audience information you forgot to give them in the first place, the joke’s dead. 

This is most important. If you’re gonna tell a joke about an octopus, don’t put him in a hot-air balloon. Everyone knows octopi are afraid of heights. 

So Uncle Jack gets through the horrible octopus joke and before anyone else can speak, he says, “Wait – I’ve got one more.” Everyone in ear-shot fidgets. No one looks him in the eye. Several people glance at their watches. But before anyone can make a graceful exit, he launches into another one. And since he’s such a good example of what not to do, let’s stick with him for a minute: 

Doing it wrong – the sequel 
“So there’s this Frenchman, Jacques,” says Uncle Jack, who then starts speaking in what is supposed to be a French accent, but sounds more like he’s gargling with glass. “Jacques tells his friend Pierre, ‘Eye em in zee kitcheeeeen, waiting for deeees-ert.” Suddenly and inexplicably, Uncle Jack sounds Southern. He has also scrunched up his face in what he thinks is a snobby French pose, but really looks like he has something in his eye. So, let’s learn from his mistakes. 

Don’t do an accent unless you know you can do it perfectly – which means keeping the exact same accent from the beginning of the joke to the end. When telling jokes, close enough is not good enough. Do it right, or leave it out. 

Unless you graduated from mime school, leave the funny faces and voices at home. Like the accent, if your antics are not perfect, they’ll merely call attention to how imperfect they are, and detract from the joke. 

Do not – under any circumstances except for maybe a fire – interrupt your own joke in the middle. Jokes require timing and momentum. If you stop your own joke in the middle, you’ve killed your own momentum. 

Almost ready… 
So, now you know how to memorize and prepare your joke, and what awful habits to avoid. Anything else to keep in mind before slaying your crowd with your blazing wit? 

Sure – here are a few additional pointers: 

If something out of your control interrupts you in mid-joke, take a minute to see what happens. The momentum is probably dead, but if your listeners return their attention to you hoping to hear the rest, pick up where you left off. Do not make a big deal about the interruption. What if they don’t return their attention to you? Cut your losses and move on. 

Don’t rush the joke. Speak at a reasonable pace – not so slowly that you bore the crowd, but not so fast that important words get garbled. Pace and coherence are very important in the joke – make sure you have both. 

Make eye contact with the people you’re telling the joke to, and distribute it evenly. This involves each person as if you’re talking directly to them, but be sure to alter your eye contact so as not to focus on any one person. 

Don’t laugh at your own joke. Your own laughter can break your momentum as much as any other interruption. 

Most importantly – commit to the joke. Believe in the joke and in your ability to tell it in a funny way. 

Of course, if you’ve followed the advice in this article and put your best foot forward, then you’re on your way to becoming the hit of any gathering, party or speaking engagement. 

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Jokes. 

Larry Getlen is the author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Jokes.

How to Tell a Joke