Tell a Joke

From one-liners to classic three-liners to the one-minute gag you tell your friends, a good joke pleases everyone. Joke-telling is one of the best ways to ease tension, make a new friend, or light up a room. That is, of course, if you can get a laugh. Telling good jokes is an art that comes naturally to some people, but for others it takes practice and hard work.


Getting the Material Right

  1. Know your audience. All aspects of the joke you tell, from the content to the length, need to be suited to your audience. What’s funny to a group of 20-year old college students may be very different from what makes your 70-year old-uncle laugh (then again, maybe not).
    • Everyone’s an individual, so there are no hard and fast rules. But, unless you personally know the members of your audience, here are some good rules of thumb to follow: elderly people won’t like crude jokes; stay away from misogynist jokes if you’ve got an audience full of women; people of a specific ethnic or racial group won’t enjoy jokes making fun of their group; and jokes requiring specialized knowledge (of, for example, science or old movies) will only be appreciated by people who possess that knowledge.
    • The more you know about your audience the better you’ll be able to tailor your jokes to them.
  2. Choose great material. You can find fodder lots of places—from your life, joke files online, by repurposing jokes you’ve heard in the past, and so on.
    • You may want to start your own joke file. You can write your jokes down on index cards to keep them handy or use a document file on your computer.[1] The latter option may allow for easier revision.
  3. Decide on a target. Every joke has a “target,” which is what the joke is about. It’s important that the joke’s target (the most basic element of your material) be suited to your audience. Make sure it’s a target your audience will be interested in and something they’re likely willing to laugh at.[2]
    • For example, husbands are likely to laugh at jokes about wives and vice versa; students will typically find jokes about school and teachers humorous.
  4. Have a realistic but exaggerated setup. The opening of the joke—or setup—should have a basis in the real world so your audience can relate to it, but it should also include exaggeration because this is what gives a joke its humorous edge.[2]
    • Think of the setup as the foundation of a story. It’s a fundamental part of the joke; if you don’t lay a good foundation here, then the punchline won’t make sense to the audience or they won’t find it humorous.
    • Your setup needs to be both realistic and exaggerated in order to be funny—it’s placing these two incongruous elements side by side that makes the joke funny.[2]
    • The exaggeration can be slight or considerable—it just depends on the individual joke.
  5. Surprise with the punchline. The ending of the joke is obviously crucial. This is where the payoff comes in, what makes the joke succeed or fail. If you want to make the audience laugh, your punchline needs to be surprising.
    • Some jokes also have what is called a tag or topper, which is an additional punchline. The tag builds on the original punchline or twists back on it in a surprising way.
  6. Make the joke your own. Lots of jokes rehash the same ground and sometimes they retell a story countless other jokes have told. For your joke to be funny, it has to surprise the audience in some way, which means it has to seem original or new.
    • One way to personalize a joke is to change the ending.[3]
    • Another option is to dress the joke up as a story about your own life. This will make a familiar joke unrecognizable. It may also make it particularly interesting if your audience is your friend(s).[3]
  7. Know your material. Practicing your joke is crucial. You don’t need to have it completely memorized—in fact, you ‘‘shouldn’t’’ memorize it—but you need to be really comfortable with it, so comfortable that you can continue on with telling it even if you get nervous or sidetracked, which is very possible once you’re in front of an audience.
    • Memorized jokes sound wooden, like they are being read off a script instead of relayed by a friend or entertainer.
    • Good jokes have a lot of details and personality, so don’t be afraid to embellish.[3] Try different things out and see what feels right, what sounds best. Don’t use a joke until you’re completely comfortable with it.
    • Try recording your joke on a tape player and playing it back to yourself. If you hear a lot of awkward pauses or “ah”s or “um”s, your joke isn’t ready and you need to practice more.[3] You can also try practicing in front of a sympathetic friend or family member once you’re ready for a “real” audience.

Getting the Delivery Right

  1. Practice rhythm. A joke’s rhythm is a function of its wording and timing.[1] A good joke should be short but not too short.[1] In other words, you want to get the audience’s attention and get them invested, but you don’t want to carry on so long that you lose them.
    • Unless you’re telling a one-liner or a three-liner, consider aiming for about a minute per joke, though you may be able to go a little longer depending on the audience and your delivery skills. If you’re carrying on for ten minutes with a single joke, you’ve definitely lost your audience.
  2. Relax and act confident. If you’re uptight and uncertain, the audience will feel that way about you. Instead, be calm, happy, and confident that you’re going to be a riot act—this makes your listeners much more likely to find you funny.[4]
  3. Vary your voice. It’s boring to listen to a monotone—use different inflections that suit the specific joke you’re telling.[4]
    • If it works for the joke, use different voices for different characters and/or sound effects (a car horn, a siren, a door creaking, etc.). These will liven up the joke, making it more like a story. That said, don’t use an accent unless you’ve mastered it, or you’ll do more harm than good for your joke.[3]
  4. Pause before the punchline. Waiting an extra second or two before revealing the “ah-ha” moment of the joke creates suspense in the audience.[4] This should get you a bigger laugh when you do reveal the punchline.
    • Some people suggest following the Rule of Threes, which states that a joke’s punchline should come in the third line of the joke.[1] This is limiting, however, as it only applies if you’re telling a three-line joke, as opposed to a one-liner or a longer joke.
  5. Tell your joke with a smile, not a laugh. Smiling says you’re confident and sure of your joke, but laughing may says you’re trying too hard.
    • While the biggest comedians out there (think: Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld) can get away with laughing at their own jokes, it’s generally not a good idea to laugh at yours unless you know how your audience will react. Doing so may make you seem like you’re over-compensating for material that’s not actually very funny or like you’re cocky.


  • If you want to get better at telling jokes, especially in terms of delivery, watch and listen to your favorite joke tellers, whether these are famous comedians or your friends.[3] You can learn a lot from their mannerisms, intonation, and the types of jokes they tell.
  • Don’t give up on a joke just because an audience doesn’t like it the first time out. If, however, it fails 3 or 4 times and you’ve tweaked your delivery after each attempt, it’s probably best to retire the joke.
  • Sing a silly song for practice.
  • Good jokes sometimes fail because the teller has told them at the wrong time—for example, at a funeral or when a friend needs emotional support rather than to hear a joke. If your joke has gotten a bad reception, you may want to consider whether it actually wasn’t funny or if you told it at an inappropriate time.[1]

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Sources and Citations