Email joke writers, please read this

I receive and forward a lot of email jokes. I’m pretty well known among my friends for being a nexus for humour. But in my years of reading emailed jokes, I have observed that there are many people out there who really don’t understand how to tell a joke well. (Worse, if I receive a joke several times over the course of a few years, it typically gets more and more ruined each time I get it – people are destroying it with their unneeded and misguided additions.) I’ve had to edit quite a few just to un-kill them. So I’ve decided to give some advice for those who want to write down some joke they recently heard to send around. Please read this and heed these pointers if you want to be funny. These are not tut-tutting po-faced rules! They are practical advice based on experience. The entire point is to be funnier.

1. Don’t overwrite it. This is really a cardinal sin. Good humour is direct and doesn’t wallow in attempts to be descriptive. Include things that are relevant, but as much as possible, let details of personality and attitude come out through the actions and speech. Don’t stack on adverbs (words that end in ly, for instance) and prepositional phrases, and don’t describe irrelevant details. Don’t say “Please tell us your story, Nancy,” the teacher said, knowing how endearing little girls’ stories can be if you can say The teacher suppressed a smile. “Please tell us your story, Nancy.” Don’t say The aging cowpoke tucked in delightedly into the steaming chili (seriously, aging cowpoke?) if you can say The old cowboy chowed down (add and made short work of the chili if it seems necessary). Jokes are like cartoons; don’t try to be like Rembrandt, because you probably aren’t anyway (and if you are, you know all this already).

2. Don’t shy away from rude language. Obviously, how rude is rude depends on who you’re sending the joke to, but some jokes are kind of lame if they use terms that are too soft. Don’t have a sweet little girl say As soon as those jerks at the lumber yard give us the friggin’ two-by-fours when the humour relies on her having learned a bunch of really vulgar words from a construction crew. This applies at milder levels, too: don’t say boobs when you can say tits, for instance – if you’re going to be rude, be as rude as you can justify. (Oh, side point: I’m so tired of “humour” that assumes that all guys like huge tits or that guys want blow jobs more than they want any other kind of sexual encounter. Seriously, what?)

3. Don’t overuse rude language. Oddly, at least from my perspective, this is rarely a problem with emails I get, which is quite opposite to stand-up comedians, who do tend to use vulgarities so much they lose their effectiveness. But generally, the cruder a word, the less you should use of it because the less you need to use of it. Jokes about sweet little kids often have a well-placed vulgarity in the punch line; with rare exception (such as the joke about the kid who’s been hanging out with construction workers), it only takes one.

4. Don’t try to milk the ending. Just slip the punch line in out of the blue. Don’t jam in a bunch of exclamation marks, and especially don’t do this: He said……. [three line spaces] Oooooohhhh, you’re gonna love this………. [four line spaces] Wait for it…………….. [five line spaces] That’s not my dog!!!!!!!!!! This is probably the lamest thing you could possibly do, and one of the surest ways to kill a joke. It’s like laughing at your own jokes. The rule for humour (as for many other things) is under-promise and over-deliver, not the other way around.

5. Stop at the punch line. Really. Once the character says the thing you’ve been building up to, that’s it. It’s over. It does not matter what happened next. After the cute little kid says something shocking in class, don’t say The teacher fainted or The teacher had to leave the room or It took the teacher twenty minutes to calm the class down. This is like laughing at your own joke. See above about that. And if the punch line is “I dinna say her name is ‘Spindona,’ ah telt ye IT’S PINNED OAN HER,” don’t say And so it was – Mary Sue! You’re not relating something that happened to you, you’re telling a joke. And jokes end at the punch line.

6. Don’t try to convert a joke on one sex to a joke on the other at the end. This is an extension of the point above. If the joke builds up to, for instance, a guy saying something sexist – e.g., If I lock a woman and a dog in my trunk for an hour, you tell me which one will be happy to see me when I open it – what he says, however little you may like it, is the punch line. Don’t tack on He will be released from the hospital in three weeks or His funeral is next Friday or something else that suggests that a guy who says sexist things will be physically or emotionally abused by his wife or girlfriend. If you don’t like sexist jokes, just don’t tell them; don’t try to reverse the direction of sexism.

7. Don’t tell people to forward it. This is extremely lame. It makes me want to delete a joke when I see something inane such as Send this to all the smart women you know – and the men who can handle it. It’s a joke, not an opportunity for you to feel superior or to claim (outside of the assumptions of the joke) some superiority for your sex. Let me say again: Stop at the punch line. That’s it. No, I mean stop.

8. Don’t add excrescent little pictures. These waste bandwidth, they don’t always come through well, and they don’t add anything. A joke is not made funnier by a picture of someone in a rocking chair (unless the picture is the joke or the joke somehow comments on it) or an animated cartoon of a cat laughing or whatever. Seriously, do you need little sticky pictures in every page of every book you read, too? What are we, in grade two here?

9. And especially don’t add music and/or stick it in a PowerPoint. Why do I even need to say this? Music wastes bandwidth and many people don’t like having it erupt unbidden from their speakers (especially at work, which is where many people read these things). If the music is the joke, then link to it or make it a clickable file. And especially don’t take the joke, stick it on top of a bunch of unnecessary pictures, add unnecessary music, and stuff it all into a PowerPoint. This wastes time and bandwidth and just makes it all annoying. Really, do you think that a joke told in person is funnier if you put on a clown’s nose, wave your hands, hold up pictures, and play a little tune on your phone in the background? (Hint: NO.)

10. Don’t give away the punch line in the title. When composing the subject line of the email, avoid mentioning anything to do with the punch line. Refer only to aspects of the situation evident in the beginning of the joke. Oddly, many people don’t seem to think about this. They’ll put, say, Saint Finger in the subject line of a joke that ends “And when you get to the pearly gates,” the priest said, “Saint Finger will point his Peter at you!” or they’ll put A triple greeting in the subject line of the joke What did the British policeman say when he found his wife in bed with two men? “‘Ullo, ‘ullo, ‘ullo!”

11. Don’t stick a bunch of unrelated jokes together. Send jokes one at a time. If you have several on the same topic – for instance, the military, or lawyers – you can put them together. But don’t pile together a variety of jokes that have no common theme. Among other things, the person who receives them may later want to forward one of the jokes and may not be able to find it. Anyway, brevity is the soul of wit. Keep the emails on the short and punchy side.

12….. Don’t make a mess with the punctuation. Jokes can survive with bad punctuation, but they’re less impeded with the right marks. Perhaps most importantly, you only need three dots to trail off, not ten… if you need to trail off at all, that is. Make an effort to use apostrophes correctly, but if you find them confusing, then when in doubt, leave it out. Likewise, if you’re not completely sure about semicolons, then don’t use them (it’s a joke, anyway, not a term paper). And if you’re in Canada or the US, as you probably are, quotation marks are double – “like these” – not single – ‘like these’ – unless they’re quotes within quotes (He said, “No, I said ‘a cunning array of stunts.'”)

13! Don’t overuse exclamation marks. This really goes with the point above, but it’s important enough to stand on its own. You can use exclamation marks, but only where people are shouting things or saying them emphatically. Otherwise it’s like laughing at your own jokes. And laughing at your own jokes makes other people laugh at them less.

14. Don’t screw up your tenses. It’s just amazing how often this happens: a joke starts in the past tense and then flips into the present, or, perhaps more often, vice versa. My default tense for jokes is the present: it gives a better sense of immediacy. Compare These three guys are walking down the street, and one sees a lamp with Three guys were walking down the street, and one saw a lamp. I’m not saying past tense is never good; sometimes it works better. But don’t switch from one to the other unless you really are describing something that was in the past and is now in the present.

15. Don’t number things unnecessarily. Some humorous emails include, for instance, things to say to a woman with PMS, or things heard in a courtroom. There is no good reason for numbering these. If there is an order implied, or a ranking, or if you say, for instance, 7. You didn’t notice that there is no item 5, then numbering is necessary. Otherwise, it’s just a distraction. [edit: I have come to the conclusion that people remember rules – such as these – better, and refer to them more effectively, if they have numbers. So I have added numbers for positive effect.] In case you haven’t been paying attention so far, let me be perfectly clear: Don’t include unnecessary stuff in your jokes. (Let’s call that rule 0, as in zero.)

I’m now wandering farther into the territory of forwarding things – quotes, videos, etc. – as opposed to actually writing jokes, but I might as well include these pointers because they are generally directed to the same people.

16. Don’t be redundant. If you’re forwarding a funny video, don’t describe the video. One I’ve gotten a couple of times recently is an ad involving a Finnish auctioneer. It doesn’t need in introduction; just title it Auction and you’re ready (and don’t title it A smashing sale because that gives away the punchline). But someone decided to introduce it in the body of the email with something on the order of It is an auction house somewhere in Italy. The auctioneer speaks rapid Italian but the meaning is clear. The bidding proceeds rapidly and escalates quickly. Finally it stalls at one million euros! But when the winner is declared, something astonishing happens. By now you should recognize that this is wrong on many levels. Why tell most of the joke in advance, and not very competently? If the meaning is clear (and in fact the video has English titles), no need to say what’s going on. This is trying to milk it, and it can do no other than weaken the effect.

17. Get your facts straight. Did you notice, just above, that I said it was a Finnish video and the unnecessary introduction said it was in Italian? An understandable error from someone who knows neither language – they can sound similar on a superficial level – but the video is an ad and mentions a .fi site at the end, so it doesn’t really take a comparative linguist to get that detail. Locations, languages, and similar details are surprisingly often screwed up in reference to forwarded pictures and videos. Some people won’t notice, but will come away misinformed; others will notice and the effect on them will probably not be positive. Sometimes getting your facts wrong won’t matter, but if it does, the effect is always negative. Likewise, don’t use words incorrectly. Don’t call a grizzled old cowboy a cowpoke, for instance.

18. Don’t misattribute. This goes with the above. Before you send around a quotation that you think was said by this person or that, do what you can to check it. Simply seeing that someone else says it was this or that person really isn’t enough; who says they checked it? Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken, and George Carlin have quite a lot of stuff attributed to them that they never said. Above all, if you’re not sure who said something, don’t just decide who it must have been and say so. And if you see something attributed to one person and you just wish it had been said by another one, don’t simply attribute it to that other person. It amazes me that I even need to say this, but there really are people out there who seem to think they can make something true just by saying it’s true. If you happen to be one of those people, be aware that I want quite a variety of awful, humiliating, disgusting things to be true about you; think of how you would feel if I were to say they are true.

19. Don’t think a silly story is a real story. There are a variety of rather inane accounts about the origins of certain phrases being passed around – trench mouth, raining cats and dogs, cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey, etc. – that were made up as silly jokes but that people keep thinking are true accounts. It’s extraordinarily easy to double-check these things; and are two good sites for fact checking. And don’t say “Well, it’s so funny, it should be true!” That just makes you one of those amazing people I mentioned in the previous paragraph, and I am even now thinking horrible things about you. Also, just so everyone knows for sure, The Onion is a satirical newspaper. “News items” in it are jokes. They are not real.

20. Trim off the headers and footers. Most importantly, remove all the email addresses in the “From,” “To,” and “CC” fields. Someone somewhere down the line might get their email address book raided by a trojan, or someone might post the joke on the web without trimming it (for shame!), and then all these people will have their email addresses spammed just that much more. Plus it’s visual clutter – who really wants to scroll past a couple of screens of strangers’ names? We also don’t need the footer of the person who sent it to you. Odds are they just forwarded it, too, so no point in their being treated as the author. (Thanks to Sheila Protti for reminding me of this point.)

OK, I think that about covers it. If I think of anything else, I’ll come back and add it. I haven’t numbered these because there’s no need to, and because that way I can slip more in surreptitiously if I want. [I have added numbers because I came to realize that it adds effect and eases reference.]

8 responses to “Email joke writers, please read this

  1. Also: just because you read or hear something doesn’t somehow magically make you it yours. That’s true even if the author isn’t famous.

    (Yes, I have a very personal stake in that one.)

  2. Another common joke editorial comment that drives me NUTS is the challenge, “If you don’t find this funny, then you really need to get out more,” or some such. I hate being told what’s funny and what’s not. It’s MYdecision to laugh or not. When a joke is prefaced with this lame qualifier, I hit the “Delete” button before even reading on.

    Great advice, btw, and a loong time coming……. LOL FML ROFL LMAO

  3. This needs to be read by more people. Is there some way we could arrange for it to be mandatory before receiving one’s email address?

  4. C’mon, folks, it’s just e-mail spam, not a George Carlin monologue (well, most of the time). Lighten up! And save the editorial gimlet gaze for when it matters.

    • Dude, I seriously hate seeing a good joke ruined by ham-fisted overwriting and jamming in unnecessary stuff. Drives me crazy. It’s true that the quotation marks don’t make much of a difference to the humour, but most of this advice is squarely aimed at making jokes much, much funnier — most of it boils down to one piece of advice: Don’t kill the joke! And killing is usually caused by overwatering.

      We’re talking about humour now! This is important! 😛

  5. Well, I don’t know about you, but I don’t have time to write this stuff, I just read it and pass on the (relatively few) items that >I< find funny. And I usually don't have time to waste editing them for writing style or technicalities like spelling, grammar, etc. On the other hand, if someone were MISquoting a hero like Carlin, Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, Wanda Sykes, Sondra Shamus, the Python boys, etc., I probably would make the effort to clean it up, because that IS important.

    Me, a "dude"? Not in this lifetime!

  6. Elmore Leonard has ten great points for writers generally – some of them are directly relevant to writing email jokes too, others less so: Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle.

  7. I just received a good example for number 2 in the email. It’s a joke I’ve seen a few times before, about a woman meeting a chicken farmer, and they’re both celebrating, she because she finally got pregnant and he because his chickens are finally laying eggs. The joke proceeds through a few “What a coincidence!” moments to the end, where the woman asks the farmer how he did it. In the original, he says, “I changed cocks,” to which the woman replies “What a coincidence!” But in the version I got today, some squeamish person had changed it to “I used a different rooster.” To which the woman still replies, “What a coincidence,” but it really isn’t the same, is it?

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