Key Words in a Joke — Public Speaking

Certain words in a joke are keys to making the joke work.  Here is how I define them:

The PUNCH LINE is the string of words, often a sentence, that activate a joke.

The PUNCH WORD is the key word within the punch line that is most responsible for activating the joke.  Sometimes the punch word is more than one word.  Sometimes it’s a phrase.

The TRIGGER WORD is the word that creates the critical relationship link which makes the joke funny.  The trigger word and the punch word are often the same word, but not always.  Sometimes the punch word is the catalyst which sets the joke in motion and allows the trigger word to ignite the funny connection.

Let’s look at three jokes.

Bigamy is having one husband too many.  Monogamy is the same.  (Erica Jong)
The punch line:  Monogamy is the same.
The punch word:  the same
The trigger word:  the same
The relationship connection:  Monogamy is equated with Bigamy, an unexpected relationship.  We’re expecting:  Monogamy is different.

This wall paper is hideous.  One of us has got to go.  (Oscar Wilde on his death bed)
The punch line:  One of us has got to go.
The punch word:  go
The trigger word:  go
The relationship connection:  Self-deprecation.  He’s equating himself with the value of wall paper.  The absurdity of the relationship makes the joke work.  As in many jokes, there is often more than one relationship connection.  Another connection in this joke is:  Being in an-uncontrollable-situation while being-in-control-with-humor.

Take my wife…please!  (Henny Youngman)
The punch line: please
The punch word:  please
The trigger word:  take
The relationship connection:  The two meanings of the word TAKE.  Meaning #1:  For example.  Meaning #2:  Haul away.  In this case the punch word activates the joke by changing the meaning of the trigger word which makes the joke work.  We’re expecting:  “My wife, for example.”  And we end up with:  “My wife…you can have her!”

In nearly every case, the optimum structure of a joke is to put the punchline last.  And normally it’s most effective to have the punch word as the last word of the joke.  When the punch line or word is not the last thing, it becomes buried or disguised and the impact of the joke can be smothered.