One Good Joke Deserves Another

Sometimes one joke leads to another.  This is a good thing, because it’s often effective to follow one joke with another on the same theme.  In the humor business, this is called a Topper.  You tell a joke and get a laugh.  Then you top it with another joke along the same subject, theme or pattern.  You ride the coat tails of the first joke.  Normally the second joke will almost always get a laugh because the audience is already in motion.

Sometimes the temptation is wear out a line of jokes.  How much piling on is too much?

Professional comedians will typically use a pattern of JOKE, TOPPER, TOPPER.  One joke, followed by two jokes that ride the wave.  The rule of thumb is that the first topper should be funnier than the original joke.  And the second topper should be funnier than the first topper.  Based on this rule, if the topper isn’t funnier than what just preceded it, don’t use it. 

The reasoning for this rule is the classic humor rule:  Less is more.  Keeping to the rule of three, the joke-topper-topper pattern will almost always work better than slapping on five or six toppers.  After all, how long can you continue to add lines which keep getting funnier and funnier.  Creating two excellent toppers is a challenge that isn’t easy.  Going beyond that often detracts from the quality of the humor.

Patsy Dooley, a terrific motivational humorist from Texas uses toppers like a pro.  In her classic Helicopter Speech, a signature story about taking a helicopter ride to visit an oil-drilling platform off the coast of California, she uses a series of toppers.  She refers to her oil company tour guide as The Drill Sergeant:

“Then the Drill Sergeant tells us to step outside for the weigh in!” (joke) 

She then reacts to that order with a wide-eyed, you’ve-got-to-be kidding-me look.  (a take, her physical response to the first joke line) 

“Nobody told me about a weigh in!” (topper)

“Weigh ins are NOT my favorite adventure!” (topper)

This sequence of funny lines give her the perfect ride on the wave of laughter.  Each subsequent line funnier than the previous one.  This leads her speech to a sequence of how she managed to cope with a weigh-in on a truck scale where the arrow pointing to the weight was taller than she was.  It’s funny story using the power of poking fun at yourself and using the technique of toppers.

If you find yourself excessively piling on the toppers, try this.  Be glad that you’re able to come up with many lines.  Quantity is the first step to great humor.  Once your brainstorm gives you an abundance of lines, you need to avoid the temptation to use ALL your ideas from the platform.  Analyze the lines and rank order them from funniest to not-so-funny.  Then see if you can come up with an optimal structure of a joke followed by the two funniest toppers on your list.  If you have good lines left over, examine them to see if they might trigger another joke theme which could then be followed by two new toppers.

A great way to practice the technique of toppers is to exercise your skills of creating observational humor and try to frequently create humor with the pattern of joke/topper.  Try to top each joke, just once, as an exercise in sharpening your ability to use this humor form.

Copyright 2007 by John Kinde