The Foundation of a Humorous Speech

I attended the District 33 Humorous Speech Contest this past weekend.   I wasn’t speaking.  I wasn’t judging.  I was a spectator.  What a great way to enjoy a contest!

A conversation with a friend led to the subject of “how soon should we expect a laugh in a humorous speech?”  A lot of people believe that you should get your first laugh as soon as possible.  I take a different approach.

When you’re preparing a humorous speech, it’s your opening that will lay the foundation for the humor which follows.  Don’t be in a hurry to put in your first punchline.  The foundation comes before the funny.

Your opening establishes your premise.  It tells your audience what speech will be about.  Without a solid foundation in your opening, a speech becomes nothing but jokes.

I competed in the Toastmasters Tall Tales Contest last year.  In the five-minute speech, a punchline came every 41 words (on the average).  But the first punchline came 83 words into the speech. Although punchlines came about once every 12 seconds, in my opening I spent 30 seconds laying the foundation before the first punchline was introduced.  Sometimes in a seven-minute humorous speech contest, it’s not unusual for me to spend 60 to 90 seconds laying the premise of the speech, with no laugh lines. 

I like to think of the opening of my speech as creating the “vehicle” which will carry my humor.  It often creates the structure or the reason for the humor that follows.  Examples of comedy vehicles are Top-Ten Lists and Roast formats.  A typical speech introduction will usually give an organization to what follows, giving the humor proper context. 

In my Tall Tales speech, my opening provided the PLATFORM.  I established that I was a retired research scientist from Area 51.  That laid the foundation to speak about space aliens for the next five minutes. I left the platform (my opening foundation) with my first funny line, the TILT, and I was off and running.  The platform says “this is what the speech is about” and the tilt says “it’s going to be fun or interesting.”

The opening to my humor speech is rarely the first thing I write, but I never skimp on spending time to develop the introduction of the speech.  Even though it usually contains no humor lines, it’s just as important as the jokes to the overall success of the humorous speech.