A Joke Set-up From the Past

A joke works best if the set-up which prepares the audience for the punchline is fresh in their memory.  The ideal situation for an Observational Humor line is when it immediately follows the set-up.  For example, if something happens, or something is said, and you follow it up immediately with the funny line.  The connection is fresh and the humor link is probably crystal clear.  A laugh is almost guaranteed.  Humor which is fresh, in the moment, is one of the best ways to get laughs, and usually beats the pre-planned joke.

Occasionally an observational joke will be depending on a set-up which is not fresh.  Perhaps the set-up occurred much earlier in the day.  Or the day before.  Or a week ago.  Or, as in the example I’m going to share with you, three months earlier.  What are the issues that need to be considered for a set-up from the past to have the strength to trigger humor today?

When using a set-up from the past, you usually have to make the decision whether the set-up can stand on it’s own strength, or whether you will need to reinforce it.  By that I mean it’s often necessary to re-visit the set-up to remind the audience of it.  The less you have to reinforce the set-up the better, because it allows the audience member to connect-the-dots to “get the joke.”  And the superiority factor kicks in, magnifying the humor.  But reinforcement is a good idea when the time which has past is long, and when a large percentage of the audience was not present when the original set-up happened.

Occasionally, I’ll create a humor line using a set-up from the past.  That’s when I’ve decided that something, which didn’t happen recently, still holds the power to trigger a joke.  It may have taken place yesterday, last week, or last month.  If it were a strong enough event to be memorable to most of the audience, I could consider using it to provide the platform for a joke, without retelling the event to remind the listeners of the intended set-up.

Here’s an example of a set-up from the past:

     – The set-up in this example provided a big laugh when it was originally presented at a memorial service.  Almost three months had passed since the original set-up took place. 

     – Fortunately, the set-up was reinforced when it also provided a good laugh as an observational call-back at a meeting the week after the memorial service.  Some members of the audience were exposed to the set-up twice.   That strengthens the power of the set-up.

     – Without the need for any other reminder or reinforcement, the set-up laid the foundation for a strong a line delivered three months later.

Here is the situation which led to the original joke, which eventually became the set-up for the jokes which followed days and months later:

In mid-November, I was a speaker at a memorial service for Pam Shinkle, a member of our Toastmasters Club.  In the middle of the program, one of the speakers was Sherrie Parker, wife of Bill Parker who was the emcee for the memorial service.  Sherrie commented that she was going to hug and kiss the emcee.  She received a good laugh.  When I was introduced I opened with,  “I’m glad I was asked to be on the program…since I now realize that when I’m done, I can give Bill a hug and a kiss.”  That laid the groundwork for a second joke to close my remarks.  When I was apparently finished speaking,  I returned control of the program to Bill.  He extended his arm to shake hands. I moved towards him with open arms, indicating I expected a hug.  So he hugged me.  And I kissed him on the cheek.  Since it appeared that I had completed my remarks, the unexpected kiss greatly magnified the element of surprise.  A huge laugh.  Although the kiss was unexpected by some, it was anticipated by many.  And that anticipation was a tension builder which also magnified the laughter.

A week later I used the joke sequence from the memorial service to get an observational laugh when I opened my humor monologue for the Toastmasters meeting.  The first line of my monologue was:  “By the way…Bill’s cheeks are soft.”  A very big laugh.

Fast-forward to the club meeting about twelve weeks later.  The theme of the meeting was SHAKESPEARE.  One of the speakers connected PUCK, one of Shakespeare’s characters, with Pucker Up (kiss) and linked it to one of our club members.  He said, “Why would anyone want to pucker up with Bill?”  As the Observational Humor Master, it was then my turn to call on the next person volunteering to present Observational Humor.  Instead, I made a snap decision to deliver an observational line based on a set-up which had happened weeks before.  My line:  “I can answer that question…”  This was a call-back to the previous event where I had kissed Bill at the service, and then joked about kissing Bill in my monologue at the meeting a week later.  I wasn’t sure if the audience would get the joke, since the two set-ups were far removed from the present time, and also because there were a large number of guests in the audience who were not present when the set-up was first delivered.  But it got a huge laugh.  The reasons that the joke did work are most likely:

1.  Even without the intended set-up, the implication of my having knowledge of reasons-for-kissing-Bill was probably funny enough by itself.

2.  Although the set-up was set in the past by several months…it had been well set:  At the memorial with a big laugh, and at the meeting after the memorial as an opener for my monologue.  For regularly attending members, the set-up was well-reinforced without my making extra effort to bring attention to it.

3.  It was a good night for Observational Humor, meaning people were responding well to the humor already presented.  As long as the joke connected strongly for some people, the others would jump on the bandwagon once the people-in-the-know started the laughter rolling.  Humor is contagious.

4.  It was probably a combination of all three points which resulted in a strong and immediate response to the joke.  The next time you are presenting a joke which depends on a set-up which is not fresh, you’ll have to decide if the audience will be able to make the connection of the punchline to the set-up (best situation) or if the audience will need to be reminded of the set-up.  It’s a judgment call.  And you’ll learn by experience when reinforcement of a set-up is necessary.