The "formula" for writing monologue jokes

A reader wrote in with a question on monologue writing:

When it comes to monologue jokes for late night, I've heard other good comics say there are two (or maybe three?) different formulas that are used, and every monologue joke fits within this basic format (I want to say Jeselnik said it on a podcast, but not 100%). Anyway, when I write my normal bits I'm not conscious of structure / formula, and I'm not sure what these monologue "formulas" are... do you know?

amendment: I actually do understand one of the formulas, is to take a headline, read it back, and then just add a punchline to the end of it. So, not sure what the other one or two formulas are.

Easy question. The main formula:

Late night monologue joke = (1/2 base of celebrity × height of news story) × pi / Kim Kardashian

Actually, I know zilch about monologue jokes so passed along the email to a few guys who work at late night shows. Most didn't want to answer on the record. But I will say they bristled at the question ("it's not really like we have a Mad Libs for every story") and mentioned it's not as simple as it sounds because you have to write for your host's voice/preferences.

But David Angelo, funny standup and former writer for Fallon, was willing to tackle the question (kinda). He argues the jokes are formulaic and predictable because the public is those things.

I'll say anything but I don't really get what the question is.

Obviously there's a lot of formula. You want all the formulas? Just...uh...watch a monologue. They aren't exactly hidden. Phrases that get repeated: "Or, as X calls it..." Different hosts might lean on some more than others. There's like 10 in common use. Then there's non-formula jokes which might account for <50% of the monologue but are 99% of the work. I will say this though - the formulas are used because the audience needs them. It's not because writers are lazy. The audience just reacts to them without needing to do any joke math. I can come up with a genius joke on a topic and - guess what - the formula one will get the bigger laugh. So, if anyone has a problem with joke formulas, take it up with the creeps you hang out with, not me!

I posed some followup q's:

Re: "The audience just reacts to them without needing to do any joke math." Are TV audiences dumber than comedy club audiences? Why are the formulas necessary on TV but not at clubs? How does having to generate so much material every night force you into using formulas (or whatever ya call 'em)? Or does it?

David Angelo:

-Are TV audiences dumber than comedy club audiences?
I'm the wrong guy to ask here because I think they're all aggressively incompetent. On a micro level, it obviously depends on the club and the tv show. But a TV audience generally has more distractions.

-Why are the formulas necessary on TV but not at clubs?
Have you been to a comedy club? Have you seen the genre of comedy called "iPhone autocorrect jokes?"

How does having to generate so much material every night force you into using formulas (or whatever ya call 'em)?
Eh, it's like I said - mostly for the benefit of the crowd. But, also worth noting, is that the news is THE SAME ALL THE TIME. Same holidays, same crimes, same stupid celebrities, same events. It's all the same. You got two sentences to write something that's (A) funny and (B) makes sense. "The B has to 'be' there." That's a phrase from my new comedy workshop seminar I just invented. Want a joke on China? guess what, child labor and eating dogs. Does China have other references? Sure - but are you going to be the guy who mentions "The Long March" to 1 million households under the assumption they know it? Probably not.

If anyone else in the know wants to chime in, leave a comment.


Anonymous said...

This is an good resource to see many of these jokes in context.


Joe Toplyn said...

I'm a former head writer for a couple of the big late-night shows and I've thought about this a lot.

Yes, there are formulas for writing monologue jokes. Writers are not "forced" to use the formulas. Writers use them for one excellent reason: they work. They produce laughs from an audience.

Why didn't those other late-night writers want to talk about monologue joke formulas on the record? Who cares? The formulas are all in my new book,"Comedy Writing for Late-Night TV." A "Psychology Today" reviewer called it "one of the most practical guides to comedy writing ever written."

You want formulas? My book has six specific ways to generate punch lines. Twelve tools for making your jokes their funniest. Get "Comedy Writing for Late-Night TV" on Amazon and all your questions about monologue jokes and other short-form comedy will be answered. There's never been another book like it. http://amzn.to/1psbwlW

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