On January 15th, while I was engrossed in my fake “real time” chronicle of our trip to London, I received this missive from a reader who calls themselves pumpkinhead, which reads as follows:
Earl, you’ve written before about how important it is to get just the right wording/timing for a joke to work. A Facebook friend of mine posted this joke, and it made me think of you because I thought it was a funny joke idea, but that the wording and timing were off, draining most of the punch out of it. I know racy jokes aren’t really your preference, but I’d be interested in seeing how you would rewrite this joke to make it work better. Here it is:
Daughter: Sarah told me where babies come from.
Mother: Where would that be dear?
Daughter: She said you put Daddy’s thingy in you mouth and stuff comes out and goes in your belly and the baby grows.
Mother: No, dear. That’s where jewelry comes from.
First of all, racy or not – and a joke doctor is restricted from making such distinctions, our sacred oath requiring us to minister to all jokes equally – my professional diagnosis confirms pumpkinhead’s, while at the same time reminding pumpkinhead that it is unlawful to practice joke medicine without a license.
Joke medicine is a serious business. An uncertified practitioner treating an ailing joke by the side of the road, a joke that later dies on stage, could leave the Good Samaritan facing serious liability issues. Your heart may be in the right place, but you may very well lose everything.
As for the patient itself, a preliminary examination suggests we are not dealing with a situation worthy of inclusion in my particular specialty’s major medical journals, We are dealing with small potatoes here, the ailing joke residing more in the category of “wry observation” than in big-time “Belly Laugh Country.”
This is not to say that, in its own “clever comment” context, the joke’s construction, and consequently its prognosis for success, could not be improved, through a minimally invasive course of joke-medicine intervention.
But before we snap on the surgical gloves and get down to work, let us first address a peripheral concern. It is assumed that the “Daughter” in this joke is a young daughter, because if these lines were delivered by a teenaged daughter, they would, in my view, be less endearing than disturbing. As a practitioner of “Better safe than sorry” medicine, my first directive would be to inject the words “Six Year-Old” directly before the word “Daughter.”
Now on to more serious matters.
The diagnosis here is routinely simply: The setup is too far away from the punchline. However, rather than the traditional approach of excising obstructing verbiage so as to arrive the punchline more quickly, a contra-indicated course of action since, in this case, all the included words are essential to the joke’s wellbeing, I would instead propose reiterating the setup directly before the payoff, reminding the audience what the joke is all about.
SIX YEAR-OLD DAUGHTER: (I would also write the names in caps) Sarah told me where babies come from.
MOTHER: Where would that be dear?
SIX-YEAR OLD DAUGHTER: She said you put Daddy’s thingy in your mouth and stuff comes out and goes in your belly and the baby grows. Is that where babies come from, Mommy?
MOTHER: No, dear. That’s where jewelry comes from.
A minor supplement for a measurable improvement. By the way, though the joke is unlikely to receive an enormous response under any circumstances, I see at least five laughs emerging from this arrangement, four “build-up” laughs, and one potentially topping payoff laugh. Five laughs from one joke? As a comedy writer of old might proclaim, “That’s not chopped liver!”
Here’s how that would work:
The little girl delivers the “setup line.”
Sarah told me where babies come from.
There’s a “kickoff chuckle”, because a little kid is talking about where babies come from, augmented by our awareness that her friend Sarah’s explanation of where babies come from is going to be hilariously off the mark.
The second laugh comes from the mother’s awareness that what is about to emerge from her six year-old daughter’s mouth will be predictably bizarre. She can therefore inflect her “Where would that be dear?” with a subtle glint of knowing expectation.
The explanation of where babies come from would itself likely get a laugh because it’s funny. Plus, the SIX YEAR OLD DAUGHTER’S line – the one I inserted – “Is that where babies comes from, Mommy?” will get a laugh, because, of course, it isn’t.
Finally, the payoff will get a laugh, maybe even a substantial laugh, because one – it’s cleverly observed, and two – it has now been more efficiently set up.
I just realized I’m a terrible doctor. I have treated a patient without first asking them whether they’re covered by insurance.
I should be drummed out of the medical profession.
Even the comedy one.