Writing Funny: The Cardinal Rule of Comedy is Surprise

Season #2 Episode #32

S2_E32The Cardinal Rule of Comedy is Surprise.


In this current series on Writing Funny, Zena has been breaking down Melvin Helitzer’s acronym THREES from his book, Comedy Writing Secrets, which identifies the six key ingredients of humor and comedy. In this episode, Zena addresses the most important component of all: the cardinal rule of comedy is the element of surprise. 

The best way to define the construction of surprise is to use baseball terms. A joke is a curve. It's a fastball that bends at the last instant and fools the batter. You throw a perfectly straight line at the audience and then right at the end, you curve it by delivering something unexpected instead. 

Good jokes start by taking us somewhere predictable, but then change the outcome so that we are surprised. This is essential to comedy since the number one reason why people laugh is because they’re surprised. Surprise automatically creates interest and delight and laughter. And the quickest way to get there is to set up a cliché – something your audience already understands and therefore anticipates the predictable outcome – and then at the last moment, you change it. 


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