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Unfortunately, You Died

slacker tombstone [1]

Note: The following is an excerpt from my new book, COMEDY WRITING 4 LIFE, which you can have a free e-copy of, just by sending your fruits of the following exercise to john.vorhaus@gmail.com [2].


Here’s the situation: Unfortunately, you died. Which makes your tombstone  your last shot at cracking a good joke. What could you put there that would make your mourners snicker? I’m not afraid of outcomes; I’ll go first.

Now I’m really bored.

I wonder if this thing’s loaded.

As if life insurance worked.

Who turned out the lights?


Different jokes work with different groups. My friends in the ultimate frisbee community, for example, will wet their pants over “Slacker,” for they know how much I love that word, and how I cherish Slacker Wednesday, the mid-day, mid-week ultimate frisbee game I founded in Los Angeles and branded thus: “Slacker Wednesday: It works because you don’t!” Others will roll their eyes and wonder. They won’t have enough information to solve the puzzle of the joke.

Don’t expect any joke to work for every audience, ever. Your audience exists on a bell curve. Some people won’t laugh because they lack key information. Others won’t laugh because they have too much information – maybe they’ve heard the joke before. Your target is always the BFM, or Big Fat Middle.

Did you know that you can tune a joke? You can, just by adding or subtracting information. This is how you turn a joke that doesn’t work into one that does. And this is why it’s so great to write jokes that don’t work: They form a bridge to jokes that kill. In The Comic Toolbox, I called these things jokoids, a term that has stood the test of time but is still not recognized by my spellcheck as a real word.

Okay, kids, go play tombstone. I’ll wait here.

How did you go about solving this problem? Did you think about your attributes, things that your friends make fun of about you? That would be fertile ground for tombstone jokes. Did you just cast your mind about at random? Did you visualize? The reason I’m asking these questions is to help you look at your process.

As you grow your  game you want to keep a good eye on your process. Ask yourself over and over again, How did I do that? How did I solve that problem? What tools did I use? That’s the heart of good creative practice. It works for jokes; it works for everything. So when you’re writing jokes, or writing everything, you should always be thinking about two things: your creative solutions; and how you arrived at them.

To write a successful joke is to solve a certain problem: How can I convey information in such a way as to make people laugh?

Sounds pretty dry when you put it that way. But that’s the stated problem, and it turns out that the better you get at stating your problem, the better you get at solving it.

The problem-solving goal here would seem to be self-evident: You want people to laugh at your tombstone. But there’s more to it than that, because what do you want them to laugh at? The frailty of human existence? The dumbass way you died? Some aspect of your personality that they know and understand? Some aspect of them that you’d like to make fun of? Those are four different targets you can hit, and you will hit all of them more easily when you see them more clearly.

So just be clear in your thinking. Know what problem you’re trying to solve, and then apply different strategies for solving it.

For instance, suppose I wanted to make a tombstone joke about my lifelong obsession with poker. That’s the target, now here comes a strategy: Use a comic filter. I’m going to call poker my comic filter for this joke and then I’m just going to look at my tombstone through it. What do I see? A discarded poker hand and the words, “I fold.”

Try that strategy. Pick a comic filter, something about you that is prominent and strong, and look at your tombstone through it.

Your head will explode. Once you start looking at the world through comic filters, your head will literally explode. Pieces of it will be found for miles around. [pullquote]Your head will explode. Once you start looking at the world through comic filters, your head will literally explode. Pieces of it will be found for miles around.[/pullquote]

Here’s a strong comic filter: taboo. It’s strong because (this is me quoting me now), “Comedy begins where tolerance ends.” Find the place where people start to get edgy, and you’ll find the funny. Why? Because they’re all storing tension. They’re nervous about you being taboo. Where are you going with this? How far will you go? What if you go too far? They’re holding their breath. Your goal – here we go goal-setting again – is to release all that stored tension explosively, in the form of a laugh.

See how great this is? Instead of just randomly casting around for the funny (and all the time worrying we can’t find it), we can just ask the question, “What would be taboo right here?”

Well, right here on a tombstone, taboo would be just telling the truth: “You’re going to die, too.” Ah-ha, yes, taboo, but not yet funny. Right now it’s a jokoid (damn you spellcheck!) but if we make it less obvious, more oblique, we can tune this joke until it works.

I can’t think of a joke just yet, but I will. Let’s see… inevitability of death… death and taxes… let’s try a tax Form-1040 marked deceased, with the words, “I filed.” That joke could land. If it doesn’t, I’ll find one that does. One thing I know for sure, I’m not going to run out of places to look. And that’s where practice and strategy intersect. Practice gives you plenty of funny to choose from, strategy gives you tools for getting all you ever need.

When a joke doesn’t work because of too much information, we say it’s “on the nose.” Unless we’re Russian, then we say, “shliskom vlob,” which means “too much forehead.” In Spanish they say “demasiado obvio” – “too obvious” – which seems a little on the nose to me.

So then what you do is move it off the nose. If “You will die, too” is too obvious, hit them with, “Didn’t I see you at Starbucks?” That’s something to chew on; that’s a little puzzle to solve. When the punchline lands, they might or might not be thinking, I get it now! He was living, now he’s dead, and that’s going to happen to me, but that’s what they’re laughing at. The truth and pain of death, packed in a neat little packet by you and laid out like a laugh landmine.  

So what do you think, campers? Is this a strategy that can work for you? Would you rather rely on an intuitive approach – it’s just funny ‘cause it’s just funny – instead? Wouldn’t it be great if you could have both?

Guess what? I kinda think you can.

About John Vorhaus [3]

John Vorhaus has written seven novels, including Lucy in the Sky, The California Roll, The Albuquerque Turkey and The Texas Twist, plus the Killer Poker series and (with Annie Duke) Decide to Play Great Poker. His books on writing include The Comic Toolbox, How to Write Good and Creativity Rules!