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What is a Joke?

Mary Elizabeth
Updated: May 23, 2024

Jokes are a form of verbal humor, including one-liners, riddles, and other things that make us laugh; but the joke is also a form — a funny, made-up story with a punchline told by one person. It is distinguished from an anecdote, which may be a funny story and have a punchline, but is about a real or true incident. Because it is a form of story, it has some of the attributes of a story, such as a beginning, middle, and end. The beginning is the set-up. While the setting, mood, and tone of, say, a short story or novel are established over time, these elements are often compressed into as little as a single sentence in a joke.

There were two truck drivers at a rest stop.A lawyer died and went to heaven.Did you hear about the _____ who _____?

Some jokes, like the type invoked by the last set-up sentence above, are only two sentences — the first sets up the story, and the second delivers the punch line. This is the most compact kind. Notice that the question is only formal here — a real answer is not expected, and in most cases, cannot be given.

This distinguishes this form of humor from a riddle in two ways. First, the input of another person is crucial to the riddle form, while it is not in this kind of joke. Second, in a riddle, the question is specifically constructed to be answerable by a clever guesser, but in a joke of this sort, the question is functioning as the set-up and not intended to give too many clues to what is to come. Here’s an example:

What's the latest crime wave in New York City?Drive-by viola recitals.

Notice that there is not sufficient information in the question for anybody to guess the response. Instead, the question sets the scene and mood: it creates tension by suggesting a dramatic and dangerous topic, and then undermines the tension with a ridiculous response. This helps us to understand this example as a joke, rather than as a riddle.

There are certain categories of jokes that have many, many examples. Others include those about computers, blondes, lawyers, the army, off-color jokes, and those about certain instrumentalists — notably violists, banjo players, and drummers.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary Elizabeth
By Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to writing articles on art, literature, and music for Language & Humanities, Mary works as a teacher, composer, and author who has written books, study guides, and teaching materials. Mary has also created music composition content for Sibelius Software. She earned her B.A. from University of Chicago's writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont.
Discussion Comments
By Perdido — On Nov 02, 2012

Some jokes rely on interruption from the listener for their punchline. I fell for a joke like this as a kid. The joke relied on me thinking that the teller made a mistake in his story and butting in to tell him.

By Oceana — On Nov 02, 2012

@StarJo – The only people I know who like knock-knock jokes are children. Since they generally love to annoy people, this type of joke is a great tool for them.

I have one friend who specializes in puns. He can make a one line joke with a pun that is so unexpected that it makes me laugh.

Not a lot of people can do this and do it well. I've seen maybe a handful of standup comedians who could tickle a crowd with one liners, but more often than not, these types of jokes fall flat.

My friend could seriously take on a crowd and have them bent over in laughter within minutes. He could just keep shooting out these one line jokes in rapid succession, and people would be grabbing their stomachs in pain.

By OeKc05 — On Nov 01, 2012

Some people confuse jokes with pranks. I was confused when my college roommate said she wanted to play a hilarious joke on someone.

Jokes aren't things that you do to people. They are made only of words.

Pranks are typically much crueler than jokes. I've never known a joke to be scary, but some pranks are outright terrifying.

By StarJo — On Oct 31, 2012

I find knock-knock jokes to be annoying. I've never heard one that was laugh out loud funny, either.

Some of them are mildly amusing, but to me, they aren't worth the effort. Many people roll their eyes and begrudgingly say, “Who's there?” when prompted with, “Knock, knock!”

By julies — On Aug 25, 2012

I might offend some people here, but some of the best jokes I have heard are blonde jokes. I am even a blonde, and find these jokes to be funny.

I know some blondes who get upset when they hear someone start to tell a blonde joke, but it is a lot more fun if you just laugh along with them.

The funny thing is I can see myself in some of those jokes. I don't know if I would admit that to everyone, but maybe that is why I find some of them so funny.

Many people say blondes have more fun, and some of the blonde jokes help make that point!

By andee — On Aug 24, 2012

I subscribed to a joke of the day through email. Every day a new joke is sent to my inbox. These don't take long to read and some of them are pretty funny.

If I am reading a joke, those around me will know if it is a good one or not. If the joke is really funny, I will burst out laughing. Everyone is curious by then, and I have never met anybody who didn't like to hear a really good joke.

By LisaLou — On Aug 23, 2012

I love to listen to kids tell a joke. It is also fun to try and guess what the punchline is going to be and see what their response is.

We love to have kids visit our house on Halloween and look forward to the jokes more than anything else. We have heard a lot of the same jokes over the years, but once in awhile we hear some new ones we have never heard before.

By John57 — On Aug 23, 2012

I am a really bad joke teller because so many times I forget the punchline. I finally gave up trying to tell jokes and now just enjoy listening to other people tell them.

Sometimes I would remember the punchline, but not remember the part leading up to it. I would try to make something up but it was never the same.

The only way I would be able to remember funny jokes is to write them down and read them. Somehow that just doesn't seem as funny.

By Proxy414 — On Jan 23, 2011

Stupid jokes are often considered "cute" or corny, because they show a person's willingness to be vulnerable. Someone who is really not that funny will nevertheless be appreciated for making an effort to make people laugh. It is important, however, to not be the first person to laugh at your own jokes.

By Armas1313 — On Jan 21, 2011

If you are addressing a multicultural audience in a humor gig, it is important to recognize the differences in humor throughout the audience. Some people may have jokes based on a play on words or a nuance in their native language. It can be difficult to gauge what one group might find humorous, because another group could also find the same joke offensive.

By Qohe1et — On Jan 20, 2011

A little twist on reality can be funny in certain cultures. German humor is often seen as bland and corny in other cultures, but the rigid precision of the German language makes it so that tweaks in minor details can be quite amusing. Recurring themes such as a "stone gnat" in a biology book can be funny to certain German-speaking audiences.

By Renegade — On Jan 18, 2011

Humor tactics can be used in varying ways. In many cultures, being able to figure out the jokes meaning is a test of brain skill, and a person will laugh when he or she "gets" it. The people who don't understand will be left in the dust in an immediate humor "out group." Jokes are good brain teasers which can be very effective when combined with context.

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the...
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