Good Copywriting Is A Joke

Every memorable piece of content I’ve written has been a joke.

Doesn’t matter what it was. A headline up on a billboard hovering over I-75. A subject line for an e-blast to 2 million subscribers. An ad-like object mocked-up for a new business meeting where the total audience was eight well-heeled marketing execs.

If it was memorable, it was a joke. By joke, I don’t mean to imply the line was funny. For most of these clients, funny was exactly the wrong way to go. Market leaders, Fortune 500 companies, banks and homeless shelters seldom call for funny.

So what do I mean by “joke”? I mean “the structure of a joke.” The things that make a joke work are the same things that make anything memorable work. By learning about joke structures, you’ll learn how to make your words memorable. I won’t go off topic trying to explain how comedians approach joke writing. This link can do that.

What I can tell you is why joke structures work.

  1. They’re based on human truths. A good joke has some level of familiarity. Some nugget we can all relate to. We’re all human, and humanity is filled with wonderful moments and awful moments alike, and just plain boring moments too. You don’t have to be born funny. You just have to make observations and write them down.
  2. Cadence. You know a joke when you hear it, even when they’re not funny. Versus your typical conversational speech, jokes have a signature rhythm. Good joke tellers can repeat a funny joke word for word, but if they’re off by just one word, the joke somehow isn’t as good. Anything below good isn’t memorable.
  3. The dopamine hit. A good laugh rewards our dopamine centers. Laughs make us feel good. Internet memes do the job as well, and you’ll note that the words on memes are often setups for jokes. Joke structures stand out because they signal a joke – and a good feeling – may be coming.

If you read my fellow JSer Ashley Sheppard’s Thinkstand post on Breaking Down Meeting Icebreakers, you’ll see she employed a joke structure to open her column: Few words in the English language inspire more dread in a meeting than “icebreaker.” Except maybe “skit.”

Ashley hits on a human truth by acknowledging that meeting icebreakers are generally awkward in the first sentence. (Not really a shock to anyone.) But she surprises the reader with a payoff: “except maybe skit.

The reference to skit is funny, and the relevance is 100%.  The joke structure gave it the necessary cadence. And because “skit” hits on a painful human truth, the likelihood you’ll read on goes up. The author has been in your shoes before and thus can add value.

Write your first draft without editing. Don’t worry about word count. But then edit ruthlessly. And be on the lookout for feedback like “That’s interesting.”  Anybody who tells you “that’s interesting” wasn’t really that interested.

How do I get funnier then, John?

There’s good news and bad news. The good news is you don’t need to be funny to be memorable. By learning basic joke structures, you can begin to see the patterns every writer uses. You just didn’t know they existed. The bad news is that it’s hard work. I rode on a MARTA train with Jeff Foxworthy once. Just the two of us on a random Tuesday. I asked him how long it took to write one of his You Might Be a Redneck jokes he was famous for.

“It takes me eight hours to get just one minute’s worth of material that will make someone spew.” I’m sure he was exaggerating slightly. At least I hope he was. Your deadline and the budget mean you won’t have much time to pull it off, but remember the words that make your writing stand out will make you stand out.

But not too much.

I wrote a new tagline for a local radio station a couple of years ago, and have it on a magnet stuck on my file cabinet. My son once came up to me and said, “I’ve seen that line everywhere, Dad. Why don’t we live in a bigger house?

John Spalding is an award-winning copywriter and creative director who joined Jackson Spalding in 2019 with copious agency experience that included working with brands like Capital One, Pizza Hut, the NFL and Georgia Lottery.