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Are you one of those people who always complain, "I just can't tell a joke"? Sometimes we tell ourselves this, but it is not necessarily true. Being good at telling jokes doesn't mean you have to be a comedian. What it requires is a better understanding of some basics of telling jokes and a little practice. Once you familiarize yourself with these basics, your joke-telling skills will improve.

The four basic rules of jokes are timing, rhythm, rule of threes, and material. Let's look at each separately.

TIMING, for our discussion, has two functions:

1. The first has to do with the timing of telling the joke. Think of a joke as a miniature story. To tell your story, you will want your listeners' undivided attention. When a joke fails, the reason may not be that the joke isn't funny; it may be caused by bad timing by the person telling it. An example of this would be telling a joke at a funeral. It has been done, but the timing is inappropriate. Another example is substituting jokes for compassionate listening to a troubled friend. As obvious as this seems, it's amazing how often we ignore this common-sense rule.

2. The second function of timing relates to the internal workings of the joke itself. To better understand this, visualize the person telling the joke as an art instructor. Her student is the listener. As the instructor begins her joke, the student will start painting a picture on the canvas of his imagination. The words used in telling the joke will provide instructions as to what the student is to paint. If the joke begins with, "Two men went into a bar ... ," it has to be timed to allow the student to mentally paint those two men going into that bar.

This part of the joke is called the setup. The better the timing during the setup, the greater the probability of a payoff on the punchline. A major reason beginners have trouble telling jokes is that they fail to do the setup properly. They may mutter the words or rush through this crucial stage of the joke. Without proper timing for the setup, most jokes will fail because they simply will not make sense.

Beginners often also are too wordy or they omit important descriptive details. Avoid both extremes! Was it "two men went into a bar"? Or was it "a tall man with a black beard and a little short guy with a big belly"? Be more specific and paint a vivid picture.

RHYTHM, like timing, has two points of interest: Individual joke rhythm and sessions rhythms.

Individual jokes are our favorite jokes that we tell repeatedly, giving them a "personal rhythm." The more we tell these jokes and polish their wording, the more refined that rhythm becomes. A joke's rhythm is measured not so much by the words we use as by the timing of its delivery. Some jokes, if written out, may appear long. But when they are told, they are rhythmically short. Sessions rhythms develop during successful joke-telling sessions; that is when two or more people are engaged in swapping jokes. The sessions rhythms develop when the jokes being told are of similar "individual" rhythms.

If during a session we introduce a joke of a longer rhythm, we will interrupt the session's rhythm, and the joke probably will not get a good response. The following example will make this point clear:

Think back to the last time you were in a good joke-telling session. The jokes were great, the laughter was contagious and the adrenaline was flowing. Then someone started telling a joke that seemed to take forever (longer rhythm). As this person plowed through a lengthy setup, several things happened in rapid succession. Laughter died out, participants lost focus and everyone seemed uncomfortable. The problem? The joke simply did not match the rhythm of the joke-telling session. It is usually in a situation like this that the person who interrupts the rhythm decides that he or she just cannot tell jokes.

Had this person been aware of joke rhythms, he or she would have selected a story in the same rhythmical range. Then, even if it were not funny, it would have slipped by smoothly, and the session would have continued. So much for timing and rhythm.

THE RULE OF THREES is the third point necessary for successful joke-telling. This rule dictates that a joke's punchline must occur on the third line of the joke. If it goes beyond the third line, the joke is too wordy and too long. (There is an exception to this rule: jokes known as one-liners.)

The reason: We are subconsciously trained to hearing a joke's punchline on the third line. We intuitively expect the rule of threes to be operating when we listen to a joke.

Keep this in mind while listening to someone tell a joke. You'll be amazed at how often this formula is used. Violating this principle is probably the number one error of inexperienced joke tellers. They carry the joke far beyond the third line and lose any chance of the joke's getting a good response.

The next time you hear a joke that fails to follow this rule, change the joke before you tell it. Drop some of those repetitions that take the joke beyond the rule of threes. Review your own jokes and note whether you have been violating this rule. Rewording your jokes is not hard, and your story characters will have a longer life.

During television's early days, a famous comedian wanted to prove the rule of threes to his staff. During the audience warm-up portions of his TV show, he opened with the usual monologue. Then, without notice, he deliberately started telling a nonsense story that sounded like a joke. On the third line of this ruse, the audience laughed exactly as if it were a real joke.

MATERIAL is the fourth and final principle for telling good jokes. Material refers to the number of jokes in your repertoire. Analyzing your material should make you more aware of three distinctions that should put you ahead of most jokesters. It will make you more conscious of joke rhythms, and it will help you see that jokes fit particular subject categories. You will discover what categories you are strongest in and where you need additional material.

Begin by classifying your jokes into rhythm and subject categories, starting with rhythm. Pick a favorite joke and say it into a tape recorder. If you don't have a recorder, then just say the joke aloud, keeping in mind that you are focusing on rhythm. After you have done this several times, do the same with another favorite. With the second joke, you have a comparison and should note a difference between the two jokes' rhythms. If your jokes are written on cards, note on the cards what you think their rhythms would be. Determine whether each joke's rhythm is fast, slow or in between. You can create your own classifications. The point is to be aware of the different rhythms of each joke you tell.

Turning to subject categories, use the same jokes you picked for your rhythm analysis and ask yourself: "What is this joke about? After you have answered your questions, assign the joke a category.

Once you have completed your inventory and analysis, it's time to start expanding your joke categories to fit many situations. One good way to do this is to start paying close attention to jokes you hear. When you find a joke you like, write it down. Start telling the joke as soon and as often as you can. This is a way to practice, and the more you practice, the smoother your delivery will be.

Also evaluate jokes you are currently using. After telling a particular joke, ask yourself, "Is this one working?" Be honest, and if it is, keep it. If it is not, drop it and try something else. Don't waste time on dead material.

What do you do if you hear a joke that makes you laugh but you would not want to repeat it? Laugh at it if it is funny; then forget it! In my experience, trying to separate certain jokes for certain situations gets fuzzy. Eventually, these same jokes will find their way into a session and could be embarrassing. Do not repeat them; let them go.

Another good idea is to start a joke file and categorize it. You can do this with 3-by-5 index cards or record the jokes on your computer. Even if you understand timing, rhythm and the rule of threes, if you don't have adequate material, you will have nothing to draw from in a presentation or at a party.

Remember the four basics and you'll be on your way to a long, successful joke-telling career. You will be the life of the party, unless you hog the spotlight or laugh at your own joke.

By John_Schnauder

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