“What’s comedy all abou- TIMING!!!!!”, according to the old joke. Actually it’s about quite a lot else, and one of the main factors by which a joke stands or falls is wording. Yesterday’s flat joke may bring the house down today if expressed with just one altered word.
Some words are funnier than others. Haddock is funnier than Fish. Cake is funnier than Gateau. Grub is funnier than Larva. Why? Often comedy writers just say “Well, they just are funnier” and leave it at that, but I think there’s a science to it. Or a bit of a science, let’s not get too nerdy about this...
The first rule is that short words are funnier than longer ones. Cake vs Gateau, Grub vs Larva, Wig vs Hairpiece. A short word has a punch which pushes the breath out and causes laughter. Brevity is the soul of wit. Long words can get in the way very quickly. Then again, Haddock is longer than Fish, so you can hardly say that this is an unbreakable rule, just like everything else in comedy.
The second rule is that hard consonants are funnier than soft. Cake and Haddock both have that wonderful edgy “k” sound, the ideal comedy consonant (there we go again). Cookie is funnier than Biscuit. The “g” in Wig is fairly hard. It has impact, and adds to the punch factor. Also, and this is important, hard consonants are easier to hear. A muffled joke has no impact.
The third rule is that words with hidden, or slightly underground, associations, can work really well. Hob Nob is funnier than Biscuit because, subliminally, it sounds like part of a knob gag. Lunchbox is funnier than Packed Lunch because it also has knobby connotations. The Fluke fish sounds funny because it also sounds like something else. It doesn’t mean these work as puns. If they did, it would distract from the point of the joke. But there’s something in all these words which makes the audience sit up and listen. Their comedy sensibility has been alerted.
The fourth rule is probably the most important but also the most obvious. The word has to convey the sense of the joke precisely. If you set up with the phrase “The butler fetched the president a hob nob” it’s distracting because we’re expecting something posh – unless the joke is about spending cuts in the White House, or something like that. This rule overcomes all the others. Unless it doesn’t. This is comedy, after all.