Joke writing: some insider secrets you’ll love, part 1

First the good news, which in a way is bad news too: joke writing is a craft, not an art. Someone once said that there are only about 6 truly original jokes – the rest are all developments or adaptations. You CAN learn to write jokes for business and social uses, and in these two articles I show you how that works.

Gag switching

Over the years I have collected a database of thousands of jokes which I use to “switch” for clients’ speeches, presentations, cabarets and business theatre. The technique works for any kind of speech, though. Basically what you do is take the hub or kernel of a joke and build up the surrounding story in line with your subject matter. For example:


The food in this hotel is disgusting.  What could I do about it? You’d better bring it up at the New Guests’ Welcome Meeting.


(As chief bridesmaid at a wedding) Some of you here will remember that Cassie’s “hen” night was quite an occasion … in fact my memories of it aren’t all that clear after about the seventh glass of champagne, but still! One thing I do remember though was that breakfast the next morning was awful … greasy, cold scrambled eggs and undercooked kippers. I remember poor Cassie complaining about it and I told her not to worry, we would all bring it up as soon as I could find the manager.


One day my housework-challenged husband decided to wash his sweatshirt. Seconds after he stepped into the laundry room, he shouted to me, “What setting do I use on the washing machine?”

“It depends,” I replied. “What does it say on your shirt?”

He yelled back, “University of Oklahoma.”


(As mother of the bridegroom at a wedding) I don’t want to worry you today of all days, Sheila, but I think I should warn you that Brian’s idea of being domestic isn’t quite what ours is. I remember not that long ago when he was at our house he decided to wash his favourite shirt so he took it into the kitchen and put it in the machine. Then he shouted to me, “what programme should I put it on, Mum?”

“Well it depends,” I said. “What does it say on your shirt?”

There was a pause for a couple of seconds and then he shouted back, “Grantham United F. C.”

Using external sources of jokes and funny lines and then personalising them has the great advantage of offering you a huge choice of material; there and millions of jokes on the internet and thousands of joke books to inspire you. And what’s more, jokes can’t really be copyright; certainly they aren’t if you take the basic concept and adapt it for your personal use, anyway.


“In-jokes” are jokes which are hilariously funny to a group of people who know each other very well, but are unlikely to raise more than a smile – if that – from an outsider. Correctly used, in-jokes are extremely effective.

They work particularly well for company events where the speaker can send up the boss’s golf handicap or the finance director’s bonsai trees or anything else that’s commonly gossiped about by the water cooler in the office.

Here’s an example of how in-jokes work in a business context. As expected, these aren’t very funny if you don’t know the circumstances and people involved. But because everyone in this audience knew the characters referred to very well, the seemingly mild gags brought the house down. The occasion was a business conference for a large UK telecommunications corporation.

Flight attendant 1:  Good morning/afternoon ladies and gentlemen.  On behalf of Captain XXX and his crew we’d like to welcome you aboard this British Teleways flight 2002 to ICT Solution Sales Training … our fantastic new destination channel that’s going to be a REAL winner with all our passengers next year.

As this is our maiden flight to the new destination you’ll be pleased to hear that our inflight entertainment today is all live and all performed by female flight attendants. 

Flight attendant 2:  It’s for this reason that the two Senior Captains who should have been travelling with us today were especially disappointed not to be on the flight after all. They of course are Captain Peter YYY who reluctantly decided to take himself by sea … and Captain Phil ZZZ who is flying at 30,000 feet anyway, now that Wolverhampton Wanderers have finally got to the top of the 1st Division.

Now let’s take a look at how the in-jokes concept can work for a social occasion. The following are excerpts from speeches I wrote for a bar mitzvah. The first is by the bar mitzvah boy’s 16 year-old brother, and the second by the (13 year-old) bar mitzvah boy himself. I spent about a week on and off with this family getting to know their personalities and in-jokes and it paid off. They and their 350 guests thought the speeches were fantastic. Mind you they all knew the boys and their personalities really well. Just for fun, see how much you can gather about their personalities from the in-jokes I’ve used for them…

OLDER BROTHER: Good evening. I’d like to spend the next few minutes talking to you about XXX.

It started way back when he appeared as a cute little baby. Apart from our parents that’s the only thing we’ve ever had in common.

But we’re so different, I think my parents probably brought him home from a maternity clinic on another planet.

Take food, for example. Whereas I’m a bit picky and enjoy the finer culinary delights … with XXX, you could serve him a plate of roasted football boots and he’d eat it. As long there was lots of it and plenty of ketchup. And of course, he doesn’t share. He hoards food like it’s going out of fashion. I like to make my Mum her favourite snack when she’s up in the office working late. XXX might think of doing that but he’d eat it himself on the way upstairs.

Now … clothes. Everybody jokes about the fact I like Gucci and Prada, but after all, I AM the son of a fashion-conscious family. But the closest XXX’s ever come to being label conscious, is knowing the difference between Arsenal home and away shirts. And that’s when he’s going somewhere special. The rest of the time he’s so badly dressed even the dog won’t be seen out with him. 

Being tidy is another thing. OK, I admit it. I’m not tidy. Well, I’m the creative type. But XXX’s so obsessed with neatness and regularity, he’d drive an accountant to distraction. He even makes his bed in the morning half asleep as the alarm’s going off, before he’s even finished getting out it.

Then, there’s preparations. I tend to make mine for things at the last minute, when it’s all fresh in my mind. But even when he’s just getting ready for school, XXX’s got to have everything laid out like it was morning drill in an Army boot camp. Sometimes I wonder why he even bothers to go to bed. If he didn’t he could then use the whole night to get ready for school.

Sport is another thing. My idea of good sport is something with a bit of class, you know, backgammon or chess. But XXX’s out there every weekend running after a ball in six inches of mud. At least that David Beckham manages to dress reasonably well. That’s amazing considering he’s depriving some village of an idiot. Perhaps that’s why he plays for Arsenal….

YOUNGER BROTHER (BARMITZVAH BOY): …. YYY is pretty strong as well. But I’m getting stronger and can deck him in a double armlock any time I like. I know he complains that I don’t share with him. I don’t understand it. I’ve offered to share a lot of my things with him but he’s not interested. Not my hoards of chocolate biscuits, Westlife CDs, dirty football kit, nothing.

It’s all very well for him to laugh at me taking plenty of time to get ready for school. But I think that’s a lot better than his way … being shouted at 8 times to make his bed … and leaving everything so late he’s running out to the car still trying to do up his trousers.

And as for all this fashion stuff … well, YYY, I know David Beckham wears lots of Gucci and Prada.  (SARCASTICALLY) And that says a lot for Beckham’s brain power, doesn’t it? 

Anyway if YYY was going to play any games at all, they’d be with Mrs Beckham, wouldn’t they! 

Well, maybe YYY and I did come from different planets. On the other hand, we orbit around the same thing – our family.

Okay, we’re really different, but we’re both loyal players on the ZZZ team. Actually I couldn’t wish for a better brother. Nobody else could argue so well….

“In-jokes” for weddings and other social speeches

We can all be forgiven for thinking that in-jokes such as those I’ve shown above would work well for a wedding speech. Well, the answer is yes, but…you really do need to understand your audience bvery, very well if you want to rule out giving offence.

One wonderful thing about marriage is that often it brings two entirely different families – two entirely different groups of people – together. But that’s where a problem can begin if you tell in-jokes; one half of the audience will find them hilarious while the other doesn’t begin to understand what you’re talking about.

And don’t forget, even if the audience at a wedding is relatively small, it can still comprise a surprisingly wide range of people in terms of age, cultural/ethnic background, and so-on.

My advice is, only tell in-jokes if one or more of the following apply:

  • Both families come from the same community / ethnic group
  • Both family / social groups have known each other for a long time, very well
  • You know the whole audience (possibly a small one) is closely acquainted with both bride and groom

There’s more on joke writing in Part 2 – enjoy!

More insider secrets to great writing:

“Super Speeches”…how to write and deliver them well

“How To Write About Yourself”…how to make the most of yourself, whatever you need to write

“Business Writing Made Easy”…everything you need to know about writing for business in English




  1. Am already on the floor rolling with laughter. This is absolutely hilarious and wait…educative too

  2. I’m already rolling on the floor..i guess this must be the consequence of a bad joke..very insightful. I like this one too


  1. […] Joke writing: some insider secrets you’ll love, part 2 August 16, 2011 By SuzanStMaur Leave a Comment Tweet First the good news, which in a way is bad news too: joke writing is a craft, not an art. Someone once said that there are only about 6 truly original jokes – the rest are all developments or adaptations. You CAN learn to write jokes for business and social uses, and in this. the second of these two articles, I show you how that works. (If you haven’t already read part 1, click here.) […]

  2. […] Joke writing: some insider secrets you’ll love, part 1 […]