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Formats Unpacked: A Guy Walks Into a Bar...
How a joke set up acts like a humour chassis
Regular readers will know that we endeavour to unpack a wider range of formats. So I was delighted when Jamie Gower got in touch with an idea for unpacking a joke. It’s not the first joke we’ve unpacked. You may remember the brilliant Rob Alderson unpacking The Langdon way back in 2020.
Jamie has written jokes for Microsoft, staged Hamlet in the video game Starcraft, and puppeteered a furry orange lounge singer having an identity crisis at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. He is currently mastering a series of TV theme songs from an alternate universe.
Over to Jamie…
What’s it called?
Any joke that starts with “A guy walks into a bar...” For instance:
A guy walks into a bar. He notices the bartender is a horse. The horse says, “What’s the matter? You never seen a horse tending bar before?” The guy replies, “Sure. I’m just surprised the ferret quit.”
What’s the format?
“A guy walks into a bar” is what comedians call a setup. In her brilliant comedy performance Nanette, Hannah Gadsby describes a joke as “essentially a question with a surprise answer.” That question is the setup, and the surprise answer is the punchline.
The setup gives the audience enough context that they understand why the punchline/surprise is surprising. If you’re in the Florida Everglades, encountering an alligator is not that surprising. Terrifying, sure, but you knew what you were in for when you bought that ticket to Boca Raton. But, if you’re at your dentist’s downtown, that same alligator? Still terrifying, but now surprising. (For one thing, how did it even get a dental degree?)
So the setup has to get you to the dentist, so to speak, quickly and efficiently. Because setups are not where The Funny is. That’s the punchline’s job. Now, there are talented comedians who can bake humor and sub-punchlines into their narrative so you enjoy every bite, no matter how big their metaphoric performance pie. But us civilians mostly rely on making the setup as short as possible.
The shortest setup known is probably “knock, knock.” But even at three times the word count, “A guy walks into a bar” is still a marvel of minimalism. It uses six words in a person + action + location format to answer five fundamental questions:
Who (a guy)
Where (a bar),
When (sometime during opening hours)
How (he walks)
What (it’s a joke—most of us aren’t stand-ups on a stage, and we need to let
people know when we are telling a joke, or they might think we’re having some sort of episode)
Of course, there’s almost always something more you need to know—like the species of the bartender in the opening example. But those first six words do an amazing amount of scene-setting. And the most fundamental question—why?—then becomes part of the punchline.
What’s the magic that makes it special?
Let’s face it, this setup is old. Like possibly Ancient Sumerian old. Its survival secret? Stability and adaptability.
Because it’s more than a joke setup: it is a humor chassis. It doesn’t just carry person + action + location, it bolts them together, putting them in a relationship to quickly build context. For instance:
a guy + a bar tells us this is going to be a grown up joke about grownups
walks into + a bar tells us this probably going to be the guy’s first time in a
bar, at least for this evening
There’s a whole series of expectations we form instinctively from those six words. And the punchline then either pays off on those expectations, or bounces off them in a new, surprising direction.
And since the chassis holds such expectations, if we change any one of the phrases, it sets a new brand tone with a delicious dissonance between what was expected and the new variant.
For example, let’s change the opening to:
A horse walks into a bar.
Right away the mental picture is different, unexpected. What could possibly happen next? Well, we can go with the classic pun:
The bartender says, “Hey, fella, why the long face?”
Or an “anti-joke:”
Several patrons immediately leave, sensing the inherent danger in the situation.
Or even go meta with a joke about the joke:
The bartender says, “Hey, fella, why the long face?” And the horse says, “Because you say that every time I come in here.”
With its combination of structure and flexibility, “A guy walks into a bar” has endured as a joke format by supporting and encouraging repetition, variation, and innovation through a short, efficient setup.
I have the deepest affection for:
A grasshopper walks into a bar. The bartender says, “Hey, we’ve got a drink named after you!” And the grasshopper says, “Really? You got a drink named ‘Kevin’?”
If loving that joke is wrong, I don’t want to be right.
“Knock-knock” jokes, “Why did the chicken cross the road?”, elephant jokes—any variety of Dad-joke adjacent setups that are recognizable enough to support variation.
What really happens when a horse walks into a bar.
Thanks to Jamie Gower for that excellent unpacking. If, like Jamie, you have a joke format you’d like to unpack, don’t hesitate to get in touch. All ideas are welcome.
At Storythings, we work with organisations of all shapes and sizes to develop content formats for communications. If you’d like us to help you with your comms strategy, or you’d be interested in hearing my talk on What I’ve Learned About Formats, get in touch.
Til next time,