The Comedy Formula

You may think that laughter first appeared around the time language was developed, but in fact it predates even language. Scientists speculate that the neurological function of laughter or like vocalizations in mammals occurred early in the process of mammalian evolution. Therefore comedy might be 220 million years old or almost as old as Jay Leno.

Like the entire universe, there is a mathematical underpinning to comedy and it is really very simple. What?! How can one of the greatest parts of being alive be very simple.

In order to understand the comedy formula we have to deconstruct and reverse engineer...


Of course, joke structure famously includes the setup and punchline. Here's a fairly generic example I came up with to demonstrate:

Setup- My wife is finally pregnant!

Punchline- When I find the guy I'm going to kill him.

What happens between the setup and punchline to create the process that produces laughter?


The setup can be defined as the initial data.

Because of the way the human mind works to construct reality it has an automatic or default setting that predicts the next set of data.

In other words, the human mind anticipates what is going to come next.

When it takes in the setup / initial data it produces a set of facts and constructs a narrative. It performs this action automatically and at a subconscious level.

This point, after both the set up and the narrative construction, is where the punchline comes in.


The punchline can be defined as the new data.

It destroys the produced set of facts and the constructed narrative. And puts the new data in their place.

This event involves a few things, but most importantly deception and violation.

If we deem the deception and violation to be harmless or benign, we approve of the joke and will often laugh.

All of these actions and reactions are programmed into us.

The reasons why are best left to neurologists, psychologists and evolutionary biologists.

In any event, this process is comedy in a nutshell. Distilled down to its most basic essence comedy is nothing more than this process over and over again.


Let's take a second look at our generic example.

Setup- My wife is finally pregnant!

The subject's mind will presume data such as:

-this guy got his wife pregnant and is going to be a father
-after a long and difficult journey to conceive a baby this couple has finally succeeded
-I'm so happy the cycle of life is being perpetuated
-having a baby is one of my greatest joys, thus I'm so happy for this couple
-this guy sounds excited, he must have a really special bond with his wife

Now think about what happens when the new data is introduced.

Punchline- When I find the guy I'm going to kill him.

The produced data and constructed narrative explode and are replaced by the new data:

-this guy didn't get his wife pregnant and is now a cuckold
-there is no success after a long journey
-the cycle of life for one adulterous man may soon end
-having a baby is not a joyous occasion for everyone
-this guy has a terrible relationship with his wife


Of course, there is a whole category of jokes that do not have set ups.

For example, when you see someone awkwardly trip, dozens of clowns exiting a car, or a bird relieving himself on someone.

In these cases, the initial data is part of a set of data known as universal data.

You have seen people walking millions of times. Ninety-nine percent of the time, they don't trip awkwardly.

So when you see someone walking you construct a narrative that they won't trip.

When they do they have shattered your expectation. Likewise with people exiting a car or people walking and not having birds poop on them.

I've provided some links (Probability and Laughter OR Benign Violation) if you'd like to further research the entire phenomenon of laughter and comedy.

As well, you can peruse our advanced comedy concepts if you’d like to keep learning.

For example, how to make a punchline both a setup and punchline. Why opposites are so effective. Act outs. Call backs. The rule of three. Topping the joke, etc.


For our PhD level students we will offer further demystification: how does Larry David get away with being such a jerk. Why did Jay Leno mail it in for twenty years.

How did Jerry Seinfeld get so overrated. How did Steve Harvey turn being a clown into millions of dollars. How does Ricky Gervais maintain a great career while coming off as a pedophile.


I realize that a lot of this information is going to upset some people. The implications can be difficult to deal with.

Many people will lash out and attack me personally - ad hominem attacks are as old as rhetoric itself.

But don't worry. I support your venting. Eventually, I will add a separate version of the game in which you can attack, insult, demean, debase and belittle everything about me.

Have fun!

Ray Brennan