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How to write funny punchlines

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Finalist Punchlines

Here are some guidelines on how to write a funny punchline. I will divide this into two sections. Firstly, how to write punchlines that will get higher ratings from the RATSY judges. Secondly, how to write punchlines that I will choose for the Finalist Punchlines.

There are lots of little tips here but remember, the number one rule above all else: MAKE IT FUNNY!

Getting higher ratings from RATSY

Your punchlines are initially judged by a team of judges using RATSY - a Punchline Rating System. They rate each punchline from 1 to 5. At the end of the week, the top 100 rating punchlines get archived and it is from these top 100 punchlines that I choose the Finalists Punchlines. The RATSY judges are a fickle and capricious lot (just kidding, I love you guys) and you have to work hard to get past them for starters!

  • Avoid rehashing punchlines. Nothing annoys RATSY judges more than rehasheds punchlines. There's the very basic error of submitting the same punchline twice. Or submitting the same punchline repeatedly changing the grammer or words slightly. Usually judges rate repeat punchlines low. Sometimes they rate both punchlines low! Rather than increase your chances with multiple submissions, you lessen them! Avoid repeating your own punchlines. To get the highest rating, rather than submit variations, submit the best variation once.

    But even more insidious are the endless variations on a single theme. These can get tedious and judges often rate the later variations lowly. You might get rated lower even though you had the best of intentions. What I recommend is you read through the Funniest Punchlines Page (or if you're keen, the All Punchlines Page) to see what's already been submitted and avoid repeating the same tired old themes.
  • No All Caps. IT GETS VERY ANNOYING READING SENTENCES LIKE THIS. Judges often give the punchline a 1 regardless of content. So watch it!
  • Spelling and Grammar. This is fundamental but something as simple as typos can cost you a rating or two (which can be crucial). Proofread your punchline before hitting the submit button. It's good writing practice in general! :-)

Becoming a finalist punchline
To make matters more complicated, you also have to think further ahead to the end of the week when I choose the Finalists. It's impossible to serve two masters but in this case, you're gonna have to try! Note that the principles here will help refine and improve your punchline in general and hence might increase your rating also.
  • Keep it short. There's only so much space for a punchline (particularly for The Pits) so I always opt for the shorter punchlines. Try and write succinctly - the more information you can convey in the fewer words, the better the writing.
  • Delete unnecessary words. I always go through my own writing several times, deleting unnecessary words. I find any sentence starting with "Because" or "Then" can have that word removed without harming the meaning. Similarly, the word "that" in the middle of a sentence can also be safely deleted.
  • Compress words. Your punchline is also streamlined with simple tricks like abbreviating "you will" to "you'll" or "it would" to "it'd". Sounds basic but I've trimmed a lot of finalist punchlines this way.
  • Use ... for sentence breaks. A personal writing style I use for sev cartoons is instead of : or - to convey breaks in sentences, I always use ... It's gonna end up that way so you might as well do it now (save me a few seconds at the end of the week, thanx! :-)
  • End in small words. This sounds silly but it's sometimes a consideration. A speech bubble is wide in the middle and small at the bottom. That means it's much easier to fit a punchline that has a smaller word at the end than a big word. I sometimes take that into account when choosing finalists - if a word has "supercalifragalisticexpe..." (ugh, you know what I mean), then there's no way I'll fit it in a speech bubble without hyphens which I'm always reluctant to use (they're just ugly).
  • Joke must work out of context. Picture someone picking up a newsletter and reading the cartoon you're writing a punchline for. Is your punchline going to work in that situation? Or does it refer to something so obscure, only you and a handful of your classmates will get it. I try to pick jokes that will work with the cartoon taken in isolation, out of context of the competition.
  • No in-jokes. For the same reason, I never choose punchlines that refer to Sevilian culture, the Sev website, other TV shows or cartoons (eg - Sev Trek references in Pits or Twist) or stuff in the cartoon panel like URL, signature or cartoon header. I like punchlines that are self-consistent with the universe of the cartoon.
  • Sevname dependence. This is another subtle one. If the punchline uses the name of a character, the joke may live or die depending on association with the character's name. Keeping in mind, the name will be replaced with the sevname, does the joke lose it's impact?
  • Cartoon theme. Sometimes a punchline is funny but misses the theme of the cartoon. For example, the cartoon raises a question about a certain character. A high rating punchline may be snappy and clever, but doesn't resolve the question. Sometimes I choose these punchlines, sometimes not - it depends on how good the answer is, whether there are lots of good punchlines that do address the theme, the alignment of the moons at midnight, etc. Eg - it's a very subtle, indefineable thing but it's another factor to be aware of - I do tend to favour punchlines that answer the question.
Disclaimer - I don't want to be a wowser here. Still submit punchlines that are obscure, that refer to Sevilia, etc. I still enjoy reading them and if they're funny, they'll get high ratings and be immortalised in the Archives. I'm just explaining the subtle, imprecise science of Finalist Punchline criteria (which I'm still learning too, based on the regular criticism I get for the finalists I often choose).

Tips from Mark
Lastly, Mark who was written more winning punchlines than anyone else (streaking ahead on the Top Ten Punchline Winners list) was kind enough to send me some techniques that are obviously helpful based on his results:
  1. I consider the "whole scene" including what is just off "camera." (Ex. What was Herman looking at when tied up to the pole in the country?) I think about the situation I've imagined and then type out whatever comes to my mind. It usually happens in spurts. If I hit a blank, I leave the contest and move on to the next one.
  2. I will edit a line after I type it and consider other possible phrasings to make it more "natural." I strive for short and to-the-point. I want people to get the line quickly or the line fails.
  3. I use the baseball batter method - take a lot of swings to get a few hits. You see that all of the prolific writers and winners on the site do this. I don't mean re-enter the same punchline with some small change in wording. What I mean is enter a lot of different, new, funny punchlines. Occasionally, you may hit upon a "golden punchline" - one that nails the comic perfectly. But, in general, punchlines are good to some, not so good to the rest.
  4. I do a big line dump when I first see a new strip. Then, I usually come back once a day for the rest of the week. I may have a few new lines per day. Often, I am inspired by the other funniest lines, which I enjoy immensely.
  5. When I can, I attend judging sessions (JS). The average number of voters is about 10. Hence, just being there gives me a chance to "defend" my lines. Still, I vote with my gut. I will vote another line before mine if I think it is funnier (for instance: "My other colt is loaded." - I loved this line, esp. living in the western US).
  6. Re-read your punchline before entering it. Clean up spelling mistakes (which I make too many of...) Also, if you do not find it amusing the second time around, it probably is not worth entering.

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