There’s nothing quite like the moment when a comedian drops their punch line. If it’s good, the audience can hardly stop laughing—and if it’s bad, bring on the groans. Here’s everything you need to know about how to make your punch lines pack a punch.
A punch line is the climax of a joke, often offering an unexpected and funny ending. Punch lines are usually short and quick, although this is by no means a hard and fast rule. A good punch line, short or long, should be impactful, leaving an audience laughing or thinking.
“Hannah Gadsby: Something Special” Courtesy Netflix
To create a punch line that leaves ’em laughing:
- Research: Watch performances by your favorite comedians to study their joke content, pacing, and punch line delivery.
- Write: Punch lines go hand in hand with jokes, or statements and stories that make people laugh, so make sure to spend as much time writing the setup as you do working on your punch line. Carry around a notebook (or take notes on your phone) and write ideas down.
- Revise: Then refine, refine, refine. Nail down the story and its beats. When it comes to the punch line, try out different endings. The best punch lines usually include a twist that disrupts audience expectations, so aim for the element of surprise.
- Test it out: Test out your jokes on people you trust, paying particular attention to how they respond to your punch line. Getting perspective from others can help you further edit your punch line.
- Perfect your delivery: Punch lines—and performances in general—are all about getting your timing right. Even the most hilarious joke can turn sour if your delivery is off, so get your delivery right.
You’ve researched, written, and edited, and now you have a joke with a great punch line—but figuring out how to deliver a joke can take some patience. These tips can help you determine your best comedic timing.
Try recording yourself. Watch your recording and think about where you pause, how fast or slow you’re talking. You can even try performing the story with different tones and cadences.
Take a beat. Most punch lines want a little room to breathe, so make sure you wait a beat before delivering it.
Go at your own pace. Comedic timing relies a lot on pacing and the individual comedian’s style, so aim for the timing that works best for you.
Take this joke Tig Notaro has about communicating with her cat, for example:
“A couple of years ago my wife and I adopted a precious little kitten named Fluff. That’s her given name, and we kept it out of respect for her birth parents. And I realized the other day in the living room that I had never meowed at her. I was like, Oh my god, I’m gonna totally meow at Fluff. And so I looked at her and I says to her, I says: ‘MEOW!’
“And she was like, ‘No way! How is this just now coming up?’
“She’s stunned. Just with her little kitten stunned face, and she says back to me, she says, ‘MEOW!’ And I says to her, I says: ‘MEOW!’ We are going back and forth having the time of our lives. And then Stephanie leans out of the kitchen and says, ‘I wouldn’t do that if I were you.’
“ ‘What? What are you talking about?’
“ ‘I wouldn't do that. You don’t know what you’re saying to her. You could be saying something rude or inappropriate.’
“ ‘No, I feel confident we both just agreed that you’re insane.”
Try reading the joke plainly without injecting it with pacing or comedic timing. Then, listen to her tell the joke in the following clip:
Notaro’s perfectly timed delivery makes the punch line hilarious.
- “Donald, you’re so stupid, you are sooo stupid. You’re lucky you’re so hot.”—Patti Harrison
This joke, given by trans actor Patti Harrison in response to former president Donald Trump’s tweet that he would ban trans people from the military subverts expectations in the wryly delivered punch line.
- “I like a woman with a head on her shoulders. I hate necks.”—Steve Martin
This is a classic simple joke with a twist ending. The punch line provides an amusing juxtaposition between smart people (the first part of the joke) and silly ones. It also relies on Steve Martin knowingly making fun of himself.
- “Twenty years ago we had Johnny Cash, Bob Hope, and Steve Jobs. Now we have no Cash, no Hope, and no Jobs. Please don’t let Kevin Bacon die.”—Bill Murray
Bill Murray takes heavier topics with this joke—morality and the degraded economy—before lightening it up with a tasty food reference.
- “Do you know what I love most about baseball? The pine tar, the resin, the grass, the dirt. And that’s just in the hot dogs.”—David Letterman
The first part of this joke sets you up to think David Letterman is talking about the field and equipment—all the things you usually associate with baseball. So his porcine punch line is way out of left field.
- “I hate when women compare men to dogs. Men are not dogs. Dogs are loyal. I’ve never found any strange panties in my dog’s house.”—Wanda Sykes
Wanda Sykes delivers her signature no-holds-barred humor with this punch line that adds a twist to the notion of canine loyalty.
Some jokes, known as anti-jokes, do not have a punch line. Rather than delivering a final, unexpected line, anti-jokes tend to be overly simplified, anticlimactic, or obvious. Ironically, these anti-jokes often disrupt audience expectations by not including a shocking twist. They may induce an involuntary eye roll or even a laugh that ends with a groan.
A punch line is more than just a comedy tool. It can be used in other formats to emphasize or highlight the end of a story. Outside of comedy, another popular type of punch line is the rap punch line. Rap theorist Edison Edwards notes that rap punch lines commonly use wordplay such as similes, puns, metaphors, and homophones to pack a punch.
“Curb Your Enthusiasm” Photograph by John P. Johnson/ HBO
Timing: Any performance requires practiced timing and pacing—precisely what punch lines are all about. All performers, presenters, orators, and anyone else in the public eye should be well-versed in pacing their performance and delivering an impactful, impressive ending. It can make the difference between a good performance and an amazing one.
Dramatic effect: For dramatic performances, understanding a punch line can help elevate a final dramatic line, one that will make the audience gasp. Like comedy, drama can also have unexpected endings or twists that benefit from a punch line.
Dialogue: It’s also possible to have punch lines that work in dialogue with other actors, such as in television or movies. Maybe one actor sets up the story and another delivers the punch line. It may not be the same as a comedian’s joke, but it requires the same understanding of when and how to deliver a line.
Other performance opportunities: Comedy shows that feature talking head segments burst with opportunity to perfectly deliver punch lines. Take this clip from Season 3, Episode 2 of “Parks and Recreation,” where Nick Offerman perfectly delivers a punch line as the stoic Ron Swanson:
Whether you’re working on a routine or are looking to refine your comedic timing, understanding punch lines and practicing them can help improve your performance skills.