Comedy as Poetry

Here’s a fascinating discussion by Jerry Seinfeld about how he writes a joke.

A couple of things are very striking.

First, if you take out the fact that he’s talking about pop-tarts, and that his expected reaction from his audience is a laugh, he could be a poet discussing his work. He is extremely attuned to such matters as word choice, rhythm, the pacing of his audiences emotional response, transitioning, the effects of subtle differences in imagery.

Second, I have long been interested in what makes things funny. I hope to write on it one day. Certain incongruities, the unexpected, yes. But some words are funnier than others, and it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with unexpectedness or incongruities. Ducks are funnier than eagles. He seems to attribute the property of intrinsic funniness to certain words, e.g., “chimps,” and spaces them accordingly.

He could be Robert Pinsky. Sort of.

Rose Woodhouse

Elizabeth Picciuto was born and reared on Long Island, and, as was the custom for the time and place, got a PhD in philosophy. She freelances, mainly about disability, but once in a while about yeti. Mother to three children, one of whom is disabled, two of whom have brown eyes, three of whom are reasonable cute, you do not want to get her started talking about gardening.


  1. The novel Catch-22 was originally going to be called Catch-18, but Leon Uris’s Mila-18 came out a bit beforehand, so they changed it. Which is huge, because 22 is a much funnier number. (As is 42, which is why it’s the answer to the question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. 38 wouldn’t have worked.)

    • It’s the TOO sound, isn’t it? CarTOON; TOOT; TUMESCENT; TOMB.

      Well, maybe not TOMB.

      • Sounds you can drag out are funny, and “too” is perfect for that. (You can drag out the “ee” in “teen” a bit, but not nearly as much.) It’s why Jerry Lewis is funny just saying “Hey, laaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaady!”

        • Yeah, you’re right, the “T” is irrelevant, it’s the “OO” that’s funny (a sound which we exclaim both in pleasure – oooooooh! – and disgust – ewwwwww!).

          Maroon (in the “Bugs Bunny” sense, not the color)

          And the grandaddy of all English stupid/funny words, the one that launched a million jokes for us, starting when we were kids – Poop (interestingly, also Food)

          (The inherent comedy in the “OO” sound may also explain why the Hebrews had no choice but to be funny – what else is a Jew gonna do?)

          Rose, if you ever do write on “what makes funny funny”, make sure to tap Mike as a resource. He’s like a comedy (amongst other things) encyclopedia/historian.

      • Transcendental numbers are funnier than merely irrational numbers. Nobody ever has a funny square root of two fight.

  2. Years ago I read one of the few books that made me laugh out loud–*Sein Language* by Jerry Seinfeld. Since my late uncle was the top pro wrestling promoter in the world and since I’m a Three Stooges fan, I will always remember the line, “The referee in a pro wrestling match is like Larry of the Three Stooges; you don’t really need him, but it wouldn’t be the same without him.” LOL!!!

  3. I think that thing that was hammered home by that video was how much work goes into making things look effortless. I think it’s easy to look at things like comedy, or acting, or song writing, and assume it’s just something someone sits down and bangs out.

    Being great at anything is really, really hard.

    • Being mediocre isn’t that much easier. You’d be surprised how much time I might spend reworking a comment that then falls completely flat.

      • Mike, just so you know, countless are the times your comments are fishin’ hilarious, but I don’t want to type LOL Mike all the time or whatever. So I crack up, but don’t comment. You may think they fall flat, but they don’t. E.g., your transcendental numbers comment above. Both sentences individually and together.

        • I once read someone define LOL as something like “a acronym that used to signify that you found something very funny, but which has evolved into what you type when you can’t think of what to say next.”

      • “You’d be surprised how much time I might spend reworking a comment that then falls completely flat.”

        Count me among those ‘never surprised’.


  4. Rose,

    This is something I’ve been thinking about lately as well. It was spurred on by listening to a handful of podcasts, including the Adam Carolla podcast and the WTF podcast, neither of which are SFW. Both involve a lot of comedians “talking shop” and it was fascinating to hear how they approach the craft of comedy. I always assumed that comedians were just funny and they went up on stage and were funny. But the elite ones work just as hard as elite talents in other fields… they student, they watch folks better than them, they consider timing, pacing, word choice, etc.

    I also caught an HBO special called “Talking Funny”, in which Louis CK, Chris Rock, Ricky Gervais, and Jerry Seinfeld sat around and just talked shop. It was fascinating. If you can find it (I only saw it air once but it might be available on HBOGO or something… more info here:, I think you’d like it. Not only is it hilarious but it explores some of the very same ideas in the post.

    • Interestingly, I notice this in philosophy too. That is, students tend to think philosophical arguments should be something that just occur to you unbidden, and if they don’t, that means you can’t do it. They take our having a reply for every argument they make as evidence of intelligence instead of evidence of having studied this stuff for years.

      Thanks for pointing it out! It seems like comedians are actually more insightful into their work processes than are many filmmakers. Maybe because they don’t overdramatize their role?

      • And because it’s difficult to insist that something really is funny when no one laughs.

  5. One of Joel Achenbach’s very first Why Things Are columns in the Washington Post was about why things are funny. This isn’t it, but re-iterates (in a longer form) some of the stuff I remember from that column.

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