When the Clich Comes Second

It's a more difficult construction when the cliché is in the second clause or sentence. As with puns, a groan is the most frequent reaction.

The dog's breath smelled terrible, so his bark was worse than his bite.

Wife to friend: "I'm in trouble. I broke my husband's favorite golf club." "What did he say?" "He said, 'What hit me?' "

Sign in Berkeley, California: Hubert Allen—Accountant

Many Happy Returns

Guest of honor at roast: "I'm standing so you'll know I don't take insults lying down."

If you don't want the dentist to hurt you, keep your mouth shut.

What do you say to a three-hundred pound baked potato? Anything, but be sure to butter him up.

You can combine cliché formats. Here's one, inspired by S.J. Perelman, which combines reforming with a take-off (and the cliché comes second).

The hooker was chasing the comedian down the street—a unique case of the tail dogging the wag.

The Big Pay-Off

Whether you put the cliché first or second depends on which ending evokes the biggest surprise. The importance of holding the surprise phrasing to the last possible moment cannot be overemphasized.

On the West Coast they say that not waiting until the last word to divulge the surprise is going past the "post office window." On the East Coast, more racetrack oriented, they call it going past the "pay-off window."

Again, remember that humor is written backwards. That means you first find the cliché you want to work on, then build a story around it. The trick is not to telegraph it. Here's one that was so obviously stretched, it looks more like taffy than good humor:

A construction worker discovered his wife in the back seat of a Thunderbird making love to another guy. He got into his cement truck, drove up to the car and dumped an entire load of concrete all over it. Then, he drove away thinking, "The longer they go, the harder it gets."

While this is an example of a labored anecdote "just to make a joke," it does follow one other essential rule: make sure the joke is the last possible thought, and don't add other words to the sentence after the joke. If you do, the audience will think that your take-off was only a setup for a bigger laugh coming up.

Double Your Pleasure

You can put more than one cliché in one sentence. It doubles the work, but it also doubles the fun.

Give a man enough rope and he'll get tied up in the office.

Some girls fight against being kissed. Others take it lying down.

Why do people groan rather than laugh at outrageous puns? I'll tell you the truth. I have no idea, and neither does anyone else.


Creativity is putting together two activities that haven't been previously associated into a plausible but audacious scenario. Association is a more formal word for teaming. This is humor's variation of a metaphor. We com bine two simple elements that are logical but impossible, ^hile that sounds strange, the humor comes from the unexpected, off-beat relationship. Our laughter covers our surprise, and our appreciation is enhanced by tinges of envy. ("Why didn't I think of that?")

Associations have many possible formats. Some of the most popular are listed here.

1. Association of a cliché with a celebrity name whose fame is a result of a physical or mental reputation.

My opponent has done the work of two men: Laurel and Hardy. —Governor James A. Rhodes

It's been so hot, Mickey Rooney has been using Dolly Parton for shade. —Bob Hope

The last time I told that joke, Yul Brynner had hair. Come to think of it, so did I. —Robert Orben

2. Association is the teaming of two clichés. This technique frequently produces incongruous humor, and is the backbone of improvisation.

Wife to friend: "I call Herb's salary a phallic symbol because it only rises once a year."

3. Association is the teaming of verbs or adverbs with nouns. The results of this technique are often referred to as "Tom Swifties."


"So you think you're a big wheel," he spoke. "Make a canoe of that tree," he barked. "This spotlight is really helpful," she beamed. "It's a dog's life," he muttered. "The faucet's broken," she gushed. "I wish I were back in the forest," she pined.


"The smog is really bad today," he cried breathlessly. "What kind of cheese is this?" he asked sharply.

"They have a funny name for streets in France," he said ruefully. "I've finally won the Academy Award," said Henry fondly.

—Gene Perret

"My feet hurt," Tom said flatly. "They do?" she asked archly. "Yes," said Tom soulfully. "Tough," she answered callously.

—Neal Robison

Did you hear about the two worms in the cemetery who made love in Ernest?

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