THREES a Funny Number

Using Jokes

A man was driving down the road when he glanced out of the side window and saw a man, woman and child lying face down on a patch of grass.

‘What on earth?’ he said.

He pulled the car over, got out and went up to the man.

‘Are you ok?’ he asked.

‘Yes,’ the man on the ground replied. ‘I’m very poor and can’t afford to buy food. I’m eating this grass. It’s very good greens. My wife and son are eating some too.’

‘Oh, you poor man! You must all come back to my house for a meal. I insist.’

‘Oh that’s very kind of you,’ he replied.

So the 4 of them got into his car and he drove back to his house.

When they arrived at the man’s house the man said ‘Come on in’ and they all went in.

‘Come right through to the back,’ he said and they followed him through the house.

‘Now,’ he said ‘eat as much as you want. My grass hasn’t been cut for 4 weeks.’

Why is a joke funny?

What separates a story from a joke or piece of humour?

There are many theories about why something is funny, almost as many as there are jokes, but all of them agree on certain elements being required in every joke.

People laugh to release tension, to reduce stress. Think of how much humour comes from people who are oppressed or under stress.

I am going to talk about joke construction and use the joke I started with as an example.

There are 6 elements to any joke and they can be remembered by the acronym THREES.

T is for Target

Yes, every joke has a target. The butt of the joke.

There are a number of things that can be targets:

People – There are always lots of jokes about the people in the media, the latest celebrities or our esteemed politicians.

Groups of people – race, gender, religion. So many jokes start with people arriving at the pearly gates.

In the joke I started with, I am targeting poor people. Those who can’t even afford to feed themselves.

Places – How many jokes about the Irish have you heard? Or about New Zealand, where the men are men and the sheep are nervous.

Things – What’s the difference between a Leyland P76 and a Jehovah’s Witness? You can shut the door on a JW.

Yourself – usually the most acceptable target is yourself. Self-deprecating humour.

In Toastmasters it’s often recommended that you only target yourself in humour. The reason for this lies in the 2nd letter of Threes:

H is for Hostility

Humour is Cruel.

Yes, I know that seems contradictory – humour’s meant to be fun isn’t it? No. Humour is about superiority, often by belittling the target.

Think about shows such as Funniest Home Videos – most of the clips are of people falling over or bumping into things. The other clips are usually just cute – either animals or small children showing their innocence. We go Aaah, rather than laugh.

Humour ridicules the target, so that even though the audience may not actually be superior, they get to feel superior to the joke’s target, even if it is fleetingly.

There are 2 ways to feel superior:

The 1st is to achieve some exemplary work admired by everyone.

The other is to criticise. Humour is social criticism.

Comedians get paid to complain.

Often the hostility is against authority: people in higher rank in your org, politicians, celebrities, police, govt.

What do you call a hundred politicians at the bottom of the ocean? A good start!

My opening joke shows superiority over poor people. The fact that we can afford food allows us to feel superior.

R is for Realism

A joke has to be based in reality or the audience won’t be able to relate to it.

A good joke states a bitter truth.

It also has to be one to which the audience, whoever they are, can understand and relate to in their own experience.

So some jokes that work for one audience wouldn’t work for another. Try telling a joke about the frustrations of computer software to someone who lives in a mud hut and has never known electricity.

We all know of poor people, some of us may even be poor people, so my introductory joke is quite realistic, as is the offer to give him a meal.

E is for Exaggeration

If a joke is based on truth, it’s also necessary to stretch that truth to it’s limits. And this is done by exaggeration.

I’ve told you a million times, don’t exaggerate!

Humour pairs the likely with the unlikely. It’s embellishing what has already been stated. It builds the tension.

The scarecrow was so effective, the crows returned the corn they had stolen last year!

My opening joke was realism exaggerated – people may be poor, but they don’t really eat grass like a cow.

E is for Emotion

Emotion builds the tension, which leads to a bigger laugh.

Most frequently it is achieved by something we all have to learn to do in Toastmasters: the Pause.

That small pause builds the audience’s anticipation, which leads to a bigger laugh.

There are other techniques used too, such as asking the audience a question, even rhetorically, and jokes, often one-liners, on the way to the punch-line.

I built tension into the opening joke by not just arriving at the man’s house, but extending it by going through the house and telling them to eat all they want.

And finally

S is for Surprise!!

It’s the most important element of any joke.

You absolutely have to have surprise or you won’t get a laugh.

A joke is like a straight line, with a sudden unexpected curve right at the end.

The surprise releases all the tension that you have spent the whole joke building up, releasing laughter.

And it is important to save the surprise until the very last moment or you can kill the laugh.

In the opening joke, it’s the last sentence that has the surprise, the twist in the tale.

So in Summary

Laughter is caused by building tension and then suddenly releasing it.


Remember the acronym THREES to get all the elements of a joke:

    • Target
    • Hostility
    • Realism
    • Exaggeration
    • Emotion
    • Surprise

Start collecting your jokes now. Happy hunting.


Some ideas on using humour from Gawain Simpson of Western Founders Toastmasters, District 17.