TO ORDER YOUR COPY OF 'COMEDY BASIC' AND SUPPORT THE PROJECT, GETTING YOUR NAME IN PRINT AND, OOH, LOADS OF OTHER GOODIES, FOLLOW THIS LINK.
This chapter will almost certainly hit the cutting room floor before the publication of COMEDY BASIC as I wrote it early on as a proof of concept, to check that analysing a piece of comedy forensically might reveal its workings. But I really enjoyed writing it, and it's a celebration of a show I love, so I'm going to share it here. It's two minutes of the Simpsons, dissected mercilessly to make it cough up its cogs and screws.. ENJOY!
There’s an old saying that analysing comedy is like dissecting a frog. Nobody laughs and the frog dies.
But if that approach was applied to actual dissection, we’d still think humans were worked by little people inside, like The Numbskulls in that comic, or that Pixar film that was like The Numbskulls in that comic.
So I say, dammit. This is comedy science and we need to get some blood on our hands. We’ve waited long enough. Let’s cut up a frog and kill it. Not just kill it. Dice it. Shove it through the woodchipper. Leave its guts floating in the air as a fine, dull mist that nobody could laugh at, but which leaves a horrible taste in the mouth.
For this experiment, let's send Igor to exhume the still warm corpse of the peak-era Simpsons episode Homer Badman.
It’s a classic episode, from season six, regularly scoring high on critics’ and fans’ lists of the best Simpsons episodes of all time. The script will have been ping-ponged around one of the sharpest writing rooms in comedy history, but the lead writing credit here goes to Greg Daniels, who went on to co-create King Of The Hill, Parks and Rec and the American version of The Office. He knows what he’s doing, and he’s said that it’s his favourite ever Simpsons episode.
In Homer Badman, Simpson family patriarch Homer attends a candy industry trade fair, with the hope of stealing as many free samples as possible. On returning home, his attempts to grab a rare Gummi bear candy that the family’s childminder has sat on are mistaken for sexual harassment, and the hapless yellow dad ends up a victim of trial-by-media.
This episode features some of my personal favourite Simpsons moments (Homer throwing a shaken cola can as a grenade, a pitch-perfect throwaway Little Mermaid parody, a TV talk show hosted by a wild bear) and builds to possibly the greatest closing scene of any sitcom, where Homer proudly and tenderly tells his wife, “Marge, my love, I haven’t learned a thing.” (That’s the rules right there, not only for writing the character of Homer, but for keeping a sitcom going for thirty plus years.)
But we’re not going to get that far. Nowhere near. I’m going to shred any joy out of the episode by forensically scalpelling the guts out of just the first two minutes, joke by joke.
Two minutes. We’re not going to get much past the production credits appearing on screen, but those first two minutes contain a dozen or more great jokes which I’m going to pick apart like some kind of relentless fun-removal machine, in the hope of demonstrating the depth of thought, and density of writing, that makes something really, really good.
This isn’t analysis intended to reveal some secret ‘hero’s journey’ or the importance of ‘Saving the Cat’, or to pinpoint some overarching theory of comedy. It’s just about how much hidden thought is packed inside every laugh, ready to be released at speed, like a boxing glove on a spring.
So here’s How It Works: the first two minutes of The Simpsons season 6, episode 9: Homer Badman.
JOKE 1: 0’07”
Titles. Blackboard gag: Bart is writing “I will not whittle hall passes out of soap” on the blackboard.
The first thing we see, as usual, is a quick sign-gag. It’s up to the audience to read it fast, or pause it, before the camera whips past. These running blackboard gags might seem throwaway, but they’re the first joke of every single episode, and they often contain everything that makes this show work. They’re fast, they’re witty, they have allusions and references, they often set up or reflect the character of Bart – the original lead character of the show – and they establish the sort of jokes that an audience can expect. If the blackboard gag is dumb, the bar is set nicely low for some goofy fun. If it’s obscure, we know that the show might sometimes expect us to miss a gag or two, while rewarding us if we catch the reference.
This particular line about whittling a bogus hall pass is a reference to prison breaks using fake tools such as guns carved from soap. It’s a good character gag for Bart who treats school like a prison, and is, as usual, acting more grown up than would be expected of a child his age. Like his sister, he is an old soul, an established character note, so the gag here confirms all our expectations of him; this joke “belongs” to Bart.
It also, as an extra note on top of that, confounds; this is an absurdist joke about an impossible thing, ie: whittling a convincing school document out of soap. The idea is silly, but, thanks to the widely known cultural trope of soap escape kit, it’s not confusing.
The idea of whittling escape equipment from soap can probably be traced to bank robber John Dillinger, who famously escaped prison in the 1930s using a fake gun. The prop was in fact carved from wood, not soap, or was possibly smuggled in by his attorney, so it’s one of those things everyone knows happened, that didn’t actually happen. It was Dillinger’s associates Harry Pierpont and Charley Makley who actually attempted escape using fake guns made of carved soap, blackened with boot polish. They failed, so maybe the audacious story got attached to the successful escapee to prop up his legend.
I had never heard of the real life examples when I first saw this episode, but I still laughed, because culturally the joke “reads”. Prisoners whittling a gun out of soap was an accepted trope for comedy by the time of the film Take The Money And Run in 1969, when Woody Allen’s character makes a soap-gun escape attempt in a rainstorm, ending up with only a fistful of froth. That a soap gun joke “reads”, without needing to know quite why, is a good example of how, despite the number of anxious notes comedy writers receive along the lines of “will people get this?”, an audience doesn’t need to understand a reference in depth in order to enjoy a joke. Soap whittling is just something bobbing in our shared cultural casserole, something that we “know” happens, and accept. And if for some reason you can’t triangulate the reference – maybe you’re from a culture or an era that lacks ambiently circulating myths of soap-assisted prison breaks – there’s another gag along in a moment.
JOKE 2: 0’19”
Couch gag: The Simpson family run towards their sofa, and it retreats into the distance. They chase it to a vanishing point in an endless tunnel.
This is a solid visual joke. The shot of the family running and running is held slightly too long, as well, with the implication that the show can’t start until the Simpsons have “caught” their couch and sat down, as they do in every other episode. This length of hold will have been decided by the makers, so it’s not accidental.
Many fans have noticed that this shot echoes one in Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits, where the film’s heroes push a piece of furniture (in that case a wardrobe) down an unending, surreal corridor. If we’re playing that game, I could say that the third Hitch-Hiker’s Guide novel opens with Ford and Arthur chasing an escaping sofa across a field. This season already featured an opening couch gag with the family being crushed by the Monty Python foot. As fine comedy nerds, who knows what influences the Simpsons writers might have dragged out of their memories for this joke?
But maybe it’s just one of the limited number of things that can happen at the end of a shot where a family are running towards the middle distance to sit down, and you’re sure you’ve done everything else. There’d been over a hundred of these couch gags by this point. And of course there have been about six hundred couch gags since this one, proving that the only thing that limits the number of variations on an idea is how long a writer is prepared to sit, in front of a blank document, crying. The Simpsons couch gags are examples of a set process imposed on a fixed resource: there are limited elements to play with, so ring the changes on all of them, move them, switch them, play with them.
JOKE 3: 0’32”
We open in the Simpsons’ kitchen. Bart is picking through a bowl of colourful breakfast cereal with marshmallow bits. “Damn FDA,” he says. “Why can't it all be marshmallow?”
This is a good character joke about Bart, whose role in the family is the “clown”: unwise, reckless, driven by impulses. (The energies that drive a sitcom ‘family’ unit according to Mitch Hurwitz’s theory of character dynamics are patriarch, matriarch, craftsman, and clown.) In this case, the clown wants sugar. He is his father’s son in this regard (though Homer is a patriarch he also has clown energy), and a clown character can be given jokes where he acts as pure, unstoppable id (see also Joey in Friends, Stan from Laurel and Hardy, or Vyvyan in The Young Ones). Bart wants what he wants, and what he wants is the tooth-rotting treat parts of his breakfast, and damn the roughage. It’s also a great opening joke for an episode driven by the family’s shared hunger for candy, encouraged by Homer, and where that gets him.
As with the prison break gag, there is another layer of joke here too. Bart is wise beyond his years and knows who is responsible for not making his cereal 100% marshmallow: the US Food and Drug Administration. If you are a child yourself or a non-American viewer, you might miss the reference to the FDA, but the rest of the joke allows you to guess who that might be: they’re a puritan spoilsport, the triple initials implying officialdom, and Bart wants to be unhealthy, so it’s not hard to work out that they’re a public health body. The FDA part is at the start of the line of dialogue too, the less weighted end of a joke, passed over quickly, so we know it’s not the punchline. If it’s gone by too fast, and you missed the reference, you can still enjoy the rest of the line as a great character joke.
JOKE 4: 0’38”
Lisa scolds her brother. “Bart, don't put the non-marshmallow pieces back in the box. They go in the trash.”
The Bart joke is great, but now it’s bounced off his sister. Lisa is the “craftsman” in the sitcom family dynamic, the striver and self-betterer. Lisa tells Bart off, confirming her established character (disapproving sister, and moral compass) but then confounds our expectations by revealing that the family rules are to throw the healthier parts of the cereal in the bin, and that she accepts them unquestioningly, because... well, we don’t need to know. It doesn’t really matter for the joke to work – the surprise makes it funny – but maybe it’s because she’s a kid, and this way she gets more sweets. She’s only human. It’s certainly because she’s a Simpson.
Jokes that ricochet in unexpected angles like this are wonderful, and beautifully played in a lot of great ensemble comedies where the writers have total mastery of their casts. Characters are defined by their role in the ensemble, but they can be allowed to act unexpectedly every so often, to cross lines, within the rules of the show, and surprise us, provided they snap back to type as soon as possible, and that these jokes are the exception to their character, not the defining rule.
To understand how jokes belong to characters, notice how Lisa could not have started the marshmallow cereal discussion. If the scene started with Lisa hogging all the marshmallows, and Bart commenting on it, even though they both agree that the marshmallows are the best part of the bowl, it would read very oddly; we’d wonder why the first line wasn’t given to Bart. But she can confirm her character to us (nagging Bart for his sloppiness) and then do something unexpected as a flourish. This line also neatly sets up that the whole family are going to be onside for Homer’s candy adventures, even usually critical Lisa; in this episode the lure of sugar wins over the most cautious characters.
JOKE 5: 0’43”
Homer sets out his plan for the day. “You like sweets, kids?” He says. “I know a place that's sweeter than sweetness itself. In this sweet place, earthly doughnuts are sour as poison. You'd spit them out, you would. I'm talking about the Candy lndustry Trade Show.”
This is straight exposition, and it’s masterfully done. The first two lines of the show, from Bart and Lisa, have set up a piece of dialogue here that tells the audience what is going to happen this week. That’s hitting the ground running; these Simpsons writing guys know what they’re doing.
The audience will appreciate this. For the first few minutes of any script, your audience is in “receive mode”, a habit learned from decades of consumption, taking in any information that will help them navigate the story. If this part of the script has irrelevant information, or introduces ideas that do not develop, it’s almost impossible to get any set-up into an audience’s head a few minutes later, because it will be too late. The audience’s story storage is already full, and they’re busy wondering when that bit about the drunk brother-in-law (that you loved writing but should have cut) is going to pay off, and so they miss the important plot points you’re trying to give out.
To sugar-coat the information dump, as it were, the writers have allowed Homer to use one of the show’s favourite comic prose styles: old timey talkin’. This dialogue could easily be Homer’s father, who speaks in this mode all the time. Original lead writer John Schwartzwelder loved him some old timey talkin’, and successive writing room history buffs Conan O’Brien, Josh Weinstein and Bill Oakley picked up the baton and ran with it until it became a distinctive show voice, not only for Springfield’s older characters, but whenever some two-dollar words could be squeezed into a ten-cent slot. Simpsons writers enjoyed reaching for Robert Chapman’s Thesaurus of American Slang so much that Weinstein once said that they were tempted to credit Dr Chapman as part of the writing room.
So when town oligarch Montgomery Burns answers the telephone with an old timey ‘ahoy hoy’ it’s not only just a funny sound for him to make, it’s a reference how the word ‘hello’ was invented for the new-fangled telephone. Alexander Graham Bell proposed the jaunty ‘ahoy hoy’, whilst his rival Thomas Edison favoured, ‘hello’. A new greeting was needed because for the first time, two speakers could be in different time zones and the traditional “good morning” or “good evening” might not apply to both parties. The buried joke, for the amusement of the history-loving writers who knew this story, is that the staggeringly ancient Mr Burns’ phone habits pre-date the settling of Edison and Bell’s argument.
In this particular line, Homer is adopting the voice of a fairground barker, a ballyhoo merchant, selling the candy show to his kids. There’s a chidren’s book echo perhaps of Dr Seuss, or Roald Dahl’s descriptions of the products from Willy Wonka’s magical chocolate factory. It’s funny that Homer reaches for such an outlandish, baroque salesman’s patter to sell the idea of sweets to two kids who are already filling their cereal bowls with marshmallows. That he thinks the hard sell is needed is a solid Homer character joke. He lives in his own head, and cannot imagine others might share his tastes, so he goes into Victorian salesman mode, just in case.
The payoff of this line is a solid piece of bathos: Homer’s magical world is a trade show. Had the writers decided to have some fun and name their confectionary expo ‘Sugaropolis’ or ‘Sweetland’ or ‘Cavity Island’, the joke wouldn’t work. It needs to be bald, industrial and functional. Homer’s wildest dream is to go to a trade fair, as long as that trade fair is full of sweets. That the writers avoided the urge to make up a funny Simpsons-esque name for the convention is pure writing skill; sometimes not thinking of a joke is the best way to land a better joke.
JOKE 6: 1’00”
Homer brandishes a pair of tickets. Lisa asks, “How did YOU get tickets?” and Homer answers, “They hid them in every millionth Krusty Klump Bar... and Krusty Klump Bar with almonds.”
Again, this is plot exposition, but full of character. The phrasing of Lisa’s line, stressing the ‘you’, means she can’t believe Homer – or anyone from her family - would ever be invited somewhere so exclusive and exciting. Homer’s reply has a funny brand-name in it – that would be a pleasurable half hour in the writer’s room working out what the chocolate bar could be called – and a funny number in it, which is a whole arcane area of comedy theory that inspires heated debate amongst writers.
And a million-to-one chance is way too big to be dismissed so airily; that Homer glides over it is a clue that he’s prepared to do anything to get to this trade show. The audience is also invited to catch the implication that candy-loving Homer may possibly have eaten a million candy bars to get his ticket (or two million to get the pair.)
In a script going at this speed – we are only a minute in, including titles – the doubling up of the ‘Krusty Klump bar with almonds’ detail at the end of Homer’s line must be doing something to earn its place. I suspect it acts as an extra grace-note laugh simply by being so unnecessary. Homer is taking a moment to remember the entire candy bar range because that is important to him. Those words could be cut because they slow the exposition, but they earn their place precisely because this distraction reveals character. Homer is going to a candy fair this week, and we need to know that this is his absolute passion; the almonds line stays.
JOKE 7: 1’05”
A flashback. Homer is unwrapping candy bars, tossing them aside. Pull out to reveal that he is sitting on the floor of the local Kwik-E-Mart, surrounded by piles of wrappers.
A flashback joke is comparatively easy in animation. Though a fresh background may need to be drawn, cutting away in a cartoon is far cheaper than a live action sitcom moving wholesale to a new single-use set, and possibly cast, for a few seconds of joke.
The rhythm of animated cutaways established in hit adult cartoons such as The Simpsons (and later to an exaggerated extent in shows like Family Guy) set a precedent, however, and soon the same pacing started to creep into even traditional multi-camera sitcoms.
Sometimes an extra layer of comedy could be wrung from acknowledging the audacity of copying cartoon rhythms in expensive live action, a good example being Father Ted’s hard cut to a disastrous funeral, at which the clueless Father Dougal has officiated, complete with exploding hearse. The studio audience’s delight is audible, not only at the joke itself, but at the effort thrown at filming a single overambitious reveal, on location, with outlandish disaster movie pyrotechnics. By the 2010s, the sitcom Community could knowingly satirise the taste for cutaway comedy, and use the audience’s awareness that these jokes were hard to achieve, when the show’s fourth-wall-breaking character Abed Nadir takes care to perform cutaway non-sequiturs in various locations in advance, in case they are needed by the show he (correctly) believes he is in.
Homer opening many candy bars is a good gag, throwing away the bars he loves, to get to the ticket he wants. Pulling out to reveal he is eating the stock at his local convenience store is a great pay off. Placing him on the floor, in the way of other customers, ignoring the store owner, and the antisocial nature of what he’s doing, is a character flourish: Homer responds to gut instinct, and the rest of the world disappears when he feels a strong need for something.
JOKE 8: 1’10”
Kwik E Mart owner Apu says to Homer, with great patience, “I have asked you nicely not to mangle my merchandise. You leave me no choice but to ask you nicely again.”
A flashback allows us a guest character in our opening exchange, showing us a wider world where The Simpsons is happening. Which character is revealed can be an extra source of pleasure for the audience, who get to recognise and enjoy the familiar face, and play a game of guessing how they will react.
Here, shopkeeper Apu is careful to appear characteristically deferent and polite to a regular customer. We laugh because we know Apu, or someone like him, and when he behaves how we expect him to behave, that makes us pleased that we guessed right. We get a little dopamine hit as a reward for having estimated someone correctly, because character assessment based on experience is a useful human survival skill, and we like to practice it.
The “leave me no choice” line is a neat subversion of a dialogue cliché; we wait for “call the police” but get a line that is surprising but fully in character. Here he is being totally Apu, which pleases us. But like Lisa earlier, we will happily accept polite, solicitous Apu acting “out-of-character” every so often, if only to test the boundaries of our knowledge of him. And sure enough, behind his deferent role serving the Springfield community, we often see Apu as a no-nonsense businessman, dusting his past the sell-by-date hot dogs, and showing a certain steely-eyed contempt behind the smile. These are all jokes that exercise the human act of judging others; guessing what they will do next, and practising taking in and accommodating new, sometimes contradictory information.
JOKE 9: 1’18”
Cut back to breakfast. Bart and Lisa beg to be taken to the candy show. But Homer says, “This is the one event I want my darling wife by my side.” Marge insists he take the kids instead. To which Homer replies. “Marge, they can't carry enough candy.” Homer explains, grabbing Marge’s arm. “They have puny little muscles. Not big, ropy ones like you.”
A nice bait-and-switch, but this classic sitcom reveal that Homer wants Marge because the kids can’t carry enough candy is doing a lot of work in very few words. The word “darling” in the set up works as a feint, sending us one way, ready for the dodge to the left, when Homer reveals his intentions aren’t romantic, but practical. Read the line without “darling” and you’ll see why it’s there. But then you’ll probably notice that “by my side” is also doing some lifting. And remove that and you’ll find that “one event” is also setting up expectation that Homer is offering Marge a long-awaited date together. “I want my wife,” is the meaning, and everything else is clever dressing to send the audience’s brain the wrong way.
The extra joke in this exchange is that Marge has great physical strength, presumably from the burden of housework (underlined by the visual of her doing the dishes while Homer sits dreaming of candy). Like all comedy about the relationship between Marge and Homer, this line is delivered with affection and warmth, even though it’s ostensibly mean and reductive. These characters love one another, and the writers and performers have taken care to maintain that sentiment, even in this potentially nasty line. The affection of the Simpsons for one another even when being unpleasant is one of the reasons we want to come back and spend time with them every week. Plenty of shows would leave the meanness untempered, but few shows with that poison in them would last thirty years as a mainstream smash hit.
JOKE 10: 1’37”
The kids accept that Marge should go. “For the greater good,” they say. Cut to Marge being dressed in an outsize trenchcoat full of straps, pockets, compartments and bags. “Are all these pockets necessary?” she asks her husband. Homer, slightly irritably, replies, “They wouldn't be if you would sit in a hollowed-out wheelchair.”
Bart and Lisa nobly step aside, young characters behaving as old souls again, which is always funny, and sacrifice selfish gain for communal benefit. It’s another of the show’s warm notes that help balance its waspish cynicism. Homer’s plan makes sense to them.
Then a hard cut to reveal the reality of his stupid plan: a big cartoon coat, straight from the same comedy props department that also supplies very long brown trenchcoats to wrap round stacks of small kids trying to get into adult certificate movies. Marge gets a fairly straight feed line, though “all” is a nice touch; she understands that they might stash some excess candy by deception, but let’s not go too far. And Homer barks back that this Looney-Tunes-style plan is actually the sensible second-most-ludicrous option that he was talked into against his will.
The wheelchair joke smacks of a writer’s room brainstorm. In any script, there are slots where almost anything can be inserted. “You think this is bad, you should have been there when...” And then everyone chews their pens and pitches in their best alternatives. There will likely have been several increasingly far-fetched options scribbled into this gap, before anyone got to this, and then some that got too silly, but made everyone laugh and the senior writer wipe their eyes and say “we can’t possibly do that!” The hollow wheelchair idea will have been picked for speed of explanation: does the image form quickly and clearly in the audience’s mind? It’s a fantastic example of the form.
JOKE 11: 1’48”
The doorbell rings; the babysitter has arrived. Marge explains that nobody wants to look after her wayward kids any more. “I had to choose between a grad student at the university or a scary-looking hobo.” Bart closes his eyes and prays, “Please, the hobo. Please, the hobo. The hobo.”
More plot set-up, through character. The kids are going to be left with a new babysitter. This is sheer sitcom engineering: Homer needs to be prejudged for doing a bad thing later, so we need the best (for which read worst) audience for it. Just as if a character is going to drop a bowl of soup, have them do it in front of someone to whom they’ve recently boasted of their waitressing skills, and preferably someone whose approval they desperately seek.
This extra ‘judge’ character here is not a neighbour or a regular cast member, but an outsider. This “grad student” is going to turn out to be a staunch feminist who has given talks on gender issues at Lisa’s school; the perfect character to form prejudices about the outwardly slobby Homer, and not know his inner dumb goodness. For the purposes of the show, this is the traditional, “oh no, my new boss is coming to dinner, and you’ve cooked exactly the dish to which I’ve recently learned he is allergic, but forgot to tell you” set-up.
This has been reverse engineered by the writers to get them where they want to go, but they’ve disguised their mechanics with great skill. At this point, nobody would be able to identify what might connect a candy convention and a graduate student babysitter, so the tracks that have been laid to get us into the story might as well be invisible. When they are revealed, the surprise will be delightful, though when we look back, we won’t object to having been led along, because the path was also inevitable.
To make extra sure that the construction scaffolding is disguised, it’s draped with a joke, in this case the addition of an alternative babysitter (the unlikely sounding hobo). That joke is in turn bounced off a character we do know and enjoy studying. Bart responds in a way that is exactly how Bart would respond, but not how a normal child would respond, so the audience scores two pleasurable points, for recognising both expected patterns of behaviour (Bart’s glee at being sat by a slasher movie psycho), and unexpected patterns that break with the accepted norm (a child with no fear of a bogeyman). The writers even manage a callback to this idea in a few jokes time, when the babysitter arrives carrying a violent slasher movie video game to bribe Bart.
We have had two minutes of cartoon, just to the end of the on-screen credits. We know what this episode is about, who’s in it, and what they want. The tracks have been laid for the two plot elements to be set in motion for a collision later. We, the audience, haven’t noticed this being done. We have enjoyed a dozen or so good jokes or jokes-within-jokes.
This is, quite frankly, an achievement comparable to any of those lighthouses or pointy brick things the Ancients thought they were so clever building.
Obviously, this is a ludicrous exercise. Nobody, and certainly not the team of writers who created these two minutes, will have thought about these jokes at this depth or in this way. If they did, they would be paralysed by indecision, and probably go insane.
No-one pitching in a writer’s room or typing gags alone at their desk thinks about jokes like this, any more than a musician about to improvise a solo thinks about what the individual muscles in their fingers are about to do. Creative people rely on tricks and movements they’ve learned along the way, and string them together, without much conscious thought, only knowing they’ve made the right moves when the sound is pleasing – or in the case of a joke, when someone else makes a pleasing “ha ha” sound.
A comedy writer’s brain is working at huge speed, much faster than their slack-jawed, biscuit-crumbed face. Behind the scenes, a practised toolkit of tricks and techniques is combining resonances and fragments of ideas to make something new, delightful and unexpected. They have trained themselves to think like this all the time, to an extent that wearies their partners at home and makes them punchable in public places, because otherwise their lives are meaningless and everyone will hate them and they will be pushed face down in the toilets like happened at school. I imagine.
For a joke to leave one person’s mind, be expressed out loud, and get a positive reaction from someone else, a load of work has been done, without anyone really noticing.
This forensic dissection of two minutes of Simpsons script might make the process seem daunting, but don’t panic. It’s not how anything good is made. Doing this consciously is going to make a lot of stiff, anxious, dead-eyed comedy. You’ve probably seen some.
Where this sort of analytical thinking is useful, is not in the composing of jokes, but in the refining and checking of them. If you’ve got a great gag that you love, and it isn’t landing, maybe it’s because one of the elements has failed, the one that would allow the funny idea to be seamlessly transmitted from one mind to another.
For example, maybe someone has never heard of the thing you’re satirising, you’ve chosen a reference that is too niche. Or perhaps someone doesn’t share the cultural assumptions about how a person might behave, or your expectations of how a social system operates. Or maybe someone expects something different of your characters....
If that or any of dozens of other glitches occurs, then your joke won’t fly. Instead it will nosedive unloved into the mountain called Confusion. So you need to pick through the wreckage, realise that every joke is flying by the grace of dozens of interdependent parts, and work out which engine failed.
>> THAT'S ALL FOLKS...
TO ORDER YOUR COPY OF 'COMEDY BASIC' AND SUPPORT THE PROJECT, GETTING YOUR NAME IN PRINT AND, OOH, LOADS OF OTHER GOODIES, FOLLOW THIS LINK.