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How to Tell a Joke

(Teacher Joe originally wrote this article for College English Magazine in Beijing.)

Do you often tell jokes when you speak English? Very few students even try to do it. There are two reasons for this. One is that they have trouble remembering jokes and stories. The second reason is that they don't tell the jokes in a natural, funny way. Let me show you how you can tell jokes and make people laugh in English.

The basic idea is to do exactly what you do when you tell a friend about a movie or TV program that you saw. You don't try to memorize the whole movie or TV program. Instead you tell your friend about the most important things. You start by telling your friend who is involved in the story. Next you describe the situation. You continue by talking about what they did, which is the action. Usually you finish by talking about the exciting ending of the movie or TV program.

To help you practice speaking English, let's apply this same technique to telling a joke. Students of English should not try to learn a joke word for word. To speak more natural English, learners should tell a joke the same way they would talk about a book or a movie or a TV program.

When my students learn to tell jokes, they start with WHO, the characters. For example, you can tell a story about a teacher who was teaching little children. It doesn't matter how you say it, as long as the listener understands who is involved. You could say very simply "There once was a teacher who was teaching small children". That's enough. Or you could give more details by saying something like "There was a kind and beautiful young teacher named Miss Applebee, who was teaching a group of twenty very eager children of about four years of age". Or you could really build up the listener's curiosity by describing the people in even more detail, by saying "I heard a funny story about a very kind and beautiful, but inexperienced teacher who taught in a big city. Her students, about 20 in number and around the age of four, were all very cute and eager to learn". You can tell the story like this, but you don't have to. The first example, though simple, is just as good, and your listener will understand what you mean.

Moving on to describing the situation, we could start by simply saying "She was teaching her students the names of animals". Of course, you could give much more detail, but this is enough. Just as an example, lets try something more detailed: "This teacher had planned a lesson in which she enlarged some photographs in order to teach the students the names of all kinds of animals". Whatever you say, simple or detailed, the listener should always understand the situation.

The next part, the ACTION, is a bit longer, but as long as you describe the main points, then the exact words are not important. Let's try it like this: "The teacher showed the students a picture of a deer and asked one little boy, 'Bobby, what is this animal?' Little Bobby looked at the picture with a confused look on his face. He replied 'I'm sorry teacher, I don't know'. The teacher did not want to give up, so she found a way to help little Bobby. She asked another question. She said 'Well Bobby, what does your Mommy call your Daddy?'

Now at this point, you have told your listener how the teacher is teaching. You mentioned the pictures and that she is trying to get the little boy to understand "deer" by remembering the similar sounding word "dear". As long as you explain these basic things, any words you use are okay. The listener will have a good image in his or her head of who is involved, where they are, and what they are doing.

Now, however, comes the hardest part, called the "punch line". The "punch line" of a joke is the very last line. It is the part that makes the story funny. You can describe the people, the situation and the action in many different ways, but usually you cannot change the "punch line" or the story will not seem funny. So, you should memorize ONLY the final line, the "punch line" of a story.

Here's the "punch line" of our story: "Bobby looked at the teacher and asked, 'Teacher, is that really a pig?'. Of course, your listener will expect the boy to say the animal is a deer, because we can imagine the boy's mother calling the boy's father "Dear". The boy's surprise answer is what makes people laugh. As with the other parts, you could introduce the "punch line" with more detail. Maybe you could say "Little Bobby thought for a moment, still confused. Suddenly a bright look appeared on his face as he asked the teacher..." and then you can give the same punch line "Is that really a pig?".

Be sure to practice jokes before you tell them. Especially practice telling the "punch line" because that's the most important part. You can find many jokes throughout "College English Magazine". Find some that you like, and just remember WHO is involved, WHAT the situation is, the ACTION, and the PUNCH LINE, and you will be able to entertain your friends every day.

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