Anti-Jokes: What They Are and How to Write Them

You might be familiar with the typical joke format. You start with a set-up and end on a punchline.

You likely also know that not all punchlines are equally funny. However, sometimes an “unfunny” punchline is in fact so unfunny that, ironically, it becomes surprisingly amusing.

Sometimes this happens simply because the joke’s writer failed disastrously when trying to come up with a clever punchline. That said, there are also times when a joke writer meant to write a punchline so unfunny that it ended up actually getting a laugh.

Those who write these types of jokes are writing “anti-jokes.” This general overview will describe what anti-jokes are, why some find them so entertaining, and how you might get started if you’d like to write your own.

What Are Anti-Jokes?

There’s no overall consensus on what makes a joke, movie, sketch, or any other work of comedy funny. However, many experts agree that surprise is a key element of much humor. More specifically, a joke may be funny because it subverts expectations in some way.

This helps explain why some comedians and comedy enthusiasts enjoy anti-comedy. When hearing a joke, we expect the punchline to at least sound like the writer was trying to be funny. When it’s so unfunny that the writer was clearly trying not to be funny in the conventional, expected way, the surprise may actually make us laugh for reasons we can’t necessarily explain.

Often (although not always), anti-jokes use common joke set-ups to establish certain expectations in their audiences. This increases the chances of the less-than-funny punchline coming across as inexplicably amusing. Consider the following two examples:

“A horse walks into a bar. Everyone quickly leaves and the owner calls animal control, as this is obviously a very dangerous situation.”

Or:

“What did one German say to another?”

“I don’t know, what?”

“Oh, I don’t know either. I don’t speak German.”

Humor is subjective, so whether or not these made you laugh will depend on your own taste. In general, though, they demonstrate how anti-jokes work. They start out in a predictable manner, and embrace true unpredictability by ending with extremely literal punchlines.

Tips for Writing Anti-Jokes

There’s no shortage of anti-jokes on the Internet. Reading them could be a fun way to waste a few hours when you’re bored.

That said, you might be the type who also enjoys writing anti-jokes. If so, the following tips will help you experiment with the format.

Again, anti-jokes usually work best when they’re based on well-known joke set-ups. Examples include knock-knock jokes, “A [something] walks into a bar” jokes, and “What did the [something] say to the [something]?” jokes. Be aware, the “Why did the chicken cross the road?” set-up actually might not be as ideal for an anti-joke as it seems, given that the most common version of this joke (“To get to the other side”) makes it an anti-joke already.

Make a list of some set-ups you think you could write strong anti-jokes with. Next, consider how you could end the set-up as literally as possible to yield the most laughs. For example, if you’re using the “What’s a pirate’s favorite letter of the alphabet?” set-up, a punchline might be “There’s no universal answer. It would naturally vary from one pirate to another. That said, historians believe many pirates were illiterate anyway.”

Most importantly, don’t worry if you’re not thrilled with your first attempts. Writing effective anti-jokes can arguably be more challenging than writing traditional jokes. That said, if you keep at it, it can also potentially be more rewarding.