How to write a topical joke

Like everything else in life, comedy can be learned.
This is part of an ongoing series from comedy writer Dean Watson (7 Days, Mainland Tonight) showing you how to write your own hilarious jokes.

Topical jokes

What is a topical joke?
A joke about something in the news or the zeitgeist that your audience cares about right now, but may not care about next week.

At the time of writing, we’re in lockdown for Covid-19.
In the NCEA Comedy Writing Competition, topical jokes about Covid are dominating winning submissions.

1) A cure for COVID is only an E7 in chemistry.
2) You wouldn't be in isolation if One Direction was still together.
3) Can't wait to get back to school to see who else gave themselves haircuts.

Why are topical jokes so effective?
When you make a joke about something people are already thinking about in their day-to-day lives, it’s hugely satisfying for the audience. It makes your writing feel so much more relevant. It will make the audience feel like you “get them”. That you’re speaking directly to them. That you’re speaking their language. Topical jokes are one of the most effective ways to connect with your audience fast and make them laugh. This is why late night comedy talk shows (eg. Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, Conan, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert etc.) all start with the host saying topical jokes. It’s why Three’s topical comedy game show ‘7 Days’ has been on air for 10 years. It’s the fastest way to connect and done well, topical jokes are guaranteed to get big laughs.

How to write a topical joke

Step 1. Think about what your audience cares about right now.
You can do this by checking out the news online or reading comments on social media that your audience is making. You can also get it from talking to your audience! Eg. Right now, NCEA students care about Covid-19.

Step 2. Be specific.
Think about something specific to do with the topical thing you want to write about. So rather than writing about Covid in general, write about face masks or the lack of traffic or how long everyone’s hair is getting. Being specific is a great way to come up with an original topical joke. A great topical joke hold a mirror up to the world and reveals the truth about something. The joke “Can't wait to get back to school to see who else gave themselves haircuts” is so good, because it’s specific and it reveals the truth: that no one can get a haircut right now and we could all be sporting some pretty embarrassing haircuts once we can finally go back to school.

Let’s say there was record rainfall across New Zealand and you choose to write a topical joke about that.
To get specific, ask yourself “What’s funny about that?” It could be the idea that normally at school it’s raining bad grades instead of actual rain.
So that could lead to a topical joke like, “Instead of cats and dogs, can it go back to raining Not Achieveds?”
Another way to get specific about this news story could be to write something about umbrellas.
Eg. “An inside out umbrella is how most of us feel doing NCEA.”

Step 3. Write lots of topical jokes to come up with one good one.
It can take few tries before you come up with one you’re happy with. I will often have to write 10 before I come up with a really good one. So if they don't come easily, that's totally normal. Persist!

Write a topical joke right now and get paid for it.
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For NCEA Students
By NCEA Students