A punchline concludes a joke; it is intended to make people laugh. It is the third and final part of the typical joke structure: set-up, premise, punch line. In a broader sense, ‘punchline’ can also refer to the unexpected and funny conclusion of any performance, situation or story.

The exact origin of the term is unknown, though the classic three-part joke format was well-established in Vaudeville by the beginning of the 20th century. Merriam-Webster dictionary pegs the first use in 1921. It has also been argued that the term’s origin is related to the British weekly magazine ‘Punch.’

Linguist Victor Raskin examined the mechanics of punchlines in his Script-based Semantic Theory of Humor (SSTH). In his theory, humor is evoked when a trigger, contained in the punch line, causes the audience to abruptly shift its understanding of the story from the primary (or more obvious) interpretation to a secondary, opposing interpretation. ‘The punch line is the pivot on which the joke text turns as it signals the shift between the [semantic] scripts necessary to interpret [re-interpret] the joke text.’ To produce the humor in the verbal joke, the two interpretations (i.e., scripts) need to be both compatible with the joke text and opposite or incompatible with each other.

Thomas R. Shultz, a psychologist, independently expanded Raskin’s linguistic theory to include ‘two stages of incongruity: perception and resolution.’ He explains that ‘… incongruity alone is insufficient to account for the structure of humor. […] Within this framework, humor appreciation is conceptualized as a biphasic sequence involving first the discovery of incongruity followed by a resolution of the incongruity.’ Resolution generates laughter.

There are many folk theories of how to best deliver punchlines, such as delivering punchlines louder and at a higher pitch than the speech preceding them, or holding a dramatic pause before the punchline is delivered. In laboratory settings, however, none of these changes are employed at a statistically significant level in the production of humorous narratives. Rather, the pitch and loudness of the punchline are comparable to those of the ending of any narrative, humorous or not.

In order to better elucidate the structure and function of the punch line it is useful to look at some joke forms which purposely remove or avoid the punch line in their narrative. ‘Shaggy dog’ stories are long-winded anti-jokes in which the punch line is deliberately anti-climactic. The humor here lies in fooling the audience into expecting a typical joke with a punch line. Instead they listen and listen to nothing funny, and end up themselves as the butt of the joke.

Another type of anti-joke is the ‘nonsense joke,’ defined as having ‘a surprising or incongruous punch line’ which provides either no resolution at all, or only a partial, unsatisfactory resolution. One example of this is the ‘no soap, radio’ punchline: ‘Two elephants were taking a bath. One said, ‘Please pass the soap.’ The other replied, ‘No soap, radio.” Here the anticipated resolution to the joke is absent and the audience becomes the butt of the joke.

A joke contains a single story with a single punch line at the end. In the analysis of longer humorous texts, an expanded model is needed to map the narrative structure. With this in mind, Raskin’s General Theory of Verbal Humor (GTVH) was expanded to include longer humorous texts together with jokes. A new term, ‘jab line,’ was introduced to designate humor within the body of a text, as opposed to the punch line, which is always placed at the end. The jab line is functionally identical to the punch line except it can be positioned anywhere within the text, not just at the end. ‘Jab lines are humorous elements fully integrated in the narrative in which they appear (i.e., they do not disrupt the flow of the narrative, because they either are indispensable to the development of the ‘plot’ or of the text, or they are not antagonistic to it).’

Felicitous jokes are often formatted in a style called ‘AAB,’ where a joke is made up of a set of three, the first two of which share some common attribute, and the third represents a deviation from that attribute. Under these conditions, the third item in the set (the ‘B’) is the punchline.

Psychologist Paul Rozin gives the following example as exemplifying this structure:

A: ‘Some men are about to be executed. The guard brings the first man forward, and the executioner asks if he has any last requests. He says no, and the executioner shouts, ‘Ready! Aim!’ Suddenly the man yells, ‘Earthquake!’ Everyone is startled and looks around. In all the confusion, the first man escapes.

A: ‘The guard brings the second man forward, and the executioner asks if he has any last requests. He says no, and the executioner shouts, ‘Ready! Aim!’ Suddenly the man yells, ‘Tornado!’ In the confusion, the second man escapes.’

B: ‘By now the last man has it all figured out. The guard brings him forward, and the executioner asks if he has any last requests. He says no, and the executioner shouts, ‘Ready! Aim!’ and the last man yells, ‘Fire!’

According to this theory, the punchline is always the deviation, and it does not matter how many instances of A occur for there to be a punchline. However, jokes following the ‘AAB’ structure are consistently rated as being funnier than their ‘AB’ or ‘AAAB’ counterparts.

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