Twitter Jokes: Punchline First(?)

I note this particular tweet (which, if for some reason you can’t see it, is here), not just because it amuses the crap out of me, although it does, but it because it’s an example of a phenomenon that I think might be unique to Twitter — namely, because of the way Twitter formats pictures and retweets on its service, much of the time (if not most of the time) you’ll see a punchline or a snarky reply before you read the set-up or instigating comment.

And because it does, it changes a lot about the dynamic of the humor, and often in interesting ways. It’s like the Jeopardy version humor. Of course, some people just change things around so their comment is the set-up and the picture or previous comment is the punchline. But when they don’t, I almost feel like it creates a new kind of joke.

I could be overthinking this. Tell me if I am.

39 Comments on “Twitter Jokes: Punchline First(?)”

  1. What never fails to amaze is how some people overestimate the impact they have on others. Which I am guessing, in this case, is absolutely none. Except showing themselves to be complete dimwits and confirming my bias that Twitter is their nesting ground.

  2. I like to call this the What?/OH! effect. You start with “What the hell is Scalzi talking about?” and end with “Oh! Now I get it!” It really does turn the punchline into the joke, and the “joke” into the punchline. (Not that I consider the original comment to actually be a joke.The commentor, yes, the comment not so much.)

  3. I don’t know if it’s new exactly – Carson worked Carnac pretty hard, after all – but it does feel way more common in the Twitter age. It’s a fun format to play with.

    What does seem kinda fresh about this, compared to the Carnac version is that Carnac format was “Fairly mundane turn phrase” *open envelope* “Outrageous setup that turns phrase into punchline.” This is more “Outrageous statement with no context” *look down* “Fairly conventional internet thing that turns phrase into punchline.” They both kinda hinge on the audience wondering what the hell setup gets them to that punchline, but the tone is different.

    *Takes off overthinking cap*

  4. Rather than Piranhas, how about a pool of Candiru? (Though wikipedia says that may be an Urban legend).

  5. My usual process goes like this:

    1. “I wish to procrastinate on my novel for five minutes; what’s new on Twitter?”
    2. Twitter wants me to know about things I might have missed, so it shows me a Tweet from four hours ago that all my friends liked.
    3. It’s a punchline. I have no idea what the setup is but NOW I REALLY WANT TO KNOW.
    4. After much searching I have found the source! and read the subthreads! and oh geez now it’s time to make dinner / pick up a kid / etc. CRAP.

  6. No, I don’t think you’re overthinking it – good jokes have a cadence and reversal changes the cadence. This is not necessarily bad, mind you. In your example, seeing the punchline first actually pulls in the reader and drives them deeper. You see the punchline and think something akin to “WTF is he talking about? I gotta read this…”. You almost can’t help but read on.

    BTW, good answer to the asshole.

  7. Googled MGTOW to see what it was and this was the first line:

    “M.G.T.O.W – Men Going Their Own Way – is a statement of self-ownership, where the modern man preserves and protects his own sovereignty above all else.”

    At least I wasn’t in public where the snort/cough I let out would have been very humiliating. Is their motto “Ayn Rand Lives”?
    I keep forgetting this stuff is a ‘real’ thing out there.

  8. My thinking over the last week or so: Scalzi has too much time on his hands.

    That hasn’t changed.


  9. This is definitely a way processing jokes on Twitter feels different for me than other social media sites, so I think you’re onto something.

    Relatedly, there’s a joke format on sites where people generally skip over usernames to read the body text first (tumblr, reddit, the @handle on twitter itself) where the setup in the body draws your attention to the username, so that the punchline requires your eyes to travel upward again. I’m partial to those.

  10. I don’t think you’re overthinking it. The punchline-first format does have a unique humor format. I go through this joke, and I see your comment, and I’m left wondering what it goes with, and then I see what you’re replying to, and the moment where the punchline makes sense is the moment where the humor sets in.
    I think this type of humor is most comparable to when you don’t get a joke, and mull it over, and then figure it out a couple days later and laugh. It’s like that, but much faster.

  11. An old .sig from my collection:

    A: Yes
    Q: Is top-posting bad?
    — Derek Milhous Zumsteg

    On Twitter I force my eye to read the replied-to tweet first. I wish Twitter formatted them with the original tweet first.

  12. I think once you adjust to seeing punchlines this way it becomes strange seeing it on Twitter any other way. I hadn’t really thought about it before but it’s definitely a thing.

  13. Well, I’d call it overthinking. But you’re a writer, and you use humor in your work, so you could probably call it research.

  14. This guy really doesn’t like you, does he? And what’s with a threat to piss on your grave? It’s not like you’d care, being dead and all.And I don’t think you are going to lie awake at night thinking “” OMG, there’s some asshole going to come and piss on my grave”.

  15. John, if you want we could set up with punchlines for you to retweet with your set-up. For example, I could tweet “To get to the other side” and then you could re-tweet with the set-up: “Why did the chicken cross the road?” (Or a better straight line, if you think of one). Just a thought. ;)

  16. I love the discussion on reversal of punchline and joke setup, and how that’s a different style of humor requiring its own weird processing.

    Some wingnut who’s so bent out of shape he wants to piss on anyone’s grave? Dude, get over it. (Meaning the overly-urinated one, not the one who’s presumably deceased and therefore beyond bathroom concerns.)

    I’m a gay male. I’m therefore generally in favor of male anatomy. Preferably with a good friend attached. … Gee, I wish.

    I’m more in favor of people eating fish; less in favor of fish eating people. I’m partial, that way. I suppose if I were a fish, I might feel otherwise, though possibly, I’d be too busy swimming to think much of it.

    Grave-dwellers of the undead persuasion? I feel fortunate in that I have no experience with such people / critters / entities. — Though I’ve come to believe the residents of the apartment complex where I now live are so nocturnal, they make my insomnia look ordinary.

    I will say, a couple of friends were such that if they should ever wish to haunt me, then as long as they’re still friendly about it, I suppose that’s fine. As I have not experienced that either, I conclude they are too busy with the afterlife to bother those living in this dimension of existence.

    Just trying to cover all the bases; humorously, if possible.

  17. Somebody beat me to the Carson/Carmac point; fortunately, I have others.

    I do something similar on my Web site: I take a newspaper headline and write a snarky headline for it. Since my response is the traditional punchline, the reader reads the punchline before what set it up. I’ve been doing that for going on a decade, now.

    Okay, that little bit of self-promotion over, I don’t think, ultimately, that the order matters all that much. Most humour is thought-intensive: the punchline usually has an element of surprise to it that the auditor has to think through to make sense of the joke. (When people don’t get a joke, it is often because they can’t make the connection between the setup and the punchline. When people misinterpret a joke, it is often because the connection between the setup and punchline that they perceive is not the one the creator of the joke intended.) If this is correct, the order of the two elements doesn’t really matter, since the mental work of parsing the joke is the same either way.

    Oh, yeah. I waaaay overthink this stuff.

  18. I think punchline first format is sort of like a newspaper headline that has some odd, but very specific reference in it. It engages you to think and wonder what the heck that be about.

    “Giant Chicken Comes to Roost in DC”. Its the same reason clickbait headlines work. They get your curiosity engaged.

    Standard joke format is a setup and payoff and then you walk away. You got the joke, so time to move on.

    The obscure headline reference or backward joke can engage people for a moment that is all about piqued interest that isnt there in the standarx format joke.j

  19. Excellent comeback. So much more satisfying to see people like that die of an aneurysm from seeing something like that vs strapping on a suicide vest or something…

  20. The British comedian Ronnie Barker had an “Answer the question before last” sketch which had a very similar effect.


  21. Patton Oswalt has a joke/prank format that feels similar to me, where he posts two tweets close together, and the second one, taken out of context, is outrageous. The punchline there is clicking through and seeing that his second tweet is in reply to an extremely important first tweet, and then seeing all the disgusted replies from people who only saw the second tweet.

    @Harold Ostler: oh MGOTW get better. They’re not Randians. The thing they’re specifically trying to protect their own sovereignty from are women, who they believe are both a plague on the species and have unparalleled power over their lives. Thankfully, they’re mostly not a danger: their little subculture is rabidly misogynistic and pathetic, but if they actually try and attack any of the targets of their hatred they’re clearly not going their own way,

  22. On the one hand, this is fucking hilarious. On the other hand, why dignify these pathetic little manbabies with your attention?

    Though, if you’re looking for graveyard design, may I suggest a hybrid option? The official grave is buried beneath a pool of candiru fish–the ones that swim up your urethra–and is guarded by gatekeepers that will only drain the pool and let people through if they stand with their dicks in the water and begin to urinate. If the manbaby somehow survives a 6-inch spiny fish up the dick without passing out from sheer agony, he finds a note inside your coffin (which requires at least 3 combination locks to open and is trapped with laughing gas, Mace, and poison darts that knock out anyone they hit) saying that your REAL grave is somewhere else. Which just so happens to be in an island, in the center of a lake inhabited by hungry sharks. And the island is covered entirely with sundew plants that leech sticky digestive acids.


  23. I always read your twitter feed (the only twitter I read) from the bottom up, so I only had to learn a bit of new reading skills to get the jokes in order.
    Oh wait is the topic grave pissing?

  24. Floored, I read your comment first as “mannabees” – a combination of too little sleep and too little caffeine. Still, pretty apt.

  25. Favorite Carnac bit:
    “Sisss boom baaa!”
    What’s the sound made by an exploding sheep?

    Years ago, had a great evening out at a bar with friends playing Trivial Pursuits backwards, Jeopardy-style.

  26. I disagree with the claim that the Carnac routines were jokes told in reverse. They were in fact jokes told in the normal order, but the grammar was switched, with the joke question turned into a noun phrase and the punchline recast as a question. The typical joke starts with something ordinary and ends with the unusual, and so did Carnac. (The unusualness is often implicit, say in a pun.)

    Do look for the sis boom bah routine on youtube as performed by Carson. He could not stop laughing.

    For more on MGTOW, especially context, check out the rationalwiki manosphere glossary.

  27. Its kinda like how the Succesful Black Man meme gives you the first half of a sentence and you wonder how it will turn out.

    A punch line, out of context, could be more interesting than if told as a straight joke.

  28. The Carnac routine will always be better than Twitter because, to the best of my knowledge, it is impossible to hermetically seal a tweet in an old mayonnaise jar and store it under someone’s porch so that no one – NO ONE! – can see it until it is opened.

  29. The saz part is there are so many wittier ways to express the ‘piss on your grave’ sentiment. For instance –

    “I worship the ground you will be buried in.”
    “I look forward to watering the flowers on your grave.”
    “I have mixed emotions about you – I’d love to piss on your grave, but I hate standing in line.”

    etc. etc.

    The piranhas are a nice touch.

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