Jerry Seinfeld’s advice for joke-writing—and how to apply it to copywriting
Copywriting and comedy writing have a lot in common. Both are “ultra-demanding.” Everything needs to be just right.
In the video below, which we love, Jerry Seinfeld uses several writing techniques that we use a lot. We recommend you watch it first, and then read the subsequent list.
(If you’d like to see Jerry perform the joke, there’s a snippet of it here.)
Jerry’s techniques, and how to apply them to copywriting
- Jerry opens the joke with a great sentence: “When I was a kid, and they invented the Pop Tart, the back of my head blew right off.” In copywriting, the opening sentence is the most important one. It has to fight to keep the readers’ attention.
- He uses “parallelism” a lot. Parallelism is where you repeat the structure of a sentence or phrase. (You might think of it as the structural equivalent of rhyme; rather than repeating a sound, you repeat the grammatical structure.) So, for example, Jerry says, “The same shape as the box it comes in … and … the same nutrition as the box it comes in.” That’s parallelism. Both phrases have the same structure. Parallelism makes a sentence sound “right.” Jerry uses parallelism again several times in the joke:
- “Two in a packet … and … two slots in the toaster”
- “One’s not enough … three’s too many”
- “They can’t go stale … because … they were never fresh.”
- He has a wide vocabulary of effective words: In his case, the words are funny ones, like “chimps,” “’playing,” “sticks,” and “dirt.” They act as the building blocks of humor. Likewise, great copywriters build their ads from an extensive vocabulary of power words, like “free,” “instant,” “hurry,” “get,” “discover,” “breakthrough,” “how to,” and, of course, “you.”
- He’s concise. He shaves letters off words, and reduces the number of syllables: This is just as important with copywriting. One example: We try to turn present-participle verbs into their base form. That is, we remove the “ing” whenever possible. “We’ll be measuring” becomes “We’ll measure.” Whenever we try to do this, at first we think it’s not going to work, but it usually does.
- He puts the best bit—the punchline—at the end. In copywriting, the punchline, the call to action, always comes at the end of the message. But it also pays to move the punchline of a paragraph to the paragraph’s end, and the punchline of a sentence to the sentence’s end.
- He spends an unreasonable amount of effort getting everything just right. In our experience, the best copywriters are those who have the patience to keep working on a sentence long after a “normal” person would have become satisfied and moved on.
We use the above principles throughout our copy. And we use the “punchline principle” in most sentences.
To appreciate how powerful these techniques are, let’s apply some of them in reverse, and see how we can suck all of the funniness out of Jerry’s punchline:
- The original punchline was “It can’t go stale because it was never fresh.”
- Remove the parallelism: “Staleness isn’t a problem, because it was never fresh.”
- Add letters: “Staleness wasn’t something we needed to worry about, because even when it was made it was never fresh.”
- Put the “punchline” somewhere other than at the end: “Staleness wasn’t something we needed to worry about, because it was never fresh, even when it was made.”
Mission complete: In applying all of the principles in reverse, we have destroyed the joke.
Try to apply the principles to your own work. They will make your copy persuade more, inspire more, and—most importantly—sell more.
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