How to Build a Joke

“I bought a cactus. A week later it died … ”

Demetri Martin is a New York–based comedian. Here, he dissects a one-liner:
Sometimes a joke will just float into my head, fully formed, as though someone’s whispered it in my ear (note: not in a creepy way). For example: “I think the worst time to have a heart attack is during a game of charades. Especially if your teammates are bad guessers.”

Often, however, I get an idea about something that I feel is funny, but I don’t quite know how to articulate it. That’s what happened with this joke. I wrote down the basic idea, something like “My plants often die,” and then turned it over in my mind to see where the exact joke lies.

To do this, I’ll identify the elements of the joke and wonder about how those elements go together. It means taking nothing for granted, which makes the world much more interesting to me. So, “My plants often die” led me to think about the idea of keeping things alive, which made me wonder, Are some things easier to keep alive than others? Then, What’s the easiest plant to keep alive? This made me think of a cactus.

I thought, How can you kill a cactus? By giving it too much water. But I couldn’t really find a joke there. You can kill a lot of plants by giving them too much water.So I stopped worrying about the watering part and concentrated more on the idea of life and death. After a bit of thought, I arrived at a joke I liked: “I bought a cactus. A week later it died. And I got depressed, because I thought, Damn. I am less nurturing than a desert.

Now, when I perform this joke, sometimes I add drawings, which gives it another layer. I say, “I bought a cactus,” then show a drawing of a cactus. “A week later it died”—and I flip the page to show a drawing of a tombstone that says HERE LIES BRIAN, BELOVED PLANT AND FRIEND.

“And I got depressed, because I thought, Damn, I am less nurturing than a desert.” Here, I flip the page, and underneath it says LADIES, THAT’S NOT TRUE.

Conan on the Couch
The lanky embodiment of New York comedy gears up to enter the living rooms of Middle America. The Ten Funniest New Yorkers You’ve Never Heard Of
The next Seinfeld, the next Sedaris (David and Amy), and the man behind the year’s most rocking TV ad. One Night. Five Open-Mike Shows. Hundreds of Lousy Jokes
A Monday spent on the front lines of comedy. Eight Things New York Comedians are Joking About
An informal survey of comedy-club bookers reveals the city’s most popular punch lines. How to Build a Joke
A dissection of a one-liner.

How to Build a Joke