The Tag Reflex 

There is a lot of talk about the importance of tagging your jokes and even a lot written about how to do it. Most people even vaguely interested in writing comedy know the word tag and could probably offer up some examples. The harder part is identifying when you should be writing tags for your jokes and when you’ve written too many. 

To Tag? 

It’s easy to figure out which jokes to tag. Just listen to one of your shows (or watch if you can stomach that) with a pen and notebook handy. Write down any joke that gets a big rolling laugh. A full laugh lasting at least 5 seconds. Some laughs are explosive or strong but what you are looking for is a laugh that lasts. You need two things to tag a joke: time and permission.

If the joke is getting a nice long laugh then you will have the TIME to tag it. You need to tack these tags onto the original joke, so you need a laugh that is long enough to do that. You want to tag the joke while they are still laughing but the wave is starting to come down. If the tag is good you’ll cause the wave to rise again, except this time it will be easier and go higher and faster. 

If the joke is getting a nice long laugh then you will also have the PERMISSION to continue making jokes about it. Jokes that are simply funny will get a nice strong laugh. You can get people to laugh because they are surprised or uncomfortable or because you’ve taken advantage of the many comedic structures available to a comedy writer. Or maybe you just talked with your mouth full of ping pong balls. Those things all get laughs. The truly great jokes have a great premise. Those jokes get nice long laughs that roll over the audience and you can feel the audience’s expectation and desire to have you continue with the joke. That’s when you know the joke is worth tagging. The stronger the premise, the bigger the laugh and the bigger the laugh, the more permission you have to explore the premise further: turn another corner, do an act out, give another piece of information. 

The more you can tag a joke the better. It keeps the laughs rolling and audiences love it. It’s great fuel for call backs and it’s easier to keep them laughing than to get them started. If you add a lot of tags to a joke it can be usefull to occasionally drop some tags that re-establish the premise or key pieces of information in order to make sure nothing gets lost. 

It’s great to tag your jokes, but is it ever too much?

Or Not To Tag? 

That is the question (tag!). Whether it is nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (tag tag!) or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them (taggity tag tag! We’re rolling now). To die-To sleep-no more; and by sleep to say…(you lost me Bill. Too much). 

The official comedy writing term is Descending Tags. The term refers to tags (or cappers if you’re old & work at Comedy Industries) that get smaller laughs with each additional tag. This is bad and (too) common. If you notice that your tags aren’t getting as strong or stronger laughs than the original joke it means one of two things: 

  1. The tags need to be re-written 
  2. The premise wasn’t strong enough to tag

Some jokes just aren’t meant to be tagged. That doesn’t mean that the joke isn’t good. It just means that the joke can only support one laugh. A lot of one liners can’t support a tag but that doesn’t make them any less great. The trick is in identifying which is which. An audience will tell you if you are willing to listen. 

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5 thoughts on “The Tag Reflex 

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  1. Did you ever get a chance to see Edward Jackman do his bit about juggling cats? It’s filthy with tags and some big callbacks. Many of his jokes had numerous ascending tags. He was a master tagger.


  2. There’s a weird thing about descending tags. If you do a sequence of jokes where the first joke gets a bigger laugh than the second which gets a bigger laugh than the third, that’s rarely a problem, but a joke with two descending tags can suck the energy right out of the room.


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