Telegraphing & Why It’s Bad (But Also Sometimes Good)

To Telegraph is to make known something unintentionally. In comedy Telegraphing is when you do or say something that helps the audience arrive at the reveal or punchline before you want them to. Often this ruins the surprise of the punchline and because you didn’t shatter their assumption or do something unexpected they won’t laugh. Or they’ll laugh less. It changes from the explosive laughter of release and turns into the more reserved laughter of recognition. 

With jokes you Telegraph by giving them too much information in the set-up. Take for example this classic Woody Allen joke

When I was a small child my mother told me that if a stranger ever came up to me and offered me to sweets to get in the back of his van…go

I’ve heard two different recordings of Woody performing this joke. In one version he preempts the joke by telling us that his mother was always trying to get rid of him. The joke still got a solid laugh but it was a laugh of confirmation or recognition. The audience expects the twist because in the set-up he tells us that his mother wants to get rid of him. In a later performance he sets up the joke by telling us that his mother was always giving him advice. That’s much better. It doesn’t give away the switch at the end and it got a much bigger laugh. 

You can also give away physical bits of business by Telegraphing. You see this all the time when a clown has locked eyes with the place he intends to trip or when a performer moves to a specific location on the stage just to get hit in the back by an errrant club. Audiences will follow your movements and if anything seems out of place or even feels strange they’ll note it and they’ll start to wonder why you did x or y. I perform a gag where I get a balloon from my wallet, intimating that it’s a condom. It’s part of a larger bit where I’ve popped a balloon and can’t find a replacement, eventaully I reach for my wallet and it always get’s a nice laugh. Until one night when all of a sudden it stopped. Here is the way the bit is supposed to go

  1. I take a balloon from my right front pocket, inflate it, and subsequently pop it 
  2. I search for another balloon in my right front pocket, left front pocket, and on a nearby table 
  3. I give up and reach for my wallet-
  4. Big laugh 

This is what I did that night 

  1. I take a balloon from a near by table, inflate it, and subsequently pop it
  2. I search for another balloon in my right front pocket, left front pocket-
  3. Small laugh (wait what?) 
  4. I give up and reach for my wallet- 
  5. Small laugh. 

Because the original balloon came from the table it was strange for me to search my pockets. As soon as I did the audience thought “why isn’t is going back to the table?”. Then they thought “He’s probably going to get his wallet” and they laughed a little because it wasn’t a surprise and it was a little laugh because it’s a funny idea and they saw where it was going. Then I got a little confirmation laugh when they saw that they were right. In version 1 I got the balloon from my pocket and so it’s natural that I would search there first and the wallet can still be a surprise because I haven’t unintentionally given them any information early. 

Sometimes you want to Telegraph on purpose to mislead the audience. It can be another tool to surprise them. Greg Dean talks about this for jokes and calls it a target assumption. 

the misdirecting assumption in a joke’s setup which creates the 1st story and is shattered by the reinterpretation

You should read Greg’s Step By Step Guide To Stand-up Comedy if you don’t know what 1/2 of those terms mean. You can also check out the glossary on this site for the basic meaning of the terms. Basically, it’s saying “you tell the audience one false thing to  lead them one direction when you plan to lead them in another”. 

Search your show for places where you might be Telegraphing your jokes. Are they laughing at something before you do it? There is a good chance your unintentially giving the joke away. Are they yelling the punchline before you get there? You’ve probably given them too much information in your set-up.  What are some ways you could use Telegraphing to your advantage? 

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