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The Joke Model Of Creative Thinking

The two basic principles of achieving creative results are: (1) conflict or incongruity of some type precedes all creative results; and (2) conflict or incongruity resolution, involving the application of creativity, is the process which produces creative results. [1] The structure of a standard joke offers a clear illustration of these principles. The standard joke structure has two stages — incongruity and resolution. The first stage consists of two parts: a fact statement, or text, and a punchline. The text generates in the perceiver certain logical expectations that are disconfirmed by new information– or punchline — yielding an incongruous, surprise result. [2]

The second stage consists of a problem-solving process. In that stage, the perceiver mentally searches for a cognitive rule to reconcile the incongruity or tension existing between the text and the punch line. If a cognitive rule is found to reconcile the joke parts, the perceiver deems the punch line to make sense, he “gets” the joke, and laughs. If a relevant cognitive rule cannot be found, the joke parts are not reconciled, the punch line does not make sense, and the perceiver neither “gets” the joke nor laughs. Consider this example:[3]

A friend recently asked me: “Are you going to be cremated after you die?”

To which I responded: “I certainly wouldn’t want to do it any sooner than that.”

Here, in the first stage of the joke, the text generates the logical expectation that the response will be either that I will be cremated or that I prefer burial under ground or in an above-ground vault. The punch line disconfirms that logical expectation and produces incongruity and surprise. In the second stage of the joke, the perceiver — here, my friend — searches for a cognitive rule to reconcile the incongruity between the issues of whether or when I wish to be cremated. The discovery of the cognitive rule that “I don’t mind being cremated, but not before I die” reconciles the joke parts, causing him to get the joke and laugh.

Actually, as the chart below reveals, the stages of the joke process and the conventional mediation process correlate quite closely.

Joke Model Mediation
Introduction (read or heard)
Setting and Context Stored
Narrative Schema Formulated Problem Statement
Forthcoming Text Predicted Problem Clarification
Punchline Communicated
Prediction Match Tested
No Match
Generation and
Evaluation of
Cognitive (Reconciling)
Rule Found (Reframing Occurs)
Selection of Alternatives
Laughter Agreement

In each process there is a fact statement stage and a resolution stage. The primary difference between the two processes is that in the joke process, a stimulus in the form of new information — the punchline — is intentionally and suddenly injected into the process which causes or allows the initial information to be perceived interpreted in a very different way, thus yielding an unexpected, satisfactory resolution or interpretation. It is the quality and the timing of the punchline that comprise the creative act and speeds the joke to a satisfying resolution. It is this same kind of punchline — specially selected new information — that must be injected into the mediation process at the appropriate time in order to yield highly satisfactory, optimal, or even super-optimal, solutions. A point deserving special emphasis, which may indeed serve as the punchline of this article, is as follows: It is the mental process which occurs in joke processing in a microsecond–at the time of and just before surprise–that must be replicated in the mediation setting in order to achieve super-optimum solutions; it is as if that mental process of reframing be viewed under a microscope and in slow-motion to be effectively discerned and applied.

The substantive steps of reframing in the joke process may be replicated in mediation on a gross scale and at a cosmically decelerated rate of speed. Two questions present themselves: First, what are punchlines in mediation? And second, at what stage of the mediation process should they be introduced? The second question quickly finds its answer by simply reviewing the above chart that correlates the information processing stages in jokes to those of conventional mediation. The specially selected new information (punchline) in the joke process appears in the stage corresponding to the generation and evaluation stage of mediation. Thus, a reasonable hypothesis would be that the mediation punchline should occur in the “generation and evaluation of alternatives” stage in order to convert a conventional mediation into a super-optimum one. Usually, the punchline is delivered by the mediator, although in some situations, the punchline has been delivered party to party, or counsel to counsel, both in the mediator’s presence. The answer to the first question — What are punchlines in mediation? — is decidedly more involved.

Mediation punchlines consist of information of two types: the respective interests of the disputing parties and the available resources for satisfying those interests. Sometimes these interests and satisfaction resources are not even consciously perceived by particular disputants. It is the mediator’s challenge to discover these interests and resources, to match compatible ones, and to communicate or to have these possible matchings communicated to the other disputants.

Interest-Resource Possibilities


Below appears a list of basic mediation punchlines that may have potential use in any mediation.


This is just a basic list of words — basic punchlines that can be used to trigger others through use of imagination. There are thousands of potential punchlines — interests and satisfaction resources — that can be generated from this list.

The basic punchline list may be employed as follows. Consider, for example, that a major U.S. company that manufactures laptop computers (U. S. Manufacturer) and sells them in bulk to large store chains, both domestic and foreign. Let’s also assume that a new international Canadian chain (Canadian Buyer) contracted to buy, wholesale, 5,000 laptops for resale in 100 of its new stores. The contract price for all the laptops was $2,000,000 or 400 American dollars per unit. The Canadian Buyer paid $1,000,000 up front, the U.S. Manufacturer shipped the laptops pursuant to the contract, half of them were defective on arrival, and the Canadian Buyer refused to pay the balance of $1,000,000, contending that amount represents lost profits on the 2,500 defective computers. The defect was that laptop cases were scratched and marred. The U.S. Manufacturer contends that the laptops were damaged in shipment and that it was not responsible for the laptops after they were transferred to the shipper. The two parties elect to mediate the dispute. The ordinary meaning of the words on the punchline list helps to identify potential interests of each of the parties and the satisfaction resources available, internally or externally, to satisfy those interests. Beyond the words’ ordinary meanings, their metaphors can yield other potential interests and resources. For example, look at the word “volume” in the second column. Considered metaphorically, “volume” could refer to a stepping up of the marketing effort (“turning up the volume” of the corporate message). On inquiry, I might find that the U.S. Manufacturer’s advertising firm might have a plan for joint-advertising in Canada that may greatly reduce the Canadian Buyer’s advertising costs. “Volume” could also refer to amount of future wholesale purchases from the U.S. Manufacturer which could be discounted by an agreed amount. “Volume” might also refer to a satisfaction resource of the U.S. Manufacturer — warehouse space in the U.S. which the U.S. Manufacturer could make available to the Canadian Company for its U.S.-based computer stores. Thus, from that one word — volume — one can generate three topics that can be explored either before or during the mediation process.

These basic punchlines can be enhanced even further by applying techniques derived from the six standard joke formulas which are: play on words, reversal, exaggeration, visualization, pairs and triples, and routining. To be effective, mediators need to fully understand these six formulas available for constructing and communicating punchlines, and to appreciate how these formulas inter-relate with the standard joke structure.

Play on words

Let us walk through some examples. Take the formula, play on words, for instance. This formula type includes puns, limericks, and other clever witticisms of which the cliche usually provides the operative mechanism. Actually, there are five basic techniques for using cliches. The most common play on words, however, involves the manipulating of words that sound the same, but which have more than one meaning. Here are a couple of well-known examples:

An actor is the only ham that can’t be cured.

Did your watch stop when it hit the floor? Of course! Did you expect it to go straight through?

Actually, the “play on words” technique was used to come up with meanings for “volume” in the earlier example. The metaphor and the play on words techniques are quite similar. Both rely on the “play” idea — because that is, in effect, what one does with the words on the basic punchline list.


Applying the reversal formula, you turn things around. You lead people to believe that you mean one thing, but in fact you mean entirely the opposite. For example, typical jokes using the reversal formula would include:

For twenty five years my husband and I were deliriously happy. Then we met.

I’d like to introduce a man with a lot of charm, talent, and wit. Unfortunately, he couldn’t be here today.

The punchline is the antithesis of what is expected. As a mediator developing possible mediation punchlines, you would experiment with some antonyms from your Basic List. Here aresome examples based on our international commercial dispute fact pattern.

Basic Punch Line Opposite Meaning Enhanced Punch Line
Time Untimely Parties work out new arrangement for Canadian Company to make deferred payments for goods received
Distance Co-locate Manufacturer may want to open facility in Canada; needs business connections
Release Bind New contract provision could require Manufacturer to ensure safe shipment
Exchange Keep Canadian Company keeps
damaged units, sells
them at discount, drops
claim for lost profits,
Manufacturer supplies
some new computers at
no cost
Share Give Advantage Manufacturer offers to launch new product(s) in Canada Company’s chain
Control Freedom New contract provision would allow Canadian Company to take a proportion of units on consignment

Exaggeration. The exaggeration joke formula employs either overstatements or understatements of real situations as illustrated in the following examples:


My mother always believed that cleanliness was next to Godliness. She starched everything. It gotso bad that my brother fell out of bed one night and broke his pajamas.


I had heart surgery recently. In fact, my surgeon is here at this banquet tonight. I was pleased to see him until I overheard the doc ask his wife to cut his meat for him.

Here are some possible enhanced punchlines for the international commercial dispute applying the exaggeration formula to words from the basic mediation punchline list:

Basic Punch Line Over/Understated Form Enhanced

Punch Line

Opportunity Radically increase sales Explore possibility of Canadian Company

carrying other

product lines of Manufacturer

Space Accommodate need for real estate Manufacturer owns property in U.S. that

Canadian Company would buy

or lease

Quantity Radically increase sales Manufacturer offers

attractive bulk sales discounts to

Canadian Company’s

European stores


When the creative comic uses visualization, he or she designs a punchline which generates a vivid picture in the mind of the audience. Consider this joke:

My father taught me how to drive years ago … when I mentioned I was thinking of leaving home. He skipped all the technical parts. When we came to our first steep hill, he said “Write to Momma,” and jumped out.

Below is an example of how the visualization formula can be applied to the basic mediation punchlines to yield enhanced punchlines for resolving the international commercial dispute.

Basic Punch Line Visualization Enhanced

Punch Line

Structure Builder/repairer Repair/replace damaged parts

Responsibility Third party shipper Bring shipper into mediation process

Rate Happy buyer Manufacturer discounts wholesale price on marred units

Opportunity Happy third parties Manufacturer donates laptops to non-profit agencies or schools and takes tax deduction

Pairs and triples

Using the pairs and triples technique,the creative comic puts two or three ideas together and then designs a punch line to achieve irony or to maximize reversal. In the following joke examples, the “pair” joke example illustrates an ironic effect, and the “triple” joke example demonstrates a reversal effect.


Boy to friend:

If I’m too noisy, my mother gives me a spanking. If I’m too quiet, she takes my temperature.


Young child:

Why are you putting on so much face cream, Mommy?


Because it will make me young, healthy, and beautiful.

Young child:

(long pause) Well, when-zit gonna work?

Appearing below is an example of how the pairs and triple formula can be applied to the basic mediation punchlines to yield enhanced punchlines for resolving the international commercial dispute.

Paired Punch Lines Enhanced Punch Line
Exchange; rate Exchange rate of money favorable to
U.S. Manufacturer
Exchange; types U.S. manufacturer could provide laptops, at cost, to Canadian Company’s corporate personne
Exchange; persons Canadian Company could sponsor
management exchange programs to
foster better communication between
the two companies

Triple Punch Lines Enhanced Punch Line
Reinstatement, apology,quantity E Reinstate contract, with
apology, and increase in
units purchased
Procedure, control, guarantee Parties collaborate to
guarantee quality control
mechanisms in both companies
Publicity,share,assurances Use settlement as part of
public relations effort to
raise corporate image of both companies


The last formula, routining, is the most time consuming to employ, but if used properly, audience satisfaction can be maximized. Routining combines many of the joke-design techniques discussed above. Consider this slightly edited routine which Gene Perret designed around the simple idea of a crowded expressway that is very dangerous and that people hate to drive on. He uses Pennsylvania as the setting for the routine, but if he were writing the joke fora New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles audience, he would haveused those cities’ names in his design. As you read through this routine, visualize Bob Hope delivering it: I had a very pleasant trip over here on the Schuylkill Expressway. A pleasant trip on the Schuylkill Expressway . . . that means you finish in the same car you started with.

That road takes you from South Philadelphia to Valley Forge in twenty-five minutes flat … whether you want to go or not.

I can always tell when I’m approaching the Schuylkill Expressway. My St. Christopher statue gets down from the dashboard and climbs into the glove compartment.

It’s the only road in the world that you can travel on from one end to the other without once leaving the scene of the accident.

Actually, our Schuylkill Expressway is a famous road. It has been cited by religious leaders all over the world. It ranks second to World War II as a cure for atheism.

The Pope blessed it, but he won’t ride on it.

Application of the routining formula in mediation is quite easy if you have designed good jokes — or settlement elements — all along during the course of the mediation. Routining merely consists of stringing the settlement elements together in a format that achieves the highest degree of satisfaction for the parties.

End Notes

1 See generally, Edward de Bono, supra note 18; Richard Fobes, The Creative Problem Solver’s Toolbox (Solutions Through Innovation, 1993); James M. Higgins, 101 Creative Problem-Solving Techniques (The New Management Publishing Co., 1994).

2 This discussion of the joke model of creativity is an adaptation of John W. Cooley, Joke Structure: A Source of Creative Techniques in Mediation, 33 U. of San Francisco L. Rev. 85 (1998); see also, John W. Cooley, Mediation and Joke Design: Resolving the Incongruities, 1992 J. Disp. Resol. 249, 254-56.

3 The following joke example and the other joke examples in this section appear variously in Gene Perret, Comedy Writing Workbook (Sterling Pub. Co., 1990); Gene Perret, How to Write and Sell Your Sense of Humor (Writer’s Digest Books, 1982). Steve Allen, How to Be Funny: Discovering the Comic You (McGraw-Hill, 1987); Fred Metcalf (ed), The Penguin Dictionary of Jokes (Penguin Books, 1994); Melvin Helitzer, Comedy Writing Secrets (Writer’s Digest Books, 1987).


John Cooley

John W. Cooley is a former United States Magistrate, Assistant United States Attorney, Senior Staff Attorney for the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, and a litigation partner in a Chicago law firm. He is a past Chair of the Mediation Committee of the ABA Section of… MORE >

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