Watch Smarter

The Hidden Formula Behind Almost Every Joke on Late Night

Once you know it, you’ll see it in every punchline.

Watch Smarter is Slate’s series that teaches you to spot hidden tropes in pop culture and beyond. Watch all episodes.

How do late-night show writers come up with so many jokes? There’s a method—and it’s surprisingly mathematical.

When you have to write more than 100 topical jokes each day, there’s no time to wait for inspiration to strike. You need a reliable algorithm. Most late-night jokes you hear on TV are written using a step-by-step process perfected to mass produce punchlines. In this Season 2 premiere of Watch Smarter, Slate’s series about hidden tropes in pop culture and beyond, we go back to comedy 101 to learn how a few basic elements form the building blocks of nearly every joke you hear on late night.