How Much Is a Joke Worth?


In the age of Internet virality, jokes can pave the way to stardom. As The New York Times reports, the Norwegian comedy duo Ylvis hitched a ride on the high-speed social media train with a hit song intended as a joke: "The Fox (What Does the Fox Say?)." The pair have a show on Norwegian TV, but this "joke" opened the door to international recognition.

It's rare, though, that a joke fuels a rise to worldwide fame. Also, the Ylvis story is not as quaint as it first may seem. Ylvis  produced the track with Stargate (a team whose credits include Katy Perry and Rihanna tunes) after signing  with Warner Music, so it's really a corporate promo video more than a viral video from a couple of everyday guys.

What is the true cost of a joke, then, forgetting extraneous factors and record deals?

A Joke-Writer, a Superstar, and a Dream Walk Into a Bar

If you're a fan of comedy, you know that talk-show hosts such as Letterman, Leno, and Stewart don't generate all their own material. Rather, they thrive off of a team of writers. What you may not know is that TV comedy shows and other humor brands purchase jokes à la carte, selecting them from bunches of jokes emailed by freelancers.

DailyFinance noted in 2009 that both Letterman and Leno were paying freelancers for monologue jokes. At the time, the going rate was $75 to $100 for a Late Show joke that actually appeared on the broadcast. Those last six words are key. Staffers get paid on salary, but selling a single joke may mean submitting a hundred of them.

Freelance jokesmith Jonas Polsky concurs that a purchased joke can feel like it's been dicovered in a "ha"-stack of failed efforts. He received his first paycheck, for $100, after hundreds of missed attempts across a span of four years.

Freelancing or contributing is the bottom rung of the comedy writing ladder in terms of prestige, but it can turn into a full-time gig. Marvin Silbermintz first contacted Jay Leno with a batch of jokes in 1984. As with Polsky, it took Silbermintz patience and practice – several mailings and 300 jokes before Leno bought one. In the end, the payoff was huge: Silbermintz went on to staff-write for over 300 episodes of The Tonight Show.

Joking Your Way to a Living Wage

In anything we do for cash, time is always a primary consideration. Leno freelancer Bill Mahalic sells about one joke per month out of the three he submits each day. Assuming 22 weekdays in a month, 1 hour per day to write them, and a $100 payout per joke, he makes $4.55 per hour. At that rate, babysitting may seem like a better career path; but as Silbermintz's story suggests, joke-writing can represent a "foot in the door" for late-night staff positions.

Jokes are not only purchased by television shows. Online sources will buy them as well, such as the satirical news site The Onion. I have personally sold headlines to the site, which has a stable of contributors who submit 20 headlines a week; the staff team then develops those concepts into full articles.

The Onion is just a bit more lucrative, in per-hour payout, for a solid contributor. As of 2012, the humor monolith paid $50 for any published headline. That may not sound like much, but it was only $20 a decade ago. Assuming 4 hours per week to write the headlines and 2 accepted for publication in a 4.3-week month, you're making $5.82/hour.

Getting a laugh can be priceless, but it turns out that you can put a price on jokes. Roughly speaking, those worth buying range in value from $50 to $100. Don't except to write enough good ones each day to pay your bills, though, unless you can live on an hourly wage of $4.55-$5.82.

However, it can lead to bigger opportunities, as evidenced by Marvin Silbermintz. Plus, if you already have leverage as Ylvis did, you may be able to hatch a broader plan and build a joke into world domination.

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