Humor has tremendous value. It's an art form. But it's not a mystery—it has structure and formula. You can learn this creative art for your own personal enjoyment or for financial gain. Admittedly, some widely known authors feel that humor-writing skills (let alone the sense of humor) are mystically inherited rather than learned, and likely molded by such factors as ethnic characteristics, early childhood maternal influence, and insecurity. But the truth is that anyone can learn to write humor. Although some individuals are naturally funnier than others, just as some individuals are more athletic or more musically gifted, humor writing can be taught and humor-writing skills can be acquired. Humor is not a mystery, because (like stage magic) it is possible to demystify it.
BUT I AIN'T FUNNY
Let's use a simple humor exercise to illustrate that humor writing is accessible to everyone. Consider the possible uses of two round bar stool cushions. Other than stool cushions, what can they be? For five minutes, use your imagination and plenty of exaggeration. Without being restrained by practicality, scribble down as many possibilities as you can. Your list of possible uses for two stool cushions might include the following.
• elephant slippers
• oversized skullcaps
• eye patches for a giant
• hemorrhoid pads for a really large person
• Frisbees for the athletically challenged
Now take something around your room and try writting down as many things you can think of for what it might be!
This humor Rorschach testillustrates the first step in humor conception—imagination. Creativity is the key to comedy's engine, which won't turn over without unbridled imagination. Look at any other common object—an ashtray, a beer bottle, furniture in a room, or parts of the human body. Train your mind to constantly ask What if? and brainstorm all the possibilities of what else these objects could be. Don't worry if your ideas seem absurd. The exercise is to get your imagination in gear. To write funny, you must first think funny.
"Imagination is intelligence having fun." —George Scialabba
What if? imagination allows you to realign diverse elements into new and unexpected relationships that surprise the audience—and surprise makes people laugh.
What if mother's milk was declared a health hazard? Where would they put the warning label?What if you actually saw McNuggets on a chicken?
What if alphabet soup consistently spelled out obscene words?
Humorists have one cardinal rule: Don't be inhibited.
Imagination drives comedy, and just about everyone has an imagination— or no one would never get married. So just about everyone can learn the fundamentals of humor. How well you learn them depends on how much effort you're willing to expend.
THE BENEFITS OF HUMOR WRITING
The benefits of humor writing are the three Rs: respect, remembrance, and rewards. The skillful use of humor can
• earn you respect
• cause your words to be remembered
• earn great financial and personal rewards
There are other ways that you can attract attention: You can achieve something outstanding, criticize somebody, or be unconventional, for instance. But you can increase the impact of these things with humor. Humor is more than entertainment or joke telling—it's a powerful social lubricant that eases and enriches communication, interpersonal relations, and education. Humor is a universal speech opener because it immediately earns the speaker respectful attention. It's psychologically impossible to hate someone with whom you've laughed.
Successful humor requires all three MAP elements.
1. Material. The material must be appropriate to the interests of the audience, and it must relate well to the persona of the performer.
2. Audience. The audience must complement both the material and the presentation style of the performer.
3. Performer. The performer must present the right material to the right audience in the right way.
Unless you're prepared with material that obviously and vocally works for a specific audience, you're facing impossible odds of success. There's a distinct audience for every specialized group.
The following activities will help you develop your comedy-writing foundation through listening, observing, reading, and exploring. It's critical that you complete these exercises now, because they will be used throughout the next few chapters.
•List your ten favorite comedians and humorists, and use the Internet to search for jokes or quotes by each of these individuals.
• After you amass twenty jokes, write each joke on an index card. On the back of each card, identify the subject or target of the joke, and explain why you think the joke is funny. This exercise will help you become aware of the format of successful jokes and provide you with insight into your own comedic preferences.
• Collect ten to fifteen cartoons or comic strips and tape each one on a separate piece of paper. As you did with the jokes, identify the target of the humor and describe why the cartoon is funny to you. You may find it helpful to continue building a file of jokes and cartoons that appeal to you.
• In addition to building a joke and cartoon file, you'll need to find new material to use as the building blocks for your humor writing. Most professional humor writers begin each day by reading a newspaper, watching news on TV, and/or surfing the Internet for incidents and situations that might provide joke material. As you read this book and complete the exercises at the end of each chapter, form a daily habit of recording the odd news events that tickle your fancy.
• Everyday life is the main source for humor, so you need to keep some type of personal humor journal. To facilitate psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud had patients complete a dream diary, and he encouraged them to associate freely during therapy. To be a successful writer and tap into the full potential of your comic persona, you should follow an analogous approach. Record everyday events, ideas, or observations that you find funny, and do your journaling without any form of censorship. The items you list are intended not to be funny but to serve as starting points for writing humor.
There are six essential ingredients in any recipe for humor. With few exceptions, the absence of any one ingredient so disturbs the formula that the humor might not just taste "off," but might deflate like a ruined souffle. Whether the humor is a one-liner, a lengthy anecdote, or a three act theatrical piece, these six elements are required.
Although the prescribed order may be challenged, in this configuration the first letter of each element forms a memorable acronym: THREES. The THREES formula focuses on the what and why of humor. The what is the target, and the why is the hostility, realism, exaggeration, emotion, and surprise contained in the humor.
Now try to finish some on your own. Read the following expressions and clichés, and see if you can come up with a simple-truth tag. To help you get started, the key word with the best possibility for a double entendre is underlined. Check your payoff lines with the ones suggested at the end of the chapter.
Boy: Are you free tonight?
My girlfriend was faithful to the end.
We never serve women at the bar.
Cleanliness is next to godliness.
Judge: The court awards your wife $200 a week for support.
POW Brainstorming Techniques
"Writer's block is a fancy term made up by whiners so they can have an excuse to drink alcohol." —Steve Martin
Like most creative people, humor writers spend a lot of time looking for the right figure of speech. Occasionally, the blank "I'm thinking" gaze progresses to the comatose state known as writer's block. Unfortunately, humor writers can not only suffer from writer's block, but also from humor block: unavoidable moments when the comedic juices stop flowing.
Even when a writer's imagination is going full steam, the rule of ten in, nine out applies: For every ten jokes written, only one might be acceptable. The high ratio of successful to unsuccessful jokes explains why most late-night talk shows, such as The Tonight Show and Late Night, employ teams of gag writers. A five-minute monologue may be written by as many as six writers.
There are ways to jump-start the creative process. The most common brainstorming methods are association and listing.
ASSOCIATION A humorist's funny bone is like an athlete's muscles or a singer's vocal cords. It works best when it's warmed up first. Writing instructors insist POW Brainstorming Techniques that students do fifteen to thirty minutes of brain-stretching exercises each morning to clear the mind. Developing new associations is a creativewriting technique that can help you discover humor in unexpected relationships, and create POW jokes. Association is putting two activities that haven't been previously associated into a plausible but audacious scenario. Association is a more formal word for teaming, humor's variation on metaphor. You combine two simple elements that are logical alone but impossible together. The humor comes from the unexpected, offbeat relationship. Associations have several formats. One type of association begins with a cliché or expression that the audience is likely to interpret one way, but then the performer gives an illustrative example that reverses the anticipated meaning. My opponent has done the work of two men: Laurel and Hardy. —Governor James A. Rhodes Another type of association is the teaming of two clichés. This technique is the backbone of improvisation. Wife to friend: I call Herb's salary a phallic symbol even though it only rises once a year. A third type of association is the Tom Swifty, the teaming of a quotation with a verb or adverb of attribution that puns on the meaning of the quotation. "I want to renew my membership," Tom rejoined. "I hope I can still play the guitar," he fretted. "All the twos are missing from this deck," she deduced. "You're burning the candle at both ends," he said wickedly. "I think he's dead," she said mournfully. "I'm as tired as a sled dog," he said huskily. Robert Orben, one of the most prolific humor writers, warms up by writing twenty-five POW jokes inspired by the morning paper. Then, he gets to work. Others like to imagine funny captions to news photos. Humor 1 1 0 Comedy Writing Secrets lecturer Art Gliner gets his seminars going with a POW association exercise. He has attendees write down words that might describe how tired firefighters, police, dogcatchers, plumbers, etc. feel when they get home at night. For example: FIREFIGHTER burned up torched like a plugged nickel like a ladder day saint like he had made an ash POLICE OFFICER beat half-cocked blue charged badgered that's the ticket DOGCATCHER muzzled bitchy pooped licked collared GARDENER hosed plowed under bushed mulched seedy rocky alarmed fired up steamed not too hot of himself flat-footed run down shot holed up it was a riot bone tired run down hounded dog tired the paws that refreshes potted bogged down raked over dug up all wet
TARGET: AIMING YOUR HUMOR
Our instinctive perception is that humor is fun. It isn't! Humor is criticism cloaked as entertainment and directed at a specific target.
"If there's no corpse, there's usually no joke." —Mike Sankey
Celebrities: Humor Fodder and Mudder
"This Halloween the most popular mask is the Arnold Schwarzenegger mask. And the best part? With a mouth full of candy you can sound just like him." —Conan O'Brien
Places: Living in a Crass House
"I moved from New York City to Athens, Ohio. Talk about culture shock. From the city that never sleeps to the city that never woke up." —Mel Helitzer
Products: Malice in Wonderland
"Stuffed deer heads on walls are bad enough, but it's worse when you see them wearing dark glasses, having streamers around their necks, and a hat on their antlers. Because then you know they were enjoying themselves at a party when they were shot. I say to a gun owner who owns an AK-47, that if it takes a hundred rounds to bring down a deer, maybe hunting isn't your sport."
Ideas: Fools of the Game
Although feelings of superiority are essential to humor, you can nonetheless be funny by coming out for a topic or idea, rather than against it. "Comedy was born of anarchism," said political humorist Mark Katz, "and now it's moved into advocacy."
"Bisexuality immediately doubles your chances for a date on Saturday night." —Woody Allen
As you've just seen, the list of potential humor targets is nearly endless. Take a moment and list seven to ten possible subjects, topics, or targets of humor. That is, identify things that you want to make fun of.
As noted in the discussion of the MAP theory in the first chapter, the humorist's material must fit the persona of the writer or performer. Each humorist feels more comfortable attacking some targets over others. Return to your list of potential humor targets and identify the three tar¬ gets that you would feel most comfortable making fun of.
The second ingredient in the THREES recipe for humor is hostility. Humor is a powerful antidote to many of the hostile feelings in our daily lives. All of us have hostility toward some target. That is why, in humor, ridicule is spelled ridicruel. Comedy is cruel. The words cruel and ridicule appear together frequently—where there is one, there is also the other.
All of us have hostility toward some person, thing, or idea—unless we are saints. Did you ever hear a joke about two perfect, happy people? But when a beer-bellied, blue-collar worker walks in the front door and says to his battle-ax of a wife, "Can you spare a few minutes? I need to be taken down a peg"—now, that works as great humor.
Let's discuss some common sources of hostility (and therefore humor): authority, sex, money, family, angst, technology, and group differences.
Authority: Sock It to Me
While hostility against authority is international, in America, it is a national heritage. Since the Revolutionary days, we've enjoyed pricking the bloated arrogance of authority and watching it bleed. Humor is a great catharsis because it gives the public an opportunity to blow off indignant steam at authority figures both major and minor.
"I looked up the word politics in the dictionary, and it's actually a combination of two words: poli, which means "many," and tics, which means "bloodsuckers." —Jay Leno
One characteristic of this hostility is that invariably we ridicule upward, attacking those we perceive to be superior (or in a superior position).
"The Senate decided they will be smoke-free. They ordained that all public areas in the Senate are now smoke-free. However, the senators themselves will still be allowed to blow smoke up each other's ass." —Bill Maher
Hostile humor is usually directed upward. Freshmen ridicule upperclassmen but have little interest in writing humor about their younger brothers or sisters. Faculty spend very little effort on humor directed at students and much more on material satirizing the administration. In the military echelons of command, noncoms gripe about junior commissioned officers, who ridicule the major support staff, who in turn snicker about the general's idiosyncrasies, until—so the story goes—General MacArthur's wife once asked him to convert to a religion in which he no longer believed he was God.
"As they say around the [Texas] Legislature, if you can't drink their whiskey, screw their women, take their money, and vote against 'em anyway, you don't belong in office." —Molly Ivins
Money and Business: The Loot of All Evil
Men admit they think more about sex than about any other subject, but studies throughout the years have indicated that women worry more about finances than sex. There's little doubt, however, that money is a constant source of irritation and hostility among both sexes.
"Someday I want to be rich. Some people get so rich they lose all respect for humanity. That's how rich I want to be." —Rita Rudner
"If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to." —Dorothy Parker
Perversely, financial worries only increase as you get wealthier: The more money you have, the more problems.
Business practices are more frequently becoming targets of financial hostility. But jokes about business practices actually direct hostility against two subjects at the same time: economics and authority.
"The budget problems with Medicare and NASA could be solved if the country began firing the elderly into space." —Al Franken
Financial humor targets are countless: Executive shenanigans, wages, taxes, investments, gambling, lottery awards, and credit cards are just a few.
"My VISA card was stolen two months ago, but I don't want to report it. The guy who took it is using it less than my wife." —Johnny Carson
Coming Home Soon Hostility against family responsibilities, restrictions, and competing interests needs little explanation as a target of humor. Family members and household affairs like cleaning, paying bills, and cooking have all become popular targets.
"My theory on housework is, if the item doesn't multiply, smell, catch on fire, or block the refrigerator door, let it be. No one cares. Why should you?" —Erma Bombeck
"The day I get excited about cleaning my house is the day Sears comes out with a riding vacuum cleaner." —Roseanne Barr
I left my wife because she divorced me. I'm not going to live with somebody under those kinds of pressures. But I still love my ex-wife. I called her on the phone today. I said, "Hello, plaintiff..." —Skip Stephenson
"I wanted to be an actress. I said to my mother, "I want to cry real tears. I want to show great emotion for someone I don't really care for." She said, "Become a housewife." She always wanted me to be married all in white—and all virginal. But I don't think a woman should be a virgin when she gets married. I think she should have at least one other disappointing experience. One woman friend of mine told me she hated her husband so much that when he died she had him cremated, blended him with marijuana, and smoked him. She said, "That's the best he's made me feel in years." —Maureen Murphy
Children, especially teenagers and preteens, are common family targets. Even toddlers are targets (they're not just cute but, according to Bill Cosby, exhibit signs of brain damage). Parents are unburdening themselves wittily, even if they can't do it in reality.
"Having a family is like having a bowling alley installed in your head." —Martin Mull
And children are reciprocating, which means let's give it to our saintly, gray-haired mother and revered father!
Mother's Day card: Mom, you're the greatest. At least that's what all the guys at the construction site say!
"Children are the most desirable opponents at Scrabble, as they are both easy to beat and fun to cheat." —Fran Lebowitz
Angst: The Ecstasy and the Agony
Angst is the intellectual observation that fairy tales aren't true—that there is an unhappy end to every happy beginning. Angst has pointed a devil's finger at anxieties so personal that, in the past, we carefully avoid¬ ed discussing them even in private: A long list of such topics includes fear of death; coping with deformity; deprivations; and neurotic symptoms such as paranoia, insecurity, narcissism, and kinky sexual urges.
"Have you ever dated somebody because you were too lazy to commit suicide?" —Judy Tenuta
Woody Allen popularized angst. "I merchandise misery," he wrote. "When I named my movie Love and Death, the commercial possibilities were immediately apparent to me: sight gags and slapstick sequences about despair and emptiness; dialogue jokes about anguish and dread; finally, mortality, human suffering, anxiety. In short, the standard ploys of the funnyman."
"They say such nice things about people at their funerals that it makes me sad that I'm going to miss mine by a few days." —Garrison Keillor
Technology: Now Fear This
Charlie Chaplin exploited frustrations and fears about rapidly growing automation to make people laugh. It's ironic that IBM once used his tramp character as an implied advertising testimonial for computers, because Chaplin's character didn't promote machines—he ridiculed them.
"Computers operate on simple principles that can easily be under¬ stood by anybody with some common sense, a little imagination, and an IQ of 750." —Dave Barry
The sense of hopelessness that comes from our apparent inability to control the environment is now a universal hostility. Industrial chemi¬ cals can lead to pollution, drugs can lead to suicide, and the advertising drum beats for nonsensical fads. Humor may be our only rational way of coping with the fear of terrorism, an invasion of spooks from outer space, or the chemical mutation of our planet.
"They asked John Glenn what he thought about just before his first capsule was shot into space, and he said: "I looked around me and suddenly realized that everything had been built by the lowest bidder."
Group Differences: Us vs. Them
Mocking the beliefs or characteristics of social groups is one of humor's most controversial subjects because it caters to our most primitive instincts—prejudice and insecurity. We hope to maintain some sense of superiority by ridiculing abnormal characteristics of others. We're responding to a primitive form of group therapy.
"Sophisticated people have retirement plans. Rednecks, on the other hand, play the lottery. That's our plan. And when we hit the 'pick six," we're going to add a room on to the trailer so we don't have to sleep with Grandpa no more." —Jeff Foxworthy
We fear control and intimidation by people of different colors or religions; and so, by derision, we attempt to stereotype their physical appearances, ethnic mannerisms, colloquial speech—any unique characteristic we find odd. We feel the same way about people with different social attitudes about drugs, sex, education, professions—even music, literature, and humor. As long as we're in the majority, humor can criticize.
"I had a cab driver in Paris. The man smelled like a guy eating cheese while getting a permanent inside the septic tank of a slaughterhouse." —Dennis Miller
"Do you know how the Amish hunt? They sneak up on a deer and build a barn around it." —Tim Bedore
Humor is often sin without conscience. (A conscience doesn't prevent sin; it only prevents us from enjoying it.) It used to be the blue-collar whites that regurgitated the most hostile ethnic humor. Today, comedians of all backgrounds are sensing both an increasing freedom for public humor and an increasing audience who'll pay to hear it.
"Mexicans don't go camping in the woods, especially during hunt¬ ing season. Some redneck would say to the judge, "Your Honor, I saw brown skin and brown eyes. He had his hands up. I thought they were antlers. I shot his ass." —Paul Rodriguez
"It's time that African-Americans and Korean-Americans put aside their differences and focus on what's really important: hating white people!" —Margaret Cho
This is how Cheech and Chong, whose financial successes outstripped that of every other comedy team in film history, described their type of humor:
Our jokes may be fifty years old, but our audience, the youth, ain't seen shit. To them, it's brand new. If you're white, you can be afraid of people of different color, religious fanatics, but if you're black or brown, you're afraid of other things, like starvation and not having a place to live. By incorporating the basic humor of drugs and poverty into our appeal, it makes it universal—the underdogs against the world. We know the humor of the rough and ready ... we pander to the worst instincts in people—caricaturing swishy gays, dumb blondes, illiterate Mexicans, greedy Jews. We're shameless panderers.
Redd Foxx bragged about his material being "as outrageous as possible. That's the humor I hear in the ghettos. We don't pull punches, and we don't want to hear about Little Blue Boy and Cinderella—and if they don't like my shit, they can fuck off!" The following story, which often reappears as an urban legend, illustrates how ethnic humor can be turned against the majority.
"Four doctors' wives from a small Midwestern city decided to brave a weekend shopping trip in Manhattan. Their husbands were apprehensive about city crime. "If someone wants your pocketbook or jewelry, don't put up a fight. Just do what they say. Promise?" On their very first morning, as the four were descending in the hotel elevator, a well-dressed black man got on leading a large Doberman pinscher. He looked at the women for a moment, and then commanded the dog, "Sit!" Immediately the four women sat on the floor."
Each writer has his own definition of humor. Shakespeare said, "Brevity is the soul of wit." Somerset Maugham wrote, "Impropriety is the soul of wit." But the soul of wit may just be hostility. When we all think alike, there will be a lot less humor.
Sigmund Freud described depression as anger turned inward. Humor might be viewed as anger turned into profit. Hostility underlies humor, so tapping into your anger is an excellent tool for generating ideas for jokes (and it's less expensive than therapy).
Make a list of people, things, and topics that you feel hostile about. Freely associate, don't censure yourself, and write down why each target is frustrating. Exaggerate your emotional state to the point of being PO'd and fully vent your anger about the target. This exercise can narrow the focus of each target to a specific premise that will be a springboard for writing humor (not venting hot air!).
REALISM: RAISE YOUR SITES
The third component in the THREES formula for humor is realism. "Most good jokes state a bitter truth," said scriptwriter Larry Gelbart. Without some fundamental basis of truth, there's little with which the audience can associate. But jokes also bend the truth, and the challenge is to learn how to tell the truth (be realistic) while lying (exaggerating).
Since it appears that exaggeration is the logical antithesis of realism, it may seem ludicrous to have both within the framework of one piece of humor. But good humor is a paradox—the unexpected juxtaposition of the reasonable next to the unreasonable—and that creates surprise. Think of the combination of realism and exaggeration as an exercise in lateral thinking, a technique commonly used by business gurus to solve problems and generate new ideas. It's defined as an interruption in the habitual thought process, a leap sideways out of ingrained patterns. Comedy has been doing this for thousands of years.
Supreme Court Justice Sandra O'Connor went with the other justices to a restaurant for lunch. The waiter asked for her order first. "I'll have a steak sandwich and coffee." "What about the vegetables?" asked the waiter. O'Connor said, "Oh, they'll have the same."
The basic two-step in humor is to (a) state some common problem, frequently with a cliché, and (b) create an unexpected ending or surprise.
"If you've never wanted to kill your mate, you've never been in love. If you've never held a box of rat poison in your hand and stared at it for a good long while, you've never been in love." —Chris Rock
Incongruous humor, as you may remember from chapter two, is based on the premise of two or more realistic (but contrasting) circumstances united in one thought. Humorist Stephen Leacock wrote, "Humor results from the contrast between a thing as it is and ought to be, and a thing smashed out of shape, as it ought not to be."
"If the world is normal, then how come hot dogs come in packages of ten and hot dog buns come in packages of eight?" —Robert Wohl
Dorothy Parker once wrote, "The difference between wit and wisecracking is that wit has truth to it, while wisecracking is simply calisthenics with words." (So, realism fathers truisms, those witty bits of philosophy based upon self-evident and generally accepted facts of life.)
"To entertain some people, all you have to do is listen. But there is nothing quite so annoying as having someone go on talking when you're interrupting." —Robert Orben
The value of realism becomes even more evident when you consider the humor of children. Their combination of truth and simplistic naïveté delights grown-ups because it gives us a feeling of benevolent superiority— if, as is said about benevolent dictatorship, there is such a thing.
A grandmother was babysitting her four-year-old granddaughter. They both had hazel eyes, so the grandmother proudly asked, "Debbie, do you know where your eyes came from?" The child thought for a moment and answered, "Yes, Grandma, they came with my head."
To be most effective, the "facts" of humor should be logical—the rela¬ tionship between people should be clear and predictable, the time and the locale of the story should be familiar, the hostility should be common to all the audience members and commensurate to the irritation. Major deviations from reality don't prevent humor, but they may reduce the payoff of uninhibited laughter. In essence, then, humor should be as realistic as possible.
"A priest in New York City was arrested on gun possession. These days, you better be happy that the bulge in his pocket is a .38." —David Letterman
EXAGGERATION: TALKING UP A STORM
We've already begun discussing exaggeration, the fourth element in the THREES formula for humor. How does realism relate to exaggeration? As we accept poetic license, let's accept a humor license that grants per¬ mission to expand on realistic themes with soaring imagination and unabashed metaphors. Audiences rarely counter a joke that the performer has made personal with an admonition "You don't expect me to believe that?"
Only for humor is the public willing to suspend disbelief and skepticism. We permit humorists to utilize hyperbole, blatant distortion, and overstated figures that signal (since the absurd subject matter can't possibly be true): Hey, it's only a joke. Therefore, the audience laughs at exaggerated banana-peel acrobatics because the clown will certainly get up. That's comedy! If he doesn't get up, that's tragedy!
An example of the likely next to the unlikely is the classic story about the newspaper that ran two photos: one of a gray-haired matron who'd just been elected president of the local Women's Republican Club and the other of a gorilla who was a new addition to the local zoo—but the captions got switched. That's likely. The second stage of the humor comes from the unlikely: The newspaper got sued for defamation—by the gorilla!
EMOTION: BURST THE BUBBLE
The fifth element in the THREES formula is emotion. Hostility, over- or understated, is not enough. There must be a buildup of anticipation in the audience. This is really nothing more than the writer's skill in using emotion to produce tension and anxiety. It's a trick. Think of hostility as an inflated balloon. When you create tension in your audience, you are effectively adding more and more air to that balloon, building the audience's anticipation over when the balloon will burst. They can hardly keep their eyes off the stunt. The writer's goal is to see that the balloon bursts with laughter, not hot air.
Each performer has a stage personality, called a persona or shtick. While others can steal material, they can't steal the nuances that make one individual funny. (And an ineffective persona can make a performer unable to tell even a well-written joke). Humorist Larry Wilde said, "There is a melody and cadence to all comedy that is as stringent and disciplined as music."
A great comedic performer must be an actor with boundless energy. The qualities that make a good comedian are over and above those that make a good actor. Many comedians have become good actors in films and sitcoms, but you rarely hear of a good actor becoming a great comedian. In the movie The Entertainer, Sir Laurence Olivier played the part of a small-time comic. It was a brilliant, award-winning performance, and when Olivier was asked how he managed to make the comic look so inept, he replied, "I didn't try to do him badly. I played the role as well as I could." Even the best actor may be a flop as a comedian.
The ability to generate emotion is the ability of the speaker to trans¬ late the writer's material into entertainment through voice, enthusiasm, and action. The ability to create emotion is also experience: knowing when to pause and for how long, creating a rhythm with inflection, and sometimes nothing more grandiose than making a gesture—called a take, because it takes the right gesture.
Woody Allen discovered that "stand-up is a funny man doing material, not a man doing funny material. The personality, the character—not the joke—is primary."
QUESTION & ANSWER HOW DO YOU BUILD EMOTION?
1. The first and most common technique for building emotion is also the simplest—pausing just before the payoff word. This pause is called a pregnant pause because it promises to deliver. Even in Henny Youngman's classic, "Take my wife—please!" the slight pause indicated by the dash is essential to the reading of that line. (Try to read it any other way!) The pregnant pause creates tension, which is relieved by the surprise ending.
"I know you want to hear the latest dope from Washington. Well—here I am." —Senator Alan Simpson
Would you be so kind as to help a poor, unfortunate fellow out of work, hungry, in fact someone who has nothing in this world—except this gun!
2. The second technique for generating emotion is asking the audience members a question, thereby encouraging them to become involved. This was one of Johnny Carson's favorite devices.
Anybody see this commercial on TV last night? It claims you can send a letter from anywhere in the country to New York for seven dollars and fifty cents, and it promises next-day delivery. The Post Office calls it Express Mail. I remember when it used to be called the U.S. Mail.
Remember how hot it was yesterday? Well a dog was chasing a cat, and they were both walking.
A common technique used by novice stand-up comics to infuse tension is to ask the audience, "How many here have ever...?" It's become its own cliché, and the take-offs are even more fun.
How many here went to grade school?
How many here paid to get in?
3. The third technique is called a build, which is a joke that leads to a joke that leads to another joke. Ultimately, the jokes work together to prepare the audience for one big blast.
4. The fourth way to build emotional tension is by working the audience—a favorite device of today's stand-up comedians. The per¬ former walks out into the audience and throws questions at (what appear to be) randomly selected members. Tension builds in each audience member not from amazement that the comic is able to come up with toppers to every answer, but from the fear that he or she may be the next victim of the performer's ridicule.
Every playwright builds emotion into a scene. A humor writer does the same thing, but because you're working with much smaller units—sometimes just a joke of a few words—you must be able to accomplish more with less. Good humor writers are like professional card cheats. They know how to palm the joker and insert it only when it's needed. When their act is too evident to the audience, they fail— and it ain't pretty.
SURPRISE: NOBODY KNOWS THE STUMBLES I'VE SEEN
The final element in the THREES formula is surprise. In the previous chapter, we discussed surprise as one of the primary reasons why people laugh. It's no wonder then that it's also one of the primary building blocks for a successful joke. Charlie Chaplin defined surprise in terms of a film scene in which the villain is chasing the heroine down the street. On the sidewalk is a banana peel. The camera cuts swiftly back and forth from the banana peel to the approaching villain. At the last second, the heavy sees the banana peel and jumps over it—and then falls into an open manhole.
It's easy to tell if your surprise works, because a live audience's instant laughter is the most honest of emotions. You can give a bad speech, a poor theatrical or musical performance, and the audience will still politely applaud. If you perform bad humor, you'll get nothing but icy silence (just a preliminary to unsolicited post-show advice).
No matter how well written, jokes don't come off in performance if the comedian telegraphs the surprise. Many performers tip off the audi¬ ence to the funny line with a lick of their lips or a gleam in their eyes. They hold up their hands and stop the audience from laughing all out ("Hey, listen to this!"), and they prime the audience for a big topper. But then there's no surprise, and no laughter. This can have a domino effect: The performer loses confidence in the material, then starts to press, then loses other laughs because the audience has a sixth sense about flop sweat—when a performer is trying too hard.
"Comedy is mentally pulling the rug out from under each person in your audience," wrote Gene Perret. "But first, you have to get them to stand on it. You have to fool them, because if they see you preparing to tug on the rug, they'll move."
"Two roads diverged in a wood and I took the road less traveled by ... state troopers."
Let's see how the entire THREES formula (target, hostility, realism, exag¬ geration, emotion, and a surprise ending) works in a story. Identify which parts of the story below correspond with each component of the THREES formula. (At the end of the story, you can rate your answers).
An elderly truck driver was eating lunch at a roadside diner when three shaggy young hoodlums, sporting black leather jackets garishly decorated with swastikas, skulls, and crossbones, parked their motorcycles and came inside. They spotted the truck driver and proceeded to taunt him, taking his food away, pushing him off the seat, and insulting his old age. He said nothing, but finally got up from the floor, paid his bill, and walked out. One of the bikers, unhappy that they hadn't provoked a fight, said to the waitress, "Boy, he sure wasn't much of a man, was he?" "No," said the waitress, looking out the window, "and he's not much of a truck driver either. He just backed his truck over three motorcycles!"
Did the THREES formula work for the above story? Yes, because the humor contained each of the major components.
T = TARGET: The hoodlums, carefully described.
H = HOSTILITY: The story exploits public frustration at the escalation of juvenile crime.
R = REALISM: There's little doubt that the aggressive actions of the bikers could happen.
E = EXAGGERATION: One motorcyclist would have worked, but an ele¬ ment of exaggeration is achieved by including three. Their crude behavior is exemplified not just once, but with three incidents of hostile action. Exaggeration is also present in the truck driver's final action—not a simple thing to do quickly.
E = EMOTION: The joke is carefully written to squeeze out every drop of audience hostility: the stereotypical fascist appearance of the bikers, their childish aggression meant just to provoke a fight with an outnumbered, aged opponent. We even feel disappointment when the truck driver appears—for a moment—to be a coward.
S = SURPRISE: The climax of the story is withheld until the last two words.
A summary of the book by Mel Helitzer and Mark Shatz
Why we laugh. We laugh out of surprise: a joke is a story and a surprise ending is its finale. We laugh when we feel superior: when we poke fun of others.
Play on Words (POWs): a twist on a word or expression.
- How long was I in the army? Five foot eleven.
- I slept like a log last night. I woke up in the fireplace.
- When I got divorced, I missed my husband, but I’m getting to be a better shot.
- “What would you say to a martini?” “Depends on what the martini said to me first.”
- I like a girl with a head on her shoulders, because I hate necks.
- A girl phoned me the other day and said, “Come on over, there’s nobody home.” I went over. Nobody was home.
- I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas I’ll never know.
- “Would you like to pet my pussy?” “Sure, but first move the cat.”
- Hilary Clinton said she once got a dog for Bill. She said it was the best deal she ever made.
- I was at a bar nursing a beer. My nipple was getting quite soggy.
- I’ve heard that dogs are man’s best friend. That explains where men are getting their hygiene tips.
- It takes a big man to cry, but it takes a bigger man to laugh at that man.
- Dad always said that laughter is the best medicine, which is why several of us died from tuberculosis.
- If a kids asks where rain comes from, I think a cute thing to tell him is “God is crying.” And if he asks why God is crying, another cute thing to tell him is “Probably because of something you did.”
- Comedy is in my blood. Frank, I wish it were in my act!
- What’s ICBM? Eskimo doo-doo.
- What’s infantry? A very young sapling.
- I’m not as concerned with euthanasia as I am with kids in this country.
- I sold my house last week. Got a good price for it. But it made my landlord made as hell.
- When I was young, I thought that money was the most important thing in life. Now that I’m old--I know it is.
- I made a killing in the stock market. My broker lost all my money, so I killed him.
Triples 1. The series of three creates anticipation. SAP. Setup (preparation), Anticipation (triple), Punchline (story payoff).
- A woman recently had a baby from an embryo that had been frozen for seven years. She said, “I had no idea it I was having a little boy, a little girl, or fish sticks.”
- My wife and I don’t get along (setup). I take my meals separately, I take a separate vacation, and I sleep in a separate bedroom (triple). I’m doing everything I can do to keep this marriage together (payoff).
- You can include the punch line in the third part of the triple. When you die there's a light at the end of the tunnel. When my father dies, he'll see the light, make his way toward it, and then flip it off to save electricity.
- Waitress in a hoarse voice: For dessert we got ice cream -- vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry. Customer: You got laryngitis? Waitress: No, just vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry.
- My dad's pants kept creeping up on him. By sixty-five he was just a pair of pants and a head.
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