Question? Leave a message!

How to start Comedy Writing

how to practice comedy writing and how to learn comedy writing | download free pdf
secret s 2nd edition secret s the best-selling book on how to think funny, write funny, act funny, and get paid for it Mel Helitzer with Mark Shatz WRITER'S DIGEST BOOKS Cincinnati, Ohio www. COMEDY WRITING SECRETS, Copyright 2005 © by Melvin Helitzer. Printed and bound in the United States of America. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote passages in a review. Published by Writer's Digest Books, an imprint of F+W Publications, Inc., 4700 East Galbraith Road, Cincinnati, Ohio 45236, (800) 289-0963. Second edition. Other fine Writer's Digest Books are available at your local bookstore or direct from the publisher. 5 4 3 2 1 09 08 07 06 05 Distributed in Canada by Fraser Direct, 100 Armstrong Avenue, Georgetown, ON, Canada L7G 5S4, Tel: (905) 877-4411. Distributed in the U.K. and Europe by David & Charles, Brunei House, Newton Abbot, Devon, TQ12 4PU, England, Tel: (+44) 1626 323200, Fax: (+44) 1626 323319, E-mail: Distributed in Australia by Capricorn Link, P.O. Box 704, S. Windsor NSW, 2756 Australia, Tel: (02) 4577-3555. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Helitzer, Melvin. Comedy writing secrets: the best-selling book on how to think funny, write funny, act funny, and get paid for it / by Mel Helitzer with Mark Shatz. p. cm. Includes index. ISBN 1-58297-357-1 (pbk.: alk. paper) 1. Wit and humor—Authorship. I. Shatz, Mark. II. Title. PN6149.A88H445 2005 2005014368 808.7-dc22 CIP ABOUT THE AUTHORS MEL HELITZER, a former Clio award-winning Madison Avenue ad agency president, is now a distinguished, award-winning journalism pro¬ fessor at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. He was one of the first to teach humor writing at any university in the world. His course led to the publica¬ tion of Comedy Writing Secrets in 1987, and the book is now the largest selling text on humor writing in the country. Helitzer has written humor for print and broadcast productions as well as comedy material for such stars as Sammy Davis, Jr., Shari Lewis, Art Linkletter, Ernie Kovacs, and presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson. Many of his students are now professional comedians or humor writers for national publications. He is the author of seven books, including a bound-for-Broadway musical, Oh, Jackie Her Father's Story. MARK A. SHATZ is professor of psychology at Ohio University, Zanesville. In addition to teaching humor writing, he has extensive inter¬ national experience as a teacher, speaker, and seminar leader on various topics such as motivation, death education, and interpersonal communi¬ cation. Dr. Shatz has published numerous academic papers, including how to use humor to enhance instruction and learning. He is the author of KISSing Golf: The Keep It Simple (Stupid) Instructional Method, a humorous instructional book for beginning golfers. TABLE OF CONTENTS Foreword ix Introduction 1 PART I: THE BASICS OF HUMOR WRITING Chapter 1: The Importance of Humor Writing 7 Chapter 2: Why We Laugh 19 Chapter 3: The Recipe for Humor 36 PART II: HUMOR WRITING TECHNIQUES Chapter 4: POW: Play on Words 61 Chapter 5: More POW: The Simple Truth and the Take-Off 89 Chapter 6: POW Brainstorming Techniques 109 Chapter 7: The Next Giant Step: Reverses 125 Chapter 8: The Harmony of Paired Elements: Phrases, Words, Statistics, and Aphorisms 138 Chapter 9: Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered: Triples 150 Chapter 10: Realism, Exaggeration, and Understatement 163 Chapter 11: Funny Words and Foul Language 181 PART III: WRITING HUMOR FOR SPECIFIC MARKETS Chapter 12: Testing, Testing, One, Two, Three: Writing Humor for Speeches . . .199 Chapter 13: Stand-Up or Sit Down: Humor for Live Entertainers 223 Chapter 14: Print Humor: Columns, Articles, and Fillers 252 Chapter 15: Saw the Picture, Loved the Gag: Humor for Cartoons and Greeting Cards 268 Chapter 16: The Scarce Comedy: Writing for TV Sitcoms 287 Chapter 17: We Mean Business 303 Chapter 18: Teach, Learn, and Laugh 315 Chapter 19: That's a Wrap 327 Appendix: Glossary 333 Index 337 FOREWORD And Now a Word From the Prof Comedy is a lot like professional sports. Past successes are history. You get paid for today's hits. One difference is that in baseball, a .300 hitter gets paid a million dollars and the fans are deliriously happy all season. But a .300 batting average in comedy would get professional performers to go from boos to booze in a week. With that kind of failure rate, you'd think any person who had reached the age of reason would take up plumbing. But the facts are that writing and performing humor is rising in popularity. And if you're successful, the money in comedy is so abundant that professional practitioners are like well-endowed actors in a porn movie—"You mean I get paid for doing that." The biggest change in the humor industry in the last ten years has been the need for professional writers. There are just not enough qualified writ¬ ers today to fill the increasing need. Besides the standard venues, more and more markets are begging for humor material: speeches, business newslet¬ ters, advertising, columns, talk shows, sales presentations, and everything from high-tech computer attachments to Hi, Mom greeting cards. Comedy clubs had a ten-year fireworks display. While the worst ones closed from bad management and bad acts, the remainder are solid busi¬ nesses, and the "I'll do anything to get on stage" neophytes are now secure enough to be unionized. TV sitcoms also had their vicissitudes of popularity. The great ones lasted into syndication, and the worst ones were pulled after one or two seasons. In the mean¬ time, the number of humor talk shows from Leno and Letterman to Jon Stewart and Conan O'Brien increased. And now every presidential candidate needs to make a guest appearance, not only to be toasted but also to increase his popularity by being roasted. And Now a Word From the Prof The formal study of humor in colleges has grown in geometric propor¬ tions despite the doubting colleagues who associate facetiousness with frivolity. The president of my university once told me he disdained humor, because he feared failure. "I've heard some of your speeches," I told him. "And I agree with you." It's the fear of failure, however, that continues to be the biggest draw¬ back. While 90 percent of us claim we have a sense of humor, the number of critics is 100 percent. "I didn't think it was funny." Go argue. Milton Berle ended his years appearing before senior citizens in Miami Beach. Once, a little old lady in the front row kept shouting, "That stinks. I've heard it before." Exasperated, Berle said, "Lady, do you know who I am?" "No," she said, "but if you'll go up to the desk, they'll tell you." The net result of all this is that if you really want to take the time and effort to learn how to write (and perform) humor, you've got to have a thick skin to go along with a nimble brain. Learn how to live with people throwing dirt at you. One day a donkey fell into a well. The farmer couldn't get him out, so he knew he had to cover him up. He called in his neighbors, and they all started to throw dirt down the well, but instead of burying the animal, the donkey would shake the dirt off and take a step up. Pretty soon, the pile of dirt got so high that the donkey stepped over the edge of the well. Moralists use this story to preach that all our troubles can be stepping stones, that we shouldn't give up; instead shake it off and take a step up. Comedians, however, note that as soon as the disdained donkey got to the top he ran over and bit the farmer. Their moral is that if something goes wrong, try to cover your ass. It can come back and bite you. We hope you'll enjoy this book. It can make you rich in more ways than one. And that's no joke. Professor Mel Helitzer Ohio University 2005 Comedy Writing Secrets INTRODUCTION You Can Do It HEY IS THIS THING ON? Out of fear that discovery of their superficial tricks will be evaluated rather than laughed at, many famous humorists have sponsored an insupportable fiction that comedians must be born funny. According to Mel Brooks and Woody Allen, for example, you can't teach anyone to be funny. They either have the gift or they don't. Hogwash You can teach literate people anything, from Einstein's theory of relativity to how to play shortstop. And compared to humor writing secrets, playing the piano's eighty-eight keys or speaking Greek is a lot harder to learn and a lot less fun. (Which is more beneficial to humanity is debatable.) What is universally accepted, however, is that comedy, a flash of intuition, is more art than science. Since Eve first admonished her pooped-out partner to be "up and Adam," entertainment has been our kingdom's social pastime, and come¬ dy is the coin of the realm. Theater traditionalists like to point out that one side of their coin is the embossed mask of humor, and the other side, the mask of tragedy. They're wrong again. Humor is tragedy and tragedy is humor. As Mel Brooks once said, "Tragedy is if I cut my finger. Comedy is if you drop into an open sewer and die." As this book will prove, if you can't learn to write humor, kid, that's tragedy HOW THIS BOOK HELPS YOU Humor style changes dramatically almost every twenty years. This new edition of Comedy Writing Secrets has been updated with con¬ temporary methods and formulas. Here are some of the key points the book covers: You Can Do It 1 • The three Rs of humor • The secret of the MAP theory • The beauty of What if? • The THREES theory of humor structure • Why we laugh at some forms of humor and groan at others • The natural hostility of humor • Why humor must ridicule a target • Why hard-core humor is more shock than funny The book is divided into three sections. The first part covers the founda¬ tions of humor writing, including the theories and principles of humor and why we laugh. The second section describes various humor-writing tech¬ niques, such as plays on words, reverses, pairings, triples, and exaggeration. The final section explains how to write humor for popular markets such as greeting cards, speeches, articles, newsletters, and stand-up comedy. This revised edition also includes chapters on humor writing in advertising and the use of humor in education. Integrated throughout the book are sections titled Showtimes that provide quick exercises that can refine your writing skills. Humor writing demands practice, and it is critical to take the time to complete these writing assignments. If you're not funny by then, demand your money back and don't ever get married. While this book is an introduction to humor writing, we don't promise it will instantly transform you into a professional. Learning the funda¬ mentals of humor is easy compared with the dedication required to be a successful writer. A woman once rushed up to the famous violinist Fritz Kreisler and cried, "I'd give my life to play as beautifully as you do." Kreisler replied, "Well, I did." NO DEGREE REQUIRED Since there is no official humor certification organization, there is no such thing as a certified professional humor writer. If you can sell your material or get paid for performing it, you're a professional. But humor writing is commanding more and more attention in higher education. 2 Comedy Writing Secrets Approximately sixty universities, including the University of California, Los Angeles, and The New School in New York, offer humor-writing cours¬ es and degree-granting programs in humor studies, and more such courses are on the horizon. Many colleges use this book as their primary text. The first college credit writing course was taught by Mel Helitzer at the Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University in 1980. Within three years, it had become such a smash hit that the twenty allotted seats were assigned a year in advance. Students for the class are as diverse today as they were more than twenty years ago and range from fellow faculty members to adults from the community—including lawyers, doctors, accountants, homemakers, and even one mortician. (We asked him if, when trying out his material, he killed the audience, and he said, "No, they're already dead when I get there.") The largest group of current comedy writers for major TV shows and films comes from Harvard, which ironically does not have a humor- writing course. For some reason, there has never been a famous come¬ dian who graduated from Yale or Princeton, that is if you don't count two recent U.S. presidents. In Chicago, Second City is the country's leading school for improvisation- al training. Numerous comedy clubs and individual professional writers, par¬ ticularly in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, offer small clinics. THE BIG-PICTURE BENEFITS OF HUMOR Humor's impact is far reaching. For example, when the editors of Fortune Magazine queried human resource directors of Fortune 500 companies as to what qualifications they looked for in middle management executives, the top three answers were: (1) knowledge of the product; (2) respect for the bottom line; and (3) a sense of humor. Since everyone claims to have a sense of humor, except for an expec¬ tant mother in a delivery room, the editors double-checked, "Why a sense of humor?" And the replies were consistent. A sense of humor indicates leadership. When we smile, it's a sign of confidence, because fear and paranoia are signaled by frowns, not smiles. You Can Do It 3 Subordinates, associates, customers, and clients like to work with someone with a sense of humor. JOINED AT THE LIP: HUMOR AND COMEDY Academicians, especially English professors, often attempt to draw dis¬ tinctions between humor and comedy. Humor is considered the broader term that encompasses all types of humor material, such as satire, sar¬ casm, irony, and parody. Comedy is the performance of humor. The per¬ ception is that clever writers write humor while glib comedians do jokes. Men say the most important thing in another person is a sense of humor. That means they're looking for someone to laugh at their jokes. —Sheila Wenz It's true that jokes in isolation are just that—jokes. However, any form of humor writing uses jokes to produce the humor. We take a less elitist position and do not make arbitrary distinctions between humor and comedy. If the result is laughter, then the label is insignificant. Our goal is to help you write funny. WHOSE JOKE IS IT, ANYWAY? Contemporary humor-writing methods are an extension of past techniques. We focus on contemporary humorists, but since today's comedians rip off the greats, knowledge of humor history is not a sometime thing. This book, there¬ fore, includes examples and advice from scores of contemporary comedians such as Jon Stewart, Tina Fey, Billy Crystal, Jay Leno, Chris Rock, David Letterman, Robin Williams, and Rita Rudner, and from humor hall of famers such as Erma Bombeck, Milton Berle, and George Burns, and even from such early American humorists as Mark Twain, Elbert Hubbard, and John Morley. Unfortunately, credit lines for humor are a researcher's nightmare, like this pairing. If you can't join them, beat them. —Mort Sahl 4 Comedy Writing Secrets If you can't beat them, arrange to have them beaten. —George Carlin There are many standard jokes, and they have thousands of variations. No one can swear that any one was his creation. In Oh, the Things I Know, Al Franken stated, "I am not a member of any organized religion. I am a Jew." Franken later noted that he "first heard that joke from a Catholic, who had substituted the word 'Catholic.'" Will Rogers used that same premise—but he substituted the words "political party" and "Democrat"—nearly one hundred years ago. It's also been proven that such famous lines as Horace Greeley's "Go west, young man," Marie Antoinette's "Let them eat cake," Joseph Addison's "He who hesitates is lost," W.C. Fields's "Any man who hates dogs and babies can't be all bad," and his oft-quoted tombstone inscription, "I would rather be here than in Philadelphia," Mark Twain's "Everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it," Will Rogers's "I never met a man I didn't like," and Franklin D. Roosevelt's "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," were all previously written by someone else. If scholars have this problem with historic lines, then giving proper credit for similar jokes, anecdotes, and witticisms can be a never-ending dilemma. So the best we can offer for identification is to list the name that was published in someone's joke collection, but don't bet on its accuracy. Of course, some jokes came to us creditless, and some we wrote ourselves. The ghost of Marlowe will always haunt the library of Shakespeare—and that's not an original line either. Now, let's get started. You Can Do It 5 The Basics of Humor Writing CHAPTER 1 The Importance of Humor Writing What is comedy? Comedy is the art of making people laugh without making them puke. —Steve Martin 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 mater¬ nal influence, and insecurity. Humor is one of the things in life which defies analysis— either you have it or you don't, either you enjoy it or you don't. —Ross Mackenzie Nobody can teach you humor writing. The secret is passed on from one generation to another, and I will not tell mine, except to my son. —Art Buchwald 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 mys¬ tery, because (like stage magic) it is possible to demystify it. The Importance of Humor Writing 7 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 This humor Rorschach test illustrates the first step in humor concep¬ tion—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? 8 Comedy Writing Secrets What if the leaning tower of Pisa had a clock? (After all, what good is the inclination if you don't have the time?) Humorists have one cardinal rule: Don't be inhibited. It's better to take a nihilistic attitude toward sensitive subjects than to pussyfoot around taboos. When writing, write freely. Make uninhibited assump¬ tions. Editing and self-censorship are second and third steps—never the first We'll describe later how to fit your ideas into the basic formulas of humor writing. If your internal critic limits your imagination by saying This stinks, then you will be left with nothing. Your goal is to tap the full potential of your comedic imagination by remembering this mantra: Nothing stinks. Nothing does stink The whole object of comedy is to be yourself, and the closer you get to that, the funnier you will be. —Jerry Seinfeld 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 Rewards Respect Remembrance The Importance of Humor Writing 9 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 Respect: Get Up and Glow We use humor primarily to call attention to ourselves. Notice how you react when you tell a joke to a small group of friends and, just as you get to the end, someone shouts out the punch line. That person gets the laugh. You don't. You feel victimized. Your glare might be the physical limit of your anger at first—but the second time this happens, you'll try to kill the jerk, and no jury will convict you. Laughter is to the psyche what jogging is to the body—laughter makes your psyche healthy and bright and vigorous. But unlike jogging, humor (at least in live performance) offers immediate gratification— more so than any other art form. You know within a half-second when your audience is appreciative, because this jury's decision is impulsive and instantaneous. Comedy is very controlling—you are making people laugh. It is there in the phrase "making people laugh." You feel completely in control when you hear a wave of laughter coming back at you that you have caused. —Gilda Radner 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 rela­ tions, 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. 10 Comedy Writing Secrets When we laugh we temporarily give ourselves over to the person who makes us laugh. —Robert Orben Humor can also help you gain success and respect in nearly every profes¬ sion (unless, perhaps, you are a mortician). For example, teachers facilitate instruction with humor, advertising executives use humor to sell products, and politicians rely on humor to promote their candidacies. Humor doesn't just get you attention—it gets you favorable attention, and respect. Remember: Everlasting Memories When we're successfully humorous—live or in print—people remember. Our best lines are retained and repeated. An impressive number of say¬ ings in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations are witticisms. There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt. —Erma Bombeck On one issue at least, men and women agree: They both distrust women. —H.L. Mencken Humor promotes learning and makes it memorable. Studies have found that students who attend lectures that include witticisms and anecdotes achieve higher test scores than students who attend the same lectures minus the humor. When learning is fun, everybody benefits. When the mouth is open for laughter, you may be able to shove in a little food for thought. —Virginia Tooper In and out of the classroom, jokes are probably our best opportunity for immortality—for being remembered. I don't want to gain immortality by my humor. I want to gain immortality by not dying. —Woody Allen The Importance of Humor Writing 11 Reward: Show Me the Money Humor is important in every facet of commercial life. More and more fre¬ quently, big-business executives are hiring speechwriters able to make them gag on every line (and you can read that line any way you want to). Many political candidates—in fact, every president since Franklin Roosevelt—have had in-house humorists on their speech-writing teams. It really gets me when the critics say I haven't done enough for the economy. I mean, look what I've done for the book-publishing industry. You've heard some of the titles. Big Lies, The Lies of George W. Bush, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. I'd like to tell you I've read each of these books, but that'd be a lie. —George W. Bush Comedy can also be a springboard to lucrative TV and film roles. Robin Williams, Alan King, Chevy Chase, Chris Rock, Billy Crystal, Ellen DeGeneres, Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray, Mike Myers, Rosie O'Donnell, Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandier, and Roseanne Barr are just a few major film and TV stars who started out as comedians. Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, and Carl Reiner began their careers as gag writers for Sid Caesar's TV shows, and David Letterman, Conan O'Brien, and Garry Shandling were TV staff writers before hosting their own TV shows. A former girlfriend remembers Bill Gates as having bad breath. He remembers her as not having 100 billion. —Conan O'Brien The demand for humor writers far exceeds the supply. One reason for this is that more people want to tell jokes than write them. Opportunities abound for humor writers, who can seek careers as syndicated colum¬ nists, speechwriters, greeting card writers, stand-up comedians, Internet and advertising copywriters, and screenwriters for TV sitcoms and film. Another reason for the high demand for humor writers is that television is a joke-eating shark. It chews up more humor material in a month than all other markets use in a year. Johnny Carson once remarked that televi¬ sion is the only medium that eats its young, because young writers are the 12 Comedy Writing Secrets ones most frequently hired to feed the shark day after day. Many young humorists are attracted to the eye-popping financial rewards of a career in TV humor writing, but writers are only as good as their last joke, and fatigue causes many of them to burn out after a year. Whatever humor- writing endeavors you choose, you can be financially and personally suc¬ cessful if you develop good humor-writing skills—and staying power. The road to success is always under construction. —Lily Tomlin THE MAP TO BEING A SUCCESSFUL HUMORIST The two qualities shared by all successful humorists are (a) consistency and (b) targeted material. If you are consistent, you can make people laugh repeatedly—the ability to write funny isn't a one-time thing. Once you can consistently make people laugh, it's essential to target your material so you don't waste precious time preparing the wrong material for the wrong performer, to be delivered to the wrong audience. This is as true in print and broadcast humor as it is for stand-up. What if you tell a joke in the forest, and nobody laughs? Was it a joke? —Steven Wright The acronym MAP sums up this second point rather efficiently. MAP stands for material, audience, and performer. MAP is a triangular comedic con¬ stellation. Each star in the constellation must relate to both the other stars. Material Audience Performer The Importance of Humor Writing 13 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. Audience: Resisting a Rest The reason the MAP theory is illustrated by a triangle is that—of the three points—the audience is the most important. Every time writers forget this simple piece of advice, they lose the game—and soon the job. You and the audience have the same goal line. You score when you reach it together. Others can keep score, but ten laughs a minute can be a failed effort if the audience doesn't participate. The first responsi¬ bility of every humorist is to evaluate the majority of the audience, whether it's one person or a thousand. (In the next chapter, we'll dis¬ cuss why people laugh.) Unless you're prepared with material that obviously and vocally works for a specific audience, you're facing impossible odds of suc¬ cess. There's a distinct audience for every specialized group. They are categorized by hundreds of special interests: color, religion, education, financial and social standing, acumen, geography, politics, fame, and sex. The same material that works for a college audience will not work for a group of lawyers, doctors, or bankers. Dumb-blonde jokes may work for a blue-collar men's audience, but humor that ridicules men's habits and body parts are more popular than ever with women's groups. Youth audiences feel uninhibited language is expected, and senior citizen groups feel young comedians' material should first be exorcized with mouthwash. Most audiences are more interested in subjects that involve their activities than they are in humor that is all about you, your friends, your pets, and your bar buddies. From the very first day, humor writers are urged, figuratively of course, to throw away the capital letter I on 14 Comedy Writing Secrets their computer. It's true that greats like Ray Romano, Rita Rudner, and Woody Allen talk about themselves, but until you become the equiva¬ lent of Ray, Rita, or Woody, it's best to wait. More astute are performers like Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno, Chris Rock, and Billy Crystal, who fire round after round of observations of the audience's interests. The best example of all is Jeff Foxworthy's "You know you're a redneck if ..." material, and although he demeans them, his redneck southern audi¬ ence howls all night. Hey, Look Me Over Once the profile of the audience has been established, the second most important point of the triangle is performer. Whether you're writing for someone else or you're the presenter, the audience needs to know who you are in the first thirty seconds. It's in this short window of time that they're going to decide just how comfortable they feel with your comedic persona. Certain characteristics are mandated by your physical appearance: size, color, accent, sex, and beauty. Performers can enhance their per- sonas with costumes, props, and theatrical projection, but it's best to take advantage of these physical confinements rather than fight them. Michael Richards, of Seinfeld fame, looks goofy, and every time he tries to change his character, he fails. Comedian Yakov Smirnoff has main¬ tained a Russian accent even though he lived all his formative years in Cleveland. Red neck comedians wear blue jeans, Las Vegas comics wear suits, and young girls wear black leather pants. It's All Material Only after you know your audience and the characteristics about the performer's persona that need to be consistent, are you ready to start writing the material. And that's the heart of this book. But learning the fundamentals of humor is easy compared with the dedication required, and you're going to need it. Throughout the book, we'll show you how to follow the MAP to suc¬ cessful humor writing. The Importance of Humor Writing 15 HUMOR WRITING IS A 24/7 GIG Writing humor is an all-day—and all-night—assignment. New ideas can (and should) pop into your head anytime, anyplace. In an issue of Advertising Age, journalist Bob Garfield described the idea-collection practices of Marty Rackham, then a beginning comic. Marty Rackham's wallet is stuffed with miscellaneous business cards, on the back of which he jots random ideas. One says, "Pulling words from a per¬ son who stutters." Another, "Jumper cables." Right now, he's working on a bit about continental hygiene: "Did you ever smell a European?" The ideas mate¬ rialize constantly, in varying degrees of hilarity and sophistication. The humorist's mind is a wonderful thing to watch. Sometimes you can even see humorists' lips move as they silently try out different ideas. Meet them during off-hours at a social gathering; every fact reported, every name mentioned, every prediction made is grist for humorous association. At the end of a party, if you ask how they enjoyed themselves, they might answer positively only if they've been successful at collecting new material, which they'll write and rewrite all the way home. A humorist tells himself every morning, "I hope it's going to be a rough day." When things are going well, it's much harder to make jokes. —Alan Coren To keep track of ideas and potential material, the humorist's toolbox typi¬ cally includes the following items: a note pad, index cards, a tape recorder, and a computer with Internet access. If you hope to sell your writing, you'll need a copy of Writer's Market, the bible of the publishing industry. Regardless of the tools you use, you'll need to devise a system for organizing your writing. The traditional method is to organize jokes by topics using some type of filing system. Milton Berle and Bob Hope each had a vault containing more than six million jokes on index cards sorted by topic. The digital alternatives to index cards are database or spreadsheet programs. 16 Comedy Writing Secrets If you plan to write more elaborate humor (such as columns, arti¬ cles, or scripts), there are a variety of software programs that can aid your writing. One of the most useful writing development programs is Inspiration. The program allows you to visualize your material and easily manipulate ideas, and its integrated diagramming and outlining environments facilitate brainstorming, concept mapping, organizing, and outlining. SHOWTIME The following activities will help you develop your comedy-writing foun¬ dation 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 pro¬ fessional humor writers begin each day by reading a newspaper, watch¬ ing 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 The Importance of Humor Writing 17 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. 18 Comedy Writing Secrets CHAPTER 2 Why We Laugh The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue. —Dorothy Parker Aristotle studied it, and Socrates debated it. Such famous histor¬ ical figures as Charles Darwin, Thomas Hobbes, and Henri Bergson wrote papers on their humor theories. In the twentieth century, Sigmund Freud, Max Eastman, and even Woody Allen tried to formulate clear explanations of the purpose of humor. In fact, there's been more research on humor in the last decade than in all previous centuries combined. Humor has played an important part in our lives for thousands of years, but scientists and philosophers are still working to understand what laughter means, why we tell jokes, and why we do or don't appreciate other people's humor. Despite the prowess of the minds that have considered the subject, answers are far from definitive. Like rabbis in the eternal debate over the meaning of the Talmud, every scholar of comedy interprets its subjective phenomena in terms of his own discipline. Today, there is more diversity of opinion than ever. So much remains to be done that the student of humor has a real opportunity to make a significant contribution to the field. —Jeffrey Goldstein and Paul McGhee The only common denominator among the theories is an agreement that humor is so subjective that no one theory can possibly fit in all instances. For those interested in creating humor, there is good news and bad news. The good news is that if humor has so many tangents, it may have an unlimited variety of benefits. Most of them have yet to be discovered. The bad news is that those who create comedy are not sure they know Why We Laugh 19 exactly what they're doing. "I work strictly on instinct," Woody Allen admitted. Humor writers therefore have to live with the fear that they won't be able to continue producing humor consistently. After being an established writer for fifteen years, I remember staring at the typewriter every morning with a desperate, ran¬ dom groping for something funny, that familiar fear that I could¬ n't do it, that I had been getting away with it all this time and I would at last be found out. It was a painful blundering most of us went through. —Sol Saks There are few artists more insecure than humorists. They are tradi¬ tionally suspicious of any attempt to analyze their creative techniques. That's because they develop their formulas through trial and error. They discover comedy batting averages; some techniques work more often than others. I think I did pretty well, considering I started out with nothing but a bunch of blank paper. —Steve Martin SHOWTIME Before we discuss how humor works, let's examine your theory of humor. Take out your joke and cartoon collections, and rank each item in terms of funniness. Next, review the explanations you wrote for the top-rated items to determine common patterns or themes. Finally, with these patterns or themes in mind, write down at least five answers to the question Why do people laugh? 20 Comedy Writing Secrets REASONS FOR LAUGHTER Few contemporary humor craftsmen agree on any comedic philosophy, except: If it gets a laugh, it's funny. If you want to write funny, however, you must first understand how audiences respond to humor. In short, you must understand why we laugh. Noted psychologist Patricia Keith-Spiegel identified two primary reasons why we laugh. • We laugh out of surprise. • We laugh when we feel superior. Keith-Spiegel identified six additional motivations for laughter, each of which supports the two main reasons, surprise and superiority. • We laugh out of instinct. • We laugh at incongruity. • We laugh out of ambivalence. • We laugh for release. • We laugh when we solve a puzzle. • We laugh to regress. The theories of humor discussed in this chapter will provide you with a starting point for analyzing why humor does or does not work. Over time, your personal theory of humor will evolve and influence your writing. Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. They both die in the process. —E.B. White Be forewarned—the application of humor theories does have a downside. As you shift into an analytical mindset, you'll spend more time thinking about why something is funny and less time laughing. As we take jokes apart, we must be as unemotional as a coroner during an autopsy. Surprise We laugh most often to cover our feelings of embarrassment. This can be a result of either having unintentionally done or said something foolish, or having been tricked. If we have been tricked, we have been surprised. Why We Laugh 21 Surprise is one of the most universally accepted formulas for humor. A joke is a story, and a surprise ending is usually its finale. The guys in strip clubs think because they got a pocket full of dol¬ lars they got the power—but the chicks got the power. They spin around the pole and you guys are hypnotized. That's how I look at a dessert case, but at least I get to eat mine. —Monique Marvez Appreciation of any piece of humor decreases rapidly through repeated exposure, or when the ending is predictable. Clever wordplay engenders grudging appreciation in your peers, but surprise wordplay gives birth to laughter. We smile at wit. We laugh at jokes. The techniques that most often trigger surprise are misdirection (when you trap the audience), and incongruity (which is most effective when the audience is fully aware of all the facts, but someone they are observing is not). The universe has come to an end in Houston, where there's a Starbucks across the street from a Starbucks. Is this for Alzheimer's suffers? You finish your coffee and walk out the door and go, "Oh, look, a Starbucks." —Lewis Black If laughter is the electricity that makes a comedy writer's blood start pumping, then surprise is the power generator. The need for surprise is the one cardinal rule in comedy. In West Virginia yesterday, a man was arrested for stealing several blow-up dolls. Reportedly, police didn't have any trouble catching the man because he was completely out of breath. —Conan O'Brien According to playwright Abe Burrows, the best way to define the construc¬ tion of surprise is to use baseball terms: A joke is a curve ball—a pitch that bends at the last instant and fools the batter. "You throw a perfectly straight line at the audience and then, right at the end, you curve it. Good 22 Comedy Writing Secrets jokes do that," said Burrows. To achieve the unexpected twist, it's some¬ times necessary to sacrifice grammar and even logic. He may not be able to sing, but he sure can't dance. A key word sets up the surprise. It gets the audience to assume they know the ending. Notice how the word half works in the following example. My wife and I have many arguments, but she only wins half of them. My mother-in-law wins the other half. —Terry Bechtol There are many ways to achieve surprise. What's important is to remem¬ ber that you really can't be funny without it. Superiority There appears to be a strong and constant need for us to feel superior. In many ways, humor satisfies this most basic of needs. If you can't laugh at yourself, make fun of others. —Bobby Slaton "Humor is a reaction to tragedy. The joke is at someone else's expense," wrote anthropologist Alan Dundes. We even laugh when the baby falls down and goes boom. We defend this sadistic release by saying, "That's cute." It's not cute—especially from the baby's perspective. Humor often ridicules the intelligence, social standing, and physical and mental infirmities of those we consider inferior to ourselves. You know, you're never more indignant in life than when you're shopping in a store that you feel is beneath you and one of the other customers mistakes you for an employee of that store. —Dennis Miller But those we consider superior to ourselves are not spared. We delight in publicizing and mocking every shortcoming—perceived or real—of people who are in positions of authority, who are richer, more famous, more intelligent, physically stronger, or more admired. The greater the prestige of the victim, the greater our desire to equalize. Why We Laugh 23 TYPOS: AN ART FULL OF SUPERIORITY Nothing allows someone to feel superior more than mocking another person's mindless mistake, which is perhaps why typos are such a rich source for contem¬ porary humor and witticisms. Both the original expression or word and the expression or word created by the typo must be so familiar (in other words, part of universal knowledge) that there is no doubt that everyone in the audience can be in on the gag. My public relations course had a typo in last semester's course catalog. It was listed as "Advanced Pubic Relations." The regis¬ tration was 1,500 ... and those were only the faculty wives. —Mel Helitzer In the 9/11 commission report, they say it was Iran—not Iraq— that was helping Al-Qaeda. So apparently we invaded the wrong country because of a typo. —David Letterman Humor is social criticism. The object is to deflate. Humor has been an emo¬ tional catharsis for every American ethnic minority: Irish, Germans, Arabs, Jews, Blacks, Latinos, etc. There are few joke books on WASPs—but that doesn't mean there aren't jokes about them. In a study, scientists report that drinking beer can be good for the liver. I'm sorry, did I say "scientists"? I meant "Irish people." —Tina Fey I'm a WASP, a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, and actually, a lot of my people are doing really well. —Penelope Lombard Humor also reassures the insecure. Even if we believe ourselves to be the "haves" (having power, money, knowledge, or prestige), there is 24 Comedy Writing Secrets tremendous insecurity about how we got it and how long we're going to keep it. Americans have a tremendous sense of inferiority. We mask it with jokes about our superiority. I've been to Canada, and I've always gotten the impression that I could take the country over in about two days. —Jon Stewart There are two ways to feel superior. The first is to accomplish exemplary work that receives public acclaim. That's difficult. The second (and easiest) way to feel superior is to publicly criticize the accomplishments of others. This diminishes their prestige and focuses attention on us. Regardless of how much the second method might be deplored on ethical grounds, the amount of time and effort exerted to belittle the work of competitors is usu¬ ally far greater than the amount of time and energy expended to improve our own abilities. The penalty for laughing in a courtroom is six months in jail. If it weren't for the penalty, the jury would never be able to hear the evidence. —H.L. Mencken Our spark of laughter is always ignited by the misfortunes of those we fear. "Humor is the weapon of the underdog," wrote psychologist Harvey Mindess. "We must look for avenues through which we can disgorge our feelings of inferiority by discovering the blemishes of our superiors." In short, we feel superior because their image has been tarnished and because we aren't in the same predicament. As individuals (regardless of our status), our humor is generally directed upward against more authoritative figures. In a group setting, our humor is directed downward toward groups that don't conform to our social, religious, national, or sexual mores. I worked some gigs in the Deep South ... Alabama. You talk about Darwin's waiting room. There are guys in Alabama who are their own father. —Dennis Miller Why We Laugh 25 Sigmund Freud's explanation of this phenomenon was that "a good bit of humor is oriented to maintaining the status quo by ridiculing deviant social behavior and reassuring the majority that their way of life is proper. It is used as a weapon of the 'ins' against the 'outs.'" If you're Black, you gotta look at America a little bit different. You gotta look at America like the uncle who paid for you to go to college but molested you. —Chris Rock The comic is no El Cid on horseback. If anything, comics are guerrilla fighters—hitting and running, bobbing and weaving. With this kind of an act, they've got to keep moving. The professional humorist must always be aware that audience mem¬ bers are happiest when his subject matter and technique encourage them to feel superior. The target of a roast smiles only because he knows everyone is watching for his approval. Despite being the guest of honor, he would rather have stayed home with his wife—where he would also have been insulted, but at least he could have saved a clean, white shirt. Now that we've discussed the two main reasons why people laugh— surprise and superiority—let's examine the six other reasons. These six minor theories overlap one another and either function within or support the two main theories. Instinct Laughter is a born and bred instinct, a phenomenon of evolution. It appears to be a function of the nervous system that stimulates, relaxes, and restores a feeling of well-being. Primates, with little verbal commu¬ nicative ability, show friendship with a closemouthed smile. They show anger and hostility with an open mouth, exposing all their teeth—despite the fact they could all use orthodontics. Scientists believe that monkeys can be taught to think, lie, and even play politics within their community. If we can just teach them to cheat on their wives, we can save millions on congressional salaries. —Jay Leno 26 Comedy Writing Secrets For human beings, laughter has evolved as a substitute for assault. Triumph is often coupled with an openmouthed smile followed immediately by a roar of laughter. Watch a pro football player after he scores a touchdown. If laughter is biologically instinctive, the old adage of never trusting someone who laughs too loudly should be amended to include those who laugh with their mouths open. We laugh and joke not when we need to reach out and touch someone, but when we need to reach out and crush someone. It's an attempt to vent our hostility when physical aggression is not practical. Incongruity According to the dictionary, something is incongruous when it is incon¬ sistent within itself. For example, whenever someone behaves in a rigid manner that is suddenly ill-suited to the logic of the occasion, these incongruous antics result in a ridiculous scenario. This comic effect can arise from incongruity of speech, action, or character. According to philosopher Henri Bergson, one type of comedic incon¬ gruity is an unconventional pairing of actions or thoughts. There are only two kinds of money in the world: your money and my money. —Milton Friedman There seems to be more than a Latin semantic root shared by the words ridiculous and ridicule. And in humor, we ridicruel. Many incongruous situations provoke laughter because they allow the observer to feel supe¬ rior. Some of the best illustrations of this type of comedic incongruity are the practical jokes on such television shows as Candid Camera and Punk'd. These television programs, by design, encourage us to laugh at people trying to maintain dignity in bizarre circumstances. The audience laughs the hardest when it knows all the facts of the situation—and therefore feels superior to the perplexed victim of the joke. Allen Flint, the creator of Candid Camera, claimed that the talking mailbox gag—a man is mailing a letter when suddenly the mailbox starts to talk to him—was the show's top laugh-getter. The incongruity of a mailbox talking to someone is funny on its own, but the apex of laughter comes when the man calls over his friend and asks him to listen to the Why We Laugh 27 amazing conversation. He starts talking to the mailbox. At this point, the mailbox doesn't say a word. As the victim gets more and more exasperat¬ ed and starts shouting at the mailbox, the camera cuts to a close-up of the friend—who is plainly questioning his buddy's sanity. Incongruity may take the form of an entire comic plot, rather than a single joke. A common example of an incongruity-based plot in TV sit¬ coms is when one character hides in the closet moments before someone in authority (a spouse, boss, police officer) unexpectedly enters the room. This plot has a hundred variations, and it's always popular because the audience knows all the facts, and therefore feels superior. Ambivalence This theory is similar to incongruity in its dependence on incompatible experiences. Nervous laughter covers our recognition of rigid conven¬ tions that make us appear foolish when held up to a humorist's strobe light. In a dishonest world, honesty is amusing. They say you should videotape your baby-sitter, but I don't think you should involve your kid in a sting operation. —Dave Chappelle Whereas incongruity is the clash of incompatible ideas or perceptions, ambivalence is the simultaneous presence of conflicting emotions, such as the love/hate relationships in families. Holding our ambivalent feelings up for comedic inspection is the powerful shtick of humorists like Bill Cosby, who often played upon the antagonism a parent may often feel for a child. Listen to what I'm telling you, damn it, 'cause I brought you into this world, and I can take you out of it. —Bill Cosby Another common topic under the theme of ambivalence is the mother- son relationship (which makes analysts wealthy). My mother never saw the irony in calling me a son of a bitch. —Richard Jeni Ambivalent humor covers up our guilt feelings or our foolish errors; it's 28 Comedy Writing Secrets an attempt to maintain dignity. Self-deprecating humor is just a device to set the audience at ease, so you can be in control. Release We laugh in embarrassment when we drop a glass in public or an innocent error of ours has been discovered. In these situations, laughter relieves tension. But laughter as release can also be a planned event, a conscious effort to unlock life's tensions and inhibitions. We attend a Neil Simon play or a Robin Williams concert because we want humor to help us laugh away our anxieties. A drunk driver's very dangerous. Everybody knows that. But so is a drunken backseat driver—if he's persuasive. —Demetri Martin This release is fortified by group approval. Comedy works best when an audience is not only prepared to laugh, but anxious to participate in a shared social experience. For release humor to work, the audience must be clued to every plot from the beginning. If the audience and the actor don't know what's behind the door, that's mystery. If the audience knows, but someone else doesn't, that's release comedy. Did you ever wonder why we sing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" when we're already there? One theory of laughter as relief is that, if we feel the need to laugh, it's because we've been whipped by the day's battles and we'd like to hear or see a few others get smacked around. Misery loves company, but only if we can laugh at them and they can't laugh back at us. We'll even laugh wildly when a catcher chasing a foul ball wipes out seven guys in wheelchairs. I hear blind people are complaining that seeing-eye dogs are expensive, difficult to train, and hard to get. I say, let 'em use midgets. They can use the work. —Chris Rock That's sadism—and superiority. Why We Laugh 29 Puzzle Solving We frequently laugh when disjointed bits of information fall into place: Oh, so that's the way it works I learned about sex the hard way—from books —Emo Philips We smile, frequently even laugh aloud, when we experience that sudden insight of having solved a mystery, finished a crossword puzzle, or con¬ quered a difficult assignment. Theorists refer to this type of scenario as configuration humor. In configuration humor, we laugh when a riddle encourages us to instantaneously discover some missing—and unexpect¬ ed—piece of information. If we're successful, we congratulate ourselves by laughing out loud. We are delighted by the solution to the puzzle (sur¬ prise), and we want the world to know we're very smart (superiority). Regression Sigmund Freud's theory of humor contended that humor, like sleep, is therapeutic. But even more importantly, he argued, wit can express—in a relatively appropriate way—urges and feelings that can't otherwise be let loose, such as the desire to act on regressive infantile sexual or aggres¬ sive behavior. More to the point, Freud believed that a lack of humor can be a sign of mental illness. My theory is that women don't suffer from penis envy. Every man just thinks his penis is enviable. Maybe Freud suffered from penis doubt. —Bob Smith Psychologist J.C. Flugel wrote, "We laugh in order to socially accomplish childish regression without feeling foolish. We adopt a playful mood, excusable as relaxation." This may explain why comic strips are the most universally accepted format of humor among adults, regardless of nation¬ ality or culture. We're young only once, but with humor, we can be immature forever. —Art Gliner 30 Comedy Writing Secrets Psychoanalysts learn a great deal about patients by listening to their humor. And you can learn a great deal about your own psychological makeup by constantly asking yourself (and answering truthfully), Why did I laugh at this joke and not at others? Every man is a damn fool for at least five minutes every day; wisdom consists of not exceeding the limits. —Elbert Hubbard Our regression into an infantile state of mind through humor, as sug¬ gested by psychoanalysts, is most often experienced in large settings. For group approval, we subjugate our humor preferences to those of authority figures. If the group leaders approve of the humor, we laugh. If the group leaders disapprove, we groan. We rarely enjoy humor if we feel we're laughing counter to the crowd. If we are the first to laugh, we will stifle a hearty ha-ha in mid-ha if no one joins us. Even when acting childish, our desire is to maintain social approval. One of the most difficult humor audiences is a room of corporate executives when the big boss is present. Every time the speaker tells a joke, everyone in the room first checks the CEO. If the CEO doesn't laugh, no one else laughs. If the CEO has a good sense of humor and laughs easily, business associates then consider themselves to have permission to laugh. Even though this check for approval only takes a second, it can throw a comedian's timing way off. Let's not camouflage our true intentions. We don't use humor just to entertain the world. The value of humor in attack is incomparable, because humor is a socially acceptable form of criticism, a catharsis that combines memorability with respectability. But the only way you'll survive as a humorist is if the audience equally disfavors your target. Understanding what motivates a particular Why We Laugh 31 audience is one of the secrets of writing humor. You must maintain surprise and superiority. THE SCIENCE OP HUMOR: A MATTER OF WIFE OR DEATH In 2001, Richard Wiseman, a British scientist and the creator of LaughLab (, conducted a global online study to discover the world's funniest joke. He constructed a Web site that allowed visitors to submit jokes and rate the offerings of others. More than forty thousand jokes were received from seventy countries (though two-thirds were deemed inappropriate for posting). Based on several million critiques, the world's funniest joke is: A couple of New Jersey hunters are out in the woods when one of them falls to the ground. He doesn't seem to be breathing; his eyes are rolled back in his head. The other guy whips out his cell phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps to the operator: "My friend is dead What can I do?" The operator, in a calm, soothing voice, says: "Just take it easy. I can help. First, let's make sure he's dead." There is a silence, then a shot is heard. The guy's voice comes back on the line. He says: "OK, now what?" The LaughLab joke survey revealed other interesting data. Germans rated jokes the funniest overall, while Canadians gave the lowest ratings. If you like talking-animal jokes, use a duck—it was considered the funni¬ est talking animal. And the most submitted joke was: "What's brown and sticky? A stick." No one found the joke funny. With the advancement of brain-imaging tools, scientists can now study how the brain processes humor. The typical experiment requires subjects to view, read, or listen to a humorous stimulus, such as an episode of The Simpsons or Seinfeld, while researchers record brain functioning. Although this type of research is still in its infancy, there is an emerging consensus concerning the brain's reaction to humor. The 32 Comedy Writing Secrets language-based portion of the brain (the left frontal cortex) "gets" the joke by recognizing the ambiguity, incongruity, and surprise of the humor. The emotional areas of the brain (such as the amygdala) appre¬ ciate the humor and trigger laughter. Eventually, science will be able to explain humor's neural underpin¬ nings. However, the mystery of what, exactly, is "funny" will never be solved. One person considers the Three Stooges to be comic savants, while another finds no humor in Moe's abuse of Curly—this illustrates the individual differences in the perception of what's funny. A sense of humor is as unique as a fingerprint. DOES SICK HUMOR MAKE US FEEL BETTER? Morbid humor arises out of every tragic situation. Within hours after the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, the airwaves were filled with such humor as: QUESTION: What has feathers and glows in the dark? ANSWER: Chicken Kiev Do sick jokes, frequently tasteless and insensitive, serve an important purpose? The consensus is that humor is one way of coping with tragedy. The more we're scared, the more we have to create jokes to laugh away the fear. Many of the most offensive jokes derived from current tragedies are entre-nous humor, told by one person to friends or co-workers, but rarely performed in public. Jesus walked up to the registration desk of the Hilton hotel, threw three nails on the counter and asked, "Can you put me up for the night?" Psychologists have always been interested in explaining human behavior through humor. Humor is an important manifestation of what society really believes, but dares not speak or teach. "We can't confront tragedy directly," suggests Joseph Boskin of Boston University, "so we try to ease ourselves in a humorous way." Why We Laugh 33 Laughing at misfortune frequently replaces negative feelings with pos¬ itive feelings. This is true whether we're laughing at someone else's mis¬ fortune or our own. Sigmund Freud, who studied humor (but not for the fun of it), theorized that jokes allow us to express unconscious aggres¬ sive and sexual impulses, to substitute words for what we may not be able to accomplish in deeds. But when it comes to sick humor, the real reason people tell such jokes is much simpler—to make themselves feel better by getting respect, or at least attention. When we were young, we discovered that we could always get a laugh by dropping our pants or saying some taboo word. We may have grown older physically, but the desire to attract attention and gain approval through audacious humor remains. Many comedians believe that they don't need sick humor once they've become established. Said motivational speaker and humorist Larry Wilde, "It's mainly done by the young comics anxious to be noticed. As you get older, you find that material on death and disease makes the audience feel uncomfortable." In other words, a comic has to be brave enough to be clean. It may be coincidental, but a rather significant acronym results from the first letter of the three elements used by those who depend upon sick humor to attract attention: audaciousness, shock, and surprise. Put them all together, they spell ASS. Wonder what Freud would have had to say about that? SHOWTIME The following activities reinforce the importance of examining why some¬ thing is funny. • Return to your joke and cartoon collections, and reanalyze each item using the two most important humor principles, surprise and superi¬ ority. Identify how the element of surprise is used and the ways in which the audience feels superior. 34 Comedy Writing Secrets • Select a favorite humor article or column and highlight the funny sections. Examine the writing for how the author uses surprise to deliver the punch. • Watch a tape of your favorite comedy. Pause after funny scenes and write down how and why the humor worked. Pay particular attention to the two most important principles, surprise and superiority. • Examine the funny personal stories and anecdotes that you share with your friends to confirm how surprise and superiority play a role in the humor. Why We Laugh 35 CHAPTER 3 The Recipe for Humor Instead of working for the survival of the fittest, we should be working for the survival of the wittiest, and then we can all die laughing. —Lily Tomlin 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. • Target • Hostility • Realism • Exaggeration • Emotion • Surprise 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. 36 Comedy Writing Secrets 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 The proper selection of humor targets is not just important—it's arguably the most critical factor in writing commercially successful humor. The MAP theory—material, audience, and performer—postulates that the material must fit the persona of the writer (or performer) and the interests of the audience. A humor target can be almost anything or anybody, but you need to be sure you've focused on the right target for your particular audience. You can't target an entire audience any more than you can shame the whole world. Humor is an attempt to challenge the status quo, but target¬ ing must reaffirm the audience's hostilities and prejudices. This means that humor is always unfair. Like editorial cartoons, jokes take a biased point of view. There's no room in one joke for a balanced argument or explanation. As H.L. Mencken put it, "My business is diagno¬ sis, not therapeutics." I hate phone solicitors. I'd rather get an obscene call; at least they work for themselves. —Margaret Smith A neophyte writer often selects humor targets with limited appeal, such as a girlfriend or boyfriend. Here's the problem: Your companion may be the most bizarre or humorous person in the history of the human species, but no one else cares about your partner other than your family members (and even that is questionable). Unless members of the audi¬ ence can vicariously share your experiences, you might as well perform your material in a bathroom. It will be safer. Successful humorists select targets with universal appeal. Erma Bombeck wrote about the struggles of being a mother and did not focus on the The Recipe for Humor 37 specific eccentricities of her family. Because she invoked common experi¬ ences, Bombeck's humor was appreciated by legions of devoted readers. Another common mistake when selecting a target is to use general top¬ ics rather than specific premises. For example, the way people drive is a broad subject that will not readily lend itself to humor. The target must be more specific, such as how women are able to multitask (put on makeup, talk on a cell phone, etc.) while driving. By narrowing a general target to a specific premise, you increase the likelihood of surprising the audience with the punchline. Picking a good target isn't a crapshoot. It takes thought, skill, and precision to MAP your way to the right target. Strong targets, as noted above, can range from people to personal beliefs. Let's take a closer look at some of the most common targets: yourself, sex, celebrities, places, products, and ideas. Self: Pick on Somebody Your Own Size By far the least offensive (but most effective) target is yourself. As writer and director Carl Reiner observed, "Inviting people to laugh with you while you are laughing at yourself is a good thing to do. You may be the fool, but you're the fool in charge." I'm always getting screwed by the system. That's my lot in life. I'm the system's bitch. —Drew Carey Many comics open by ridiculing their shortcomings: their physical charac¬ teristics, finances, intelligence, and even their success. People are always willing to laugh at someone else, so it's a safe way to warm up an audience. . Once the audience is laughing, it's time to move on to hotter issues. I plan to become so famous that drag queens will dress like me in parades when I'm dead. —Laura Kightlinger Sex: Talk Dirty to Me Sex is the topic of close to 25 percent of all humor, making it one of the most popular targets. All of us—male or female, young or old—are more 38 Comedy Writing Secrets ambivalent about sexual activity than about any other single subject. It isn't that we're fascinated by exaggerated acts of sex; it's that we're frus¬ trated by exaggerated reports of adequacy. An elderly patient said to his doctor, "Why can't I have sex five times a day?" "But you're seventy-five, Sam," said the doctor. "Physically you just can't do it anymore." "But my friend Bernie says he has great sex. He says he can have it five times a day, and he says the most beautiful girls in town are all after him. That's what he says." "So, Sam," said the doctor, "you say" Studies have shown that men's greatest sexual concerns generally center around size, the ability to get an erection, performance, the amount of sex they're having, premature ejaculation, and impotency— pronounced in West Virginia as im-PO-tan-cy, because it's real impo¬ tent to me (However you pronounce it, it still means having to say you're sorry.) I'm not a good lover, but at least I'm fast. —Drew Carey In The Hite Report on Male Sexuality, Shere Hite reported that while men treasure sexuality, "they also dislike and feel very put upon by it." Her report suggests that men feel trapped by sexual stereotypes. They find themselves unable to speak openly about their sexual angers, anxi¬ eties, and desires. Many complain about the escalating pressures to initi¬ ate sex, to achieve and maintain frequent erections, to control the timing of ejaculations, and to understand (let alone satisfy) their partner's orgasmic needs. Since the introduction of Viagra, erectile dysfunction jokes have been in sitcoms like Seinfeld and Friends. Cialis warns that if your erection lasts for more than four hours, you should tell your doctor. Hey, at my age, if I have an erection for more than four hours, I'd want to tell everybody The Recipe for Humor 39 Research on sexual humor indicates that beginning joke tellers are more likely to select sexual themes that discriminate against males regardless of the gender of the performer or the audience, and that their preferred subjects are those that belittle body parts and sexual performance. I once dated a guy who drank coffee and alcohol at the same time. What a prince. Bad breath, limp dick, and wouldn't go to sleep. —Kris McGaha Many comics use humor based upon deviance from the sexual norm. You know you're gay when you bend over and see four balls. —Garry Shandling Women are also intrigued by ribald humor about sexual activity, because they're as sexually insecure as men about performance and satisfaction. I'm just a huge fan of the penis, and they're all different—like snowflakes. —Margaret Cho During sex, men confuse me. They suddenly start shouting, "I'm coming. I'm coming." I don't know whether they want me there as a partner or a witness. —Emily Levine Celebrities: Humor Fodder and Mudder Celebrities are also popular targets. Celebrity service is a cheap shot, but our appetite for a dash of vinegary gossip about our heroes, icons, and villains is insatiable. Because the public almost indiscriminately idolizes the famous and the infamous, the American media love to create new celebrities in entertainment, sports, politics, and letters. Paradoxically, no sooner do the idol rich reach the apex of their media hype than we begin to humble them with gossip and humorous digs. 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 40 Comedy Writing Secrets Places: Living in a Crass House Our need for superiority is the motivating factor whenever we ridicule places: We ridicule countries (France, North Korea); states (West Virginia, New Jersey); cities (New York City, Washington, D.C.); and local spots in the news (a neighborhood, a street, a bar, lover's lane). Every humorist has a favorite dumping ground. 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 There's a veritable eBay full of products that are favorite humor targets. They run from buildings and automobiles to sports equipment, jewelry, and junk food. The basic rule, again, is that your target be an object of annoyance shared by the entire audience. It's easier to start backwards. Begin with the punchline, but don't finalize your position until you've decided it's their position as well. If the audience includes a large contin¬ gent of hunters, forget about quoting either of these Ellen DeGeneres bits. 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 The list of controversial ideas that can be humor targets is lengthy. Audacious ideas can include subjects such as religion, the meaning of life and death, and politics. Trash-talking politicians is the meat and pota¬ toes of a late night host's opening monologue. Idea topics are the most likely to backfire, because a person's politics and ideologies aren't visible on the outside, like clothes. That's why David Letterman carefully screens requests for his show tickets—to eliminate potential audience members who may not appreciate his sadistic wavelength. The Recipe for Humor 41 There are no perfect parents. Even Jesus had a distant father and a domineering mother. I'd have trust issues, if my father allowed me to be crucified. —Bob Smith Although feelings of superiority are essential to humor, you can nonethe¬ less 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 SHOWTIME 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. HOSTILITY: RIDICRUEL 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. 42 Comedy Writing Secrets 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 Richard Pryor's audiences were easily defined: mostly young black mili¬ tants, with a fair percentage of young liberal whites. Both the black and white members of the audience held white authority as a common enemy. In the following memorable bit, Pryor shrewdly used this shared hostility to explain his arrest—a front-page story—for shooting his wife's car one night after she threatened to leave him. (Note that Pryor chose the police as representative of white authority.) The Recipe for Humor 43 I don't want to never see no more police in my life, at my house, taking my ass to jail, for killing my car. And it seemed fair to kill my car to me, right, 'cause my wife was goin' leave my ass in it. "Not in this motherfucker, you ain't. If you leave you're goin' be drivin' those Hush Puppies you got on. 'Cause I'm goin' kill this motherfucker here." And I had one of them big ol' Magnums, you know the noise they make when you shoot something. I shot the car... boom And the car went, "Ahhhhhhh." It sounded good to me. So I shot another one ... boom. "Ahhhhhh." And that black car said to me, "Go ahead. Shoot somethin' else." I shot the motor. The motor fell out. The motor say, "Fuck it." Some readers may view Pryor's work as vulgar, but from the perspective of his peers, he was a comic genius—Pryor was the first recipient of the annual Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. Hostile humor is usually directed upward. Freshmen ridicule upper- classmen 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 commis¬ sioned 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. This necessity for hostility bred what is called nihilistic humor— humor based on the theory that there is no person or thing so sacred as to be beyond ridicule. Humorists, protected by the First Amendment, enjoy the admiration of audiences that laugh and applaud their unbridled criti¬ cism of gods, political leaders, and celebrities. Marty Simmons, who pub¬ lished National Lampoon, credited the antiestablishment climate of Vietnam and Watergate with the birth and success of his magazine. But this freedom to criticize must be accompanied by perspective. As one comic admitted, hostility can be nothing more than intellectual masturbation. "There am I criticizing the President of the United States. He lives in the White House, and I'm telling dick jokes in some comedy club basement." 44 Comedy Writing Secrets When easily caricatured leaders run for reelection, humorists don't know whether to vote their conscience or their profession. When colum¬ nist Art Buchwald was asked when he was going to retire, he said, "Not now, when humor's so easy." 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. Just buying a new product can multiply anxiety four times: First, you must debate whether you real¬ ly need the product. Then you must decide on a brand, which means you have to read comparison literature, evaluate alternatives, and physically shop to find the product. Finally, you must haggle over price and agonize over how to finance the purchase. Even after you've acquired a product, you'll be exasperated by breakdowns and the need for repairs. The concern about financial matters starts with your first cry for someone to give you candy and continues to your last cry—for someone to give you oxygen. Since everyone has personal money problems, focus¬ ing hostility on financial matters is one of the best (and least controver¬ sial) ways to show the audience you share their problems. The Recipe for Humor 45 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 Family Affairs: 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 46 Comedy Writing Secrets 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 symp¬ toms such as paranoia, insecurity, narcissism, and kinky sexual urges. Have you ever dated somebody because you were too lazy to commit suicide? —Judy Tenuta The Recipe for Humor 47 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 48 Comedy Writing Secrets 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, comedi¬ ans 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 The Recipe for Humor 49 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 appre¬ hensive 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. 50 Comedy Writing Secrets 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. SHOWTIME 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 The Recipe for Humor 51 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 jus­ tices 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, fre­ quently 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 unit­ ed 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 wisecrack­ ing 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 52 Comedy Writing Secrets 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 com¬ mon 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 per¬ former 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 skepti¬ cism. We permit humorists to utilize hyperbole, blatant distortion, and overstated figures that signal (since the absurd subject matter can't pos¬ sibly be true): Hey, it's only a joke. Therefore, the audience laughs at The Recipe for Humor 53 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 cap¬ tions 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 audi¬ ence'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 per¬ former 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 come¬ dian. 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. 54 Comedy Writing Secrets 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 preg¬ nant 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. The Recipe for Humor 55 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 audi¬ ence 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. 56 Comedy Writing Secrets 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. The Recipe for Humor 57 SHOWTIME 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 cross- bones, 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. 58 Comedy Writing Secrets 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. The Recipe for Humor 59 Humor Writing Techniques CHAPTER 4 POW: Play on Words My wife made me join a bridge club. I jump off next week. —Rodney Dangerfield Where do jokes come from? Well, funny things do happen to us every once in a while. If we're extroverts, we dramatically recount the bizarre experiences with exaggerated overtones. We get laughs. And we think we're funny. But professional humorists can't wait for absurd things to happen. They have to produce every day. Two popular ways of doing this are by revamping old material, and by creating new humor from ideas sparked by local, national, or world news. As a beginner, you can't depend on joke files even if you've got a copy of every joke book written—and dozens of new ones come out every year. Other comics' jokes will rarely fit you. You have to subscribe to the second method: creating jokes from scratch. You start by watching the antics of people in public, on TV, and in films, and you read about them in news stories. You imagine what-if situations, and you play with words. I just broke up with someone, and the last thing she said to me was, "You'll never find anybody like me again." And I was think¬ ing: I should hope not. Isn't that why we break up with people? If I don't want you, why would I want somebody just like you? Does anybody end a bad relationship and say, "By the way, do you have a twin?" —Larry Miller More than 50 percent of all humor is based on plays on words (POWs). The POW acronym is reminiscent of a sound effect in superhero POW: Play on Words 61 comics, and a POW does pack a punch—and a punchline. A POW is a twist on a familiar cliché; aphorism; book, movie, or song title; famous quote; national ad slogan—in fact, any expression widely known by the public. It can make use of double entendres, homonyms, or puns. A humorist twist to the aphorism The way to a man's heart is through his stomach is: The quickest way to a man's heart is through his chest. —Roseanne Barr Unlike slapstick humor (which is strictly physical and therefore appeals across cultural and linguistic boundaries), the success of written and performed comedy based on POWs depends on the performer's manner¬ isms and inflections and the audience's knowledge of the nuances of the language. Punchlines in one language are rarely effective in another. The POW is a device used by all humor writers, and any successful work of humor will contain a significant number of POWs. Plays on words are the basis of practically all puns, limericks, and clever witticisms. They run the gamut from childish idioms to erudite double entendres. POW practitioners have included S.J. Perelman ("One of our stage-craft is missing," and "Stringing Up Father") and Tom Stoppard ("I have the courage of my lack of convictions"). Writing POW comedy lines is as second nature for humorists as tying their shoelaces. A common misperception is that plays on words are "old-school" humor. But while POW humor may be considered classic, it certainly can't be considered stale. The successful Austin Powers movies (one of the most successful comedy film franchises in recent years) rely heavily on POWs for character names like Alotta Fagina and Random Task (spoofs of Goldfinger's Pussy Galore and Oddjob), Fook Mi, Fook Yu, and Robin Spitz Swallows. In George Carlin's three best-selling books—Brain Droppings, Napalm & Silly Putty, and When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?— POWs account for a large percentage of the humor. Carlin is one of the most serious linguists in comedy. Examples of Carlin's POWs include: 62 Comedy Writing Secrets UNNECESSARY WORDS emergency situation (emergency alone is sufficient) boarding process (boarding can be used alone as a noun) EUPHEMISMS uniforms = career apparel prostitute = commercial sex worker MOCK SELF-HELP AND ADVICE BOOK TITLES Where to Hide a Really Big Snot I Suck, You Suck Mock Punk Band Names Tower of Swine Warts, Waffles, and Walter Over the next few chapters, we'll explain some of the most important POW techniques. 1. A double entendre is the use of an ambiguous word or phrase that allows for a second—usually racy—interpretation. 2. A malaprop is the unintentional misstatement or misuse of a word or phrase, or the accidental substitution of an incorrect word for the correct one, with humorous results. Malaprops are effective in part because they allow the audience to feel superior. Malaprops can incorporate clichés and double entendres. 3. An oxymoron is a joining of two incompatible ideas in one phrase. It can also be called a contradiction in terms. 4. A pun is a word used in such a way that two or more of the word's possible meanings are active simultaneously. A pun may also be a reformation of a word to a like-sounding word that is not an exact homonym. 5. Reforming is a process that adds a twist or a surprise ending to a cliché (a predictable, hackneyed phrase) or a common word, phrase, or expression. Other POW techniques, such as double entendres and puns, rely heavily on reforming. POW: Play on Words 63 6. The simple truth is the opposite of a double entendre. It plays on the literal meaning of a key word in an idiomatic phrase (and will be discussed in the next chapter). 7. The take-off is a statement of the standard version of a cliché or expression, followed by a realistic but highly exaggerated commen¬ tary, frequently a double entendre. (Take-offs will also be discussed in a later chapter.) CLICHÉS IN HUMOR A cliché is an expression that was clever once but has lost its original impact through overuse. Some people salt every dish, whether it requires salt or not. Clichés are used just as frequently (and indiscriminately). They are sprinkled liberally into every conversation, every letter, every political speech, and (unfortunately) in too many major literary efforts. They're shortcuts to comprehension that we use when we are creatively lazy or mentally bankrupt. But the humor writer uses audacious and sur¬ prising interpretations of clichés to shock an audience into laughter. I've heard that dogs are man's best friend. That explains where men are getting their hygiene tips. —Kelly Maguire Laugh, and the world laughs with you. Cry, and the world laughs at you. —Caryn Leschen A cliché can be reformed with homonyms—words that look or sound the same but have different meanings. In the one-liner below, the humor works when vein is aptly substituted for vain in the cliché in vain. However, it only works in print. I tried to give up heroin, but my efforts were all in vein. —George Carlin Clichés are perfect launch vehicles for the neophyte humor writer because one-liners are the most salable humor form today. Simple cliché 64 Comedy Writing Secrets humor can be put to immediate use in a wide variety of formats, includ¬ ing photo and cartoon captions, greeting cards, news and advertising headlines, bumper stickers (a rear view of pop culture), titles of books and articles, and monologues. Frequently, a cliché is used to set the audience's train of thought in motion—so the humorist can derail it. Since the ending phrase of a cliché is predictable, the audience's thoughts head in a predictable direc¬ tion. The key word here is predictable. The easiest way to achieve sur¬ prise is to use a vehicle that takes the audience for a ride in a predictable direction—a direction you will change at the last possible moment. It's a last-second switch in the anticipated verbal conclusion. The result is sur¬ prise, which produces laughter, the payoff of all comedic effort. As you'll see shortly, there are a number of formulas for altering a cliché so that its final direction surprises the reader or listener. Every night I had a strange girl. Same girl—she was just strange. —Michael Davis In the above example, the audience initially interprets strange to mean "different." The surprise comes when the comedian reveals that the literal meaning of strange is intended. When people ask me if I see too much sex in the movies, I tell them, how should I know? I watch the film, not the audience. —Mel Helitzer Sex and violence in film and TV is a sensitive topic, so the audience naturally assumes this is what is under discussion in this example. The surprise comes by interpreting the phrase "in the movies" to mean "in the movie theater." THE DOUBLE ENTENDRE: AWAY WITH WORDS Double entendre is the French term for an ambiguous word or phrase that allows for a second—usually spicy—interpretation. Double enten- dres are 40 percent of all cliché humor because they're so easy to con¬ struct. Consider these names and slogans. POW: Play on Words 65 Tennis store advertisement: What's Your Racquet? Sign over urinal: Look before you leak. Art supplies advertisement: Honest, I Was Framed The logic behind double entendre humor is as basic as its English trans¬ lation: two meanings. The audience assumes one meaning; the comic sneaks in another. Irving made a lot of money one year in the garment business and decided to buy a racehorse. One day he brought all his friends to the stable as the vet was laboriously working on the horse. "Is my horse sick?" asked Irving. "She's not the picture of health," said the vet, "but we'll pull her through." "Will I ever be able to race her?" "Chances are you will—and you'll probably beat her, too" —Myron Cohen In the above example, the success of the joke relies on the double inter¬ pretation of the word race. Irving wants to know if the horse will be able to race other horses. The vet comments that Irving himself would win a race against the horse. Three of the four words in the expression wire ahead for reserva¬ tions have multiple meanings. (This phrase has been replaced in com¬ mon usage by call ahead for reservations, but most people would still instinctively understand its meaning.) By imagining what-if scenarios and performing mental calisthenics, the humor writer can recast this common phrase with double entendres. The Sioux tribe sent one of their brightest young men to engineer¬ ing school. After graduating, he returned home and was immediate¬ ly assigned to install electric lights in all the latrines, so he became famous for being the first Indian to wire a head for reservations. As new expressions come into the vernacular, the professional humor writer looks for every opportunity to play around with words—the most socially acceptable form of playing around. 66 Comedy Writing Secrets We call our maid a commercial cleaner, because she cleans only during commercials. Be forewarned Amateurs make the mistake of thinking that, since dou¬ ble entendres are so plentiful, they are easy to cultivate. But you must evaluate them as you would plants at a nursery—if you don't choose carefully, you may wind up with a garden of crabgrass. And there is a second danger to the use of double entendres: They are so often used in humor that even unsophisticated audiences can predict a punchline if it has been telegraphed by the comedian. If the double entendre isn't well hidden, there's no surprise. Creating Double Entendres: A Dime a Dozen The most popular double entendre is the word it, which can be used to mean a hundred different things, but is used most often in humor as a synonym for intercourse. For example, Librarians do it with books, or Lawyers do it in their briefs. MC, after bombing with a sexist joke: Boy, am I going to get it when I get home. Or maybe I'm not going to get it when I get home. The second most common double entendre is the word in, which also has an obvious sexual connotation. "Isn't it great to be in June?" "Yes, but her sister, Barbara, was even better." KEEPING IT CLEAN Since the second meaning of a double entendre is frequently considered risque, broadcast censors examine every word in a script. Mel Helitzer once spent six months arguing with a representative of the National Association of Broadcasters' TV code department for permission to use the jingle line "Two in the bathtub is more fun than one" for a washable doll called Rub-a-Dub Dolly. The censor, an attractive twenty-five-year- POW: Play on Words 67 old (who, unfortunately, had a five-second broad¬ cast delay built in to her mind), tried to nix the line with a challenge to its veracity: "Can you prove that two in the bathtub is more fun than one?" Helitzer looked at her for a moment and then said, "You know, I have a wonderful idea" The second meaning of the key word or phrase of a double entendre does not have to be racy or sexual. He was a millionaire golfer, so he used his chauffeur as his driver. One man walking his dog met a friend on the street who admired his pet. "I just bought him for fifteen hundred dollars," said the owner. "Isn't that a lot of money for a mutt?" his friend asked. "Why, he's not a mutt He's part Airedale and part bull." "Yeah, what part is bull?" "The part about the fifteen hundred dollars." More sophisticated forms of double entendre make use of irony and sar¬ casm. Irony is notoriously difficult to define (though there seems to be a general agreement that, despite Alanis Morissette's words to the con¬ trary, rain on your wedding day is not ironic). For the purposes of the current discussion, irony is a statement that is the opposite of what is intended. Sarcasm is defined similarly, but sarcasm usually has more of a bite, the sting of open ridicule. In an excellent example of irony, Bob Hope once walked into the ward of a military hospital and shouted to the wounded GIs, "Please, don't get up" Irony can be expressed in many ways, but it's often the result of evok¬ ing an absurd meaning from a standard phrase. Hillary Clinton said she once got a dog for Bill. She said it was the best deal she ever made. 68 Comedy Writing Secrets EVERYBODY SHOULDN'T DO IT: OBSCENE LANGUAGE AND DOUBLE ENTENDRES Many funny double entendres are made up of words that have a sexual connotation. There are endless possibilities—all obvious. Through frequent use, some double entendres that were originally shock¬ ing—such as he sucks—have become acceptable. Richard Pryor popularized making mother half a word in an act that still represents one of the greatest creative performances in contemporary comedy. And often, a play on the double meaning of a word can lead to powerful spontaneous humor, as illustrated by a classic interview on The Tonight Show. Zsa Zsa Gabor appeared as a guest while holding one of her prized felines. As she was sitting there, she suddenly turned to Johnny Carson and asked, "Would you like to pet my pussy?" "Sure," said Carson, "but first move the cat." Given the abundance of double entendres with sexual connotations, beginning humor writers often abuse them through overuse. The profes¬ sional humorist recognizes that the problem is not to find them but avoid them. They're just too easy a joke. Many audiences think they are adoles¬ cent and cheap—a sign of an amateur. We'll take a closer look at obscenity in humor in chapter eleven. SHOWTIME As a warm-up exercise, let's do it: Practice the art of double entendres with the word it. Complete the following sentences, then compare your responses to those at the end of the chapter. POW: Play on Words 69 •Comedians do it... •Dancers do it... •Bankers do it... •Math teachers do it... •Publishers do it... •Carpet layers do it... •Bowlers do it... MALAPROPS: AN ERROR OF THEIR WEIGHS A malaprop (sometimes called a malapropism) is an unintentional mis- statement or misuse of a word or phrase, or an accidental substitution of an incorrect word for a (similar) correct one—to humorous effect. These examples of twisted language only qualify as malaprops if the person speaking them is unaware (or appears to be unaware) of the mistake. Malaprops were the staple of George Burns and Gracie Allen's comedic act for more than thirty years and were used abundantly by various sit¬ com characters from Archie Bunker of All in the Family to Joey of Friends. Today, entertainment columns are good sources of celebrity witticisms-turned-malaprops. Publicity agents, when they can't find something positive to say about their clients, create modified clichés that turn into malaprops. Movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn was quoted in the entertainment columns so often with examples of mistaken grammar that a malaprop became known as a Goldwynism. A verbal contract isn't worth the paper it's printed on. Every Tom, Dick and Harry is named William. Include me out. Baseball managers Casey Stengel and Yogi Berra were credited with malaprops that helped to cemented their immortality in reference books. You wouldn't have won if we had. —Yogi Berra 70 Comedy Writing Secrets If people don't want to come to the ballpark, nobody can stop them. —Casey Stengel Baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical. —Yogi Berra That restaurant is so popular, nobody goes there anymore. —Yogi Berra Humorists bless politicians who make their jobs easy by fracturing the English language, as did former Vice President Dan Quayle. His mala¬ props include: If we do not succeed, then we run the risk of failure. What a waste it is to lose one's mind. Or not to have a mind is being very wasteful. How true that is. (A malaprop based on the United Negro College Fund slogan A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Waste.) It isn't pollution that's harming the environment. It's the impurities in our air and water that are doing it. President George W. Bush's habit of misspeaking spawned several books' worth of malaprops known as Bushisms. They include: Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning. They misunderestimated me. I promise you I will listen to what has been said here, even though I wasn't here. A time-honored rule in comedy is never to do more than three jokes on one topic, and some comedy writers will argue that two is plenty. The same rule applies to using the same technique several times within one joke, as in the next example. The following radio commercial for City National Bank in Los Angeles uses the malaprop technique seven times, holding the audience's interest through the cute twist at the end. POW: Play on Words 71 PHONE RINGS YOUNG DAUGHTER: Smith residence. FATHER: Hi ya, sport. Let me talk to Mom. DAUGHTER: Hey, Mom It's Dad. MOTHER: Ask him what he wants, hon. I've got my hands in dishwater. DAUGHTER: What do you want, Dad? Mom's got her hands in fish water. FATHER: Just tell her I've been to City National. DAUGHTER: He's been pretty bashful, Mom. MOTHER: What about? DAUGHTER: What about? FATHER: About the trust. DAUGHTER: About the truss. MOTHER: Truss? What truss? DAUGHTER: Which one? FATHER: The life insurance trust, kiddo. The one from City National. DAUGHTER: The lighting shirt's truss, Mom. MOTHER: The lighting shirt's truss? FATHER: The one that keeps the tax man from being one of my beneficiaries. DAUGHTER: The one that keeps the Pac-Man from eating bony fishes. MOTHER: Ask him what in the world he's talking about, honey. DAUGHTER: What in the world are you talking about, Dad? ANNOUNCER: Come in and talk to a City National trust officer. We'll show you how a truss can protect your lighting shirts. DAUGHTER: That's "life insurance." Note that malaprops give the audience a chance to mock the speaker's con¬ fusion with English, and thereby feel superior. As you remember, the feeling of superiority is a prime motivator for laughter. 72 Comedy Writing Secrets OXYMORONS: PRETTY UGLY Another category of incongruous expressions goes by the suggestive name of oxymoron—an oxymoron is a contradiction in terms that pro¬ vides a gold mine of humor material, particularly for greeting cards and T-shirt copy. Consider the following. • found missing • living dead • good grief • working vacation • larger half • soft rock • extinct life • Microsoft Works • plastic glasses • alone together • exact estimate • taped live • small crowd • even odds SHOWTIME Words are the instruments or humorists, and mastering the subtleties of language is a necessary step to becoming a successful humor writer. Use the following exercises to practice your POWs. • Search a dictionary for ten words that you do not know the definitions for. Don't look at the definitions Write each word on an index card, and on the back of the card, create a logical but whimsical definition. • Search the Internet for clichés, proverbs, or common phrases that relate to the potential humor targets you identified in the last chapter. Compile a list of ten items. Using the techniques described in this POW: Play on Words 73 chapter, reform the clichés into jokes by changing the original ending or adding on to the phrase. Writing humor starts with an audience of one. If your goal is to write commercially successful humor, you must expand your audience. To begin testing your writing, use e-mail to showcase your material. Many people attach to their e-mail messages something called a signature, which contains contact information, a quote, or a "thought of the day." Instead of relying on the words of others, you can punch up your e-mail messages using the exercises you just completed. • Use your fictitious definitions for a "word of the day." • Attribute your reformed clichés to a celebrity to create a "quote of the day." • Reform famous quotations and credit new authors for the quotes. For example, transform Freud's famous line Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar to a Bill Clinton quote: Sometimes a cigar is more than a cigar. • Create a series of fictitious names (I. M. Sane, Anita Prozac) to use as the authors of your clichés, definitions, or quotes. A BARREL OF PUN A pun is created from the intentional confusion of similar-sounding words or phrases. Puns, which overlap with double entendres and homonyms, can be used as the basis for a joke or to reform an expression or cliché. They work better when spoken or heard than they do in print, because the ear transmits to the mind the most familiar interpretation of each word. (Actually, here is one of the most popular words to use, because it can sound like hear, hair, and hare: An adolescent rabbit is a pubic hare. Hair today, gone tomorrow.) Puns are very versatile and can be used in a number of formats. They can take the form of riddles. 74 Comedy Writing Secrets What do you call a smelly chicken? A foul fowl. What does a grape say when you step on it? Nothing. It just gives a little whine. Or they can be simple quips. Asphalt, another word for rectal problems. With friends like you, who needs enemas? She was chaste, very chaste. Of course, sometimes they caught her, too. —Norm Crosby Often, several puns can be made around the same topic. Here's how Halloween-themed puns would sound in a dialogue between two phantoms. "Witch way ghost thou?" "My house." "Haunted?" "Of corpse." "Howl you go?" "Broom." "May I ghoul along?" "Sure. Always broom for one more." "What'll I wear?" "Shroud." "Why?" "Because behind every shroud is a shiver lining." "Sounds frightfully expensive." "Ya' gotta take scare of yourself, Halloween." Notice that, in the above example, the puns were based on near homonyms, reformed words that sound similar to the original, but are not exact homonyms: howl for how will, broom for room. Puns can also be used to create "daffy definitions." POW: Play on Words 75 What's a Fahrenheit? A moderately tall person. What's an ICBM? Eskimo doo-doo. What's an infantry? A very young sapling. What's fireproof? A tenured professor. Content: Where prisoners sleep while on a camping trip. Detail: The act of removing a tail. Arbitrator: An Arby's cook who leaves to work for McDonald's. Eyedropper: A clumsy ophthalmologist. Some puns can seem pretty obvious, but they're not easy to create from scratch. It is said of second-rate comedians that they know a good joke when they steal one. If you practice enough, it becomes instinctive to look for words that can form double entendres or that have homonyms or near homonyms. For example, try reforming words using homonyms from one subject group (like fish names), just for the pun of it. Next, use your puns to cre¬ ate reformed clichés or standalone jokes. (Did you hear about the Norwegian who brought his harpoon to Israel because he knew he'd be visiting the Wailing Wall?) Or string all the puns together in one sentence: I got a haddock herring that tuna blow "salmon chanted eel-ing" and, upon my sole, he did it on porpoise. SHOWTIME Many newspapers, magazines, and Web sites hold POW contests in which readers are asked to submit entries. The Washington Posts annual contest requires readers to select any word from a standard dictionary; change, add, or delete only one letter; and then provide a new definition. (This type of construction, popularized in books by Rich Hall, is often called a sniglet.) Here are some submissions from the Washington Posts contest (with¬ out accompanying definitions). Change, add, or delete one letter in each of the following words, then write a definition for the new word. (The 76 Comedy Writing Secrets reformed words and definitions originally submitted by Washington Post readers are listed at the end of the chapter.) •foreplay •sarcasm •inoculate •hepatitis •libido •ignoramus REFORMING An invaluable POW technique, reforming is the process of altering a word, expression, phrase, or cliché to arrive at a twist that cleverly changes the point of view. There are several ways to reform a cliché or expression. 1. TRANSPOSE WORDS. The first way to reform a phrase or cliché is to transpose the words to create a new, related thought. Drama critic Walter Winchell did this in a review of a season opener: "Who am I to stone the first cast?" Then there's the classic drug joke: "I'm not as think as you stoned I am." 2. REPLACE A PEW LETTERS IN A KEY WORD. The second and most frequent type of reforming is replacing one or two letters in a key word of an expression in order to achieve a surprise turn of phrase. I will not cut off my nose to spite my race. —Golda Meir 3. USE A HOMONYM. The third way to reform a cliché is to use a homonym, a similar-sounding word with a second possible interpreta¬ tion. Reforming with homonyms often creates double entendres or puns, as in restaurant names like Wok 'n Roll, Mustard's Last Stand, Blazing Salads, and Aesop's Tables. POW: Play on Words 77 That restaurant inspired the TV show That's Inedible The things my wife buys at antique auctions are keeping me baroque. —Peter De Vries Homonyms and Fractured Clichés Homonyms are strictly defined as words that are spelled and pronounced alike, but that are different in meaning (bore a hole vs. bore someone to death). However, homophones (words pronounced alike but spelled dif¬ ferently, like bough and bow) and homographs (words spelled alike that differ in meaning or pronunciation, like bow in tie a bow and bow and arrow) often fall under the rubric of homonym. Homonyms are particularly popular in print advertisements, T-shirts, signs, and store names. The bumper sticker "I owe. I owe. It's off to work I go" uses a homonym effectively, as do the following store names. Fishing supplies: Master Bait and Tackle Towing service: Dyno-Mite Hooker Glass repair: A Pain in the Glass Here are some homonyms as signs. Bird Food—Cheep Boats for Sail Lenten Special—Filets of Soul Your Money Tearfully Refunded In skits and humorous short stories, you'll often find homonyms and puns in character names. Air traffic controller: Ulanda U. Lucky Customer care representative: Kurt Reply Funeral director: Hadley Newham Compassion coordinator: Ophelia Paine Copyright attorney: Pat Pending Dessert chef: Tyra Meesu Dry cleaner: Preston Creases Loan officer: I.O. Silver 78 Comedy Writing Secrets There's no limit to the number of POWs you can have in one sentence. In fact, the paired word humor form (which will be discussed in greater detail in chapter twelve) requires two homonyms in one joke. Then there's the overweight jogger who ignored advice and panted himself into a coroner. —Bert Murray Definition of a stockyard: flesh in the pen. —Robert Fitch Do under others as you would have them do under you. No nukes is good nukes. Some newspaper bloopers—known as typos—form serendipitous puns. Our paper carried the notice last week that Mr. Herman Jones is a defective in the police force. This was a typographical error. Mr. Jones, of course, is a detective on the police farce. —The Ootlewah Times (Tennessee) One common reform process using homonyms is called split-reforming. Split reforming involves separating—or fracturing—one word into two to get a surprise double meaning. An eighty-six-year-old lady was being interviewed by the quizmas¬ ter on TV. "You look wonderful," he said. "Yes," said the old lady, "I've never had a sick day in my life." The MC was astonished. "You've never been bedridden even once?" he asked. The old lady said, "Oh, many times. And three times in the haystack." One of the most common split-reforms begins with a word that starts with the letter a (alone, around, abreast, abroad, apparent, apiece, ahead). The initial a is detached, and the second half of the word is allowed to stand alone. POW: Play on Words 79 Two partners on a sinking boat are thrown into the sea. "Can you float alone?" one asks the other. "I'm drowning," says the other partner, "and he's talking business." —Larry Wilde This example not only illustrates split-reforming but also uses loan as a homonym of lone. Note that the success of the joke depends on the audience, when it hears alone, interpreting the word to mean on your own. In writing, this joke succeeds because you read alone, and the alternate meaning doesn't occur to you until the last few words of the joke. "Would you like to play around?" the young man asked his girlfriend. "Are you asking that as a lover or as a golfer?" she replied. The first line in the above example could be written as it appears here, or with a split-reform as Would you like to play a round? If you were already talking about golf or were addressing an audience of golfers, the audience would probably infer that you meant a round. In that case, you might want to reverse the order of the words lover and golfer in the last line. Outside the context of golf, however, the audience would probably assume you meant around, and the meaning of the split word would not occur to them until after the girlfriend's mention of golf. One actor to another: I was abroad myself for two years, but fortu¬ nately a psychiatrist fixed me up. This joke depends on the audience assuming that abroad means overseas. The split-reform occurs when the audience mentally separates a and broad after the punchline. Other common types of split-reform are the addition, deletion, or separation of a prefix (such as a-, an-, pre-, un-, and in-) from a word. 80 Comedy Writing Secrets An elderly man and a woman meet for the first time at a Miami Beach social: "And how's by you the sex?" asks the woman. "Infrequently," replies the old man. "Tell me," demands the woman, "is that one word or two?" —Myron Cohen An atheist is someone who has no invisible means of support. At Ohio University, students owe so much money they changed the initials of the college from OU to IOU. —Mel Helitzer Plagiarism: the unoriginal sin. —Roy Peter Clark Split-reform can include changing suffixes or interpreting suffixes as homonyms (such as -ize for eyes). "Do you want this pasteurized?" "No Just up to my mouth'd be fine" Split-reform also includes the separation of a compound word into two. Juggler to audience: Don't worry. I've got a backup system. Everybody, back up Another category of split-reform reinterprets an -er ending as the word her (catcher, licker, freezer, player), or capitalizes on words that begin with the her sound (harass). Words that contain a him, sound (vitamin, Himalayan, hemisphere) work as well. One frosh to another: I can hardly wait to read the book the English prof assigned us—J.D. Salinger's Catch Her in the Rye. "I was a diesel fitter in a shoe store." "They don't have diesels in shoe stores" "Sure they do. I stood around and said, 'Dese'll fit 'er.'" POW: Play on Words 81 SHOWTIME Think of one of the humor targets you identified in chapter three, and write down some words that relate to that topic. Pick one, and write down as many soundalikes as come to mind. Then write a joke based on these soundalikes. For example, hormone sounds like whore moan, her moan, and harmony. Now, it's not difficult to write such bits as Tom Padovano's "Hormone could be heard clear across campus," or that old classic "How do you make a hormone? Don't pay her." Okay, so far so good. But how many homonyms can you make from the following words? Two is fair, four is good, five or more is excellent; if you can't come up with any, take up accounting. •Caesar •bore •Dewey •bigamy •Tudor •maker •read •hoarse •fowl •wurst •liquor •bare •atoll •Hebrew •Czech PRINT REFORMS Because the sound difference in reformed homonyms is so subtle, some puns and reformed clichés work better in print. That's why they're so popular on signs and graffiti. But spoken aloud, they may cause puzzle¬ ment in the audience, rather than laughter. 82 Comedy Writing Secrets I know a transsexual who only wants to eat, drink and be Mary. —George Carlin A zebra is twenty-five sizes bigger than an A bra. Humor writers prefer gag lunches. Celebrity in snowstorm talking to reporter: If I had a good quote, I'd be wearing it The boy had a lot to be spankful for. Familiarity breeds attempt. Note from meter maid to ticketed car owner: Parking is such sweet sorrow. Young boy to star baseball player walking out of DA's office during drug investigation: Say it ain't snow, Joe WRITING A REFORMED CLICHÉ OR EXPRESSION In the summer of 1985, two Czechoslovakian tennis stars—Ivan Lendl and Hana Mandlikova—won the U.S. Open men's and women's tennis championships, respectively. The fact that they were both Czech gave writers of photo captions, cartoons, headlines, and newscasts a homo¬ nym field day. Imagine you are a newspaper or magazine editor. You have a photo of the two winners, each holding a U.S. Open trophy and a huge prize check. Your assignment is to come up with a photo caption or headline. A POW using homonyms is an obvious choice. First, write down all the homonyms associated with the sound of the word Czech. A sample list would include all those connected with bank checks. • bounced check • bad check POW: Play on Words 83 • good check • rubber check • cashed check • deposited check • big check • paid check • returned check • endorsed check • cancelled check • the check is in the mail But the word check has many other meanings. The terms check and checkmate are used in chess. There's the game of checkers, and the clichéd expression "check and double check." In ice hockey, one player body checks another. In a roll call, one checks off names with a check mark. You can ask for separate checks in a restaurant. And when you've completed this list, be sure to check it out completely Next, substitute the word Czech in all the above expressions and determine if one of the captions or headlines syncs with the specific picture you have. How many different captions can you come up with? (You should be able to generate five to ten possibilities from the above list. For instance, Czech-mated or cashed Czechs.) Only after examin­ ing many possibilities would you select the best one. It seems like a lot of work for one photo caption. It is. But before long, your mental computer will have a file of all the different possibili­ ties, and you'll be able to call them up at a moment's notice. Do all those steps really become automatic? To continue the tennis theme, think of all the moves a tennis pro has to make while setting up for a tennis shot. As the ball approaches, he decides to move diagonal­ ly forward or backward, left or right. At the same time, he is getting his racket back, planting his feet properly while keeping both eyes on the ball to judge its speed and spin. He now makes decisions on his shot: the velocity of his swing in order to block, punch, or slam the ball. With his peripheral vision, he determines where his opponent is and guesses where he'll go. A tennis ace does all this and more in less 84 Comedy Writing Secrets than a second while the ball is traveling nearly a hundred miles per hour—for every shot. If this type of thing can become automatic, so can the creation of POWs. Compared to a champion tennis player, you have a lot more time to run through your gamut of double entendres and homonyms. The second time you perform this exercise, it will not only be easier but will generate better results. The five thousandth time will be easier still. Let's try it again. In this case, you'll be a copywriter writing an adver¬ tisement to encourage the public to use your bank for personal loans. Again, we'll go through similar steps. STEP ONE: Locate the important word or phrase you would like to reform. In this case, concentrate on the word loan. Then write as many words as you can think of that rhyme with or sound similar to loan. Go for quantity. STEP TWO: Select the words from your list that seem to have possibili¬ ties as double entendres. You might choose groan, lone, moan, phone, postpone, and own. STEP THREE: Now, start eliminating. Groan and moan have negative associations. Postpone is the opposite of what you wish to recommend. But we still have lone, own, and phone. That's not bad STEP FOUR: Write as many POWs as you can with the word loan or lone in it, and try some reforming based on changing the spelling. Humor permits us to take some liberties with the language, so our list (which would be much longer than this) would include: Can you float a loan You'll never be a loan The loan ranger STEP FIVE: With a little reforming, the Lone Ranger and Tonto can become the loan arranger supported by his loyal sidekick, pronto. Now you have an ad headline that suggests action. POW: Play on Words 85 Santa Monica Bank Phone the loan arranger—and pronto To appreciate the innumerable variations possible with homonyms, let's examine POWs on the title of Stravinsky's famous ballet The Rite of Spring. Okay, the sound rite can be spelled in the following ways: rite, write, right, and wright. Each spelling, singular or plural, contributes to a variety of humor possibilities, such as these examples of newspaper photo headlines. Over a photo of a high school commencement: The Rite of Spring Over a photo of a book on spring gardening: The Writes of Spring Over a photo of the Wrights' annual garden party: The Wrights of Spring In addition, the word spring can now be replaced with one of the follow¬ ing eighteen words that rhyme with it. bing bring ding cling fling king ling ming ping ring sing sling sting string swing thing wing wring Thus, a picture of a coach instructing hitters at training camp could carry the headline The Rites of Swing. By multiplying those nineteen words by the four variations on the sound rite (the other three were right, write, and wright), we now have a total of seventy-two possible variations on one phrase. And we're not finished Just as we did with spring, let's take the word rite and replace it with one of the twenty-three words that are close in sound. Here your rhyming dictionary will be of help. 86 Comedy Writing Secrets bright brite cite fight dike dyke flight height hike knight like mike might pike plight sight site spike strike tight trike tyke white This changes the options for rite from four to twenty-seven, and with the eighteen spring variations, we now have the possibility of 414 varia¬ tions—from just one expression Of course, only a handful of these combinations could ever be used, but you never know when odd oppor¬ tunities will turn up: a college president named Ping shows up at his child's birthday party, so now you can have a news photo caption that reads: The Tykes of Ping. THE ANSWER MAN Here are some possible answers for the Showtime exercises on page 70. Comedians do it standing up. Dancers do it to music. Bankers do it with interest. Math teachers do it with unknowns. Publishers do it by the book. Carpet layers do it on their knees. Bowlers do it with balls. Here are the Washington Post reader submissions that correspond with the Showtime exercises on pages 76-77. foreply: Any misrepresentation about yourself for the purpose of getting laid. POW: Play on Words 87 sarchasm: The gulf between the author of sarcastic wit and the person who doesn't get it. inoculate: To take coffee intravenously when you are run­ ning late. hipatitis: Terminal coolness. glibido: All talk and no action. ignoranus: A person who's stupid and an asshole. 88 Comedy Writing Secrets CHAPTER 5 More POW: The Simple Truth and the Take-Off I spilled spot remover on my dog—and now he's gone. —Steven Wright Many English phrases, expressions, and clichés are idiomatic, which means they can't be taken literally: I got up on the wrong side of the bed; I had a change of heart. Other phrases and expressions are understood within a context of logical assump¬ tions. When you tell someone you are getting your hair cut, it's logical for them to assume you mean hair in the plural sense, not the singular. Grandchild: Grandpa, I love running my fingers through your hairs. The simple truth is a technique for creating humor by considering the implications of the literal meaning of such expressions—without their context of logical assumptions. The simple truth is just that—simple and true. By taking the literal meaning of a key word, you surprise the audi¬ ence members, who have automatically interpreted the cliché with its traditional meaning. The simple truth makes logic illogical. It's common¬ ly referred to as the "Call me a taxi" or "Call me a doctor" formula. ("Call me a taxi." "Okay, you're a taxi"; or, "Call me a doctor." "Why? Are you sick?" "No, I just graduated from med school.") I was trying to get back to my original weight—seven pounds, three ounces. —Cheryl Vendetti More POW: The Simple Truth and the Take-Off 89 I got some new underwear the other day. Well, it's new to me. —Emo Philips How long was I in the army? Five foot eleven. —Spike Milligan The take-off is the most traditional of all humor techniques. Like the simple truth, the take-off begins with a standard expression or cliché. But it continues with an outrageous commentary, often containing a double entendre. I say live and let live. Anyone who can't accept that should be executed. —George Carlin If truth is beauty, how come no one has her hair done in a library? —Lily Tomlin My mind wanders a lot, but fortunately it's too weak to go very far. —Bob Thaves Let's examine the logic and construction behind each of these two techniques. THE WHOLE TRUTH AND NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH The construction of a simple truth depends on an almost childlike comprehension. One of the ways to understand this technique is to think like a child. Grandma Elden was baby-sitting, and every five minutes Adrienne had another request to keep from going to sleep. Exasperated, she said to her four-year-old granddaughter, "Adrienne, if you call Grandma one more time, I'm going to get very angry." Five min¬ utes later she heard Adrienne say quietly, "Mrs. Elden, can I have a glass of water?" 90 Comedy Writing Secrets Another way to craft a simple truth is through a childish riddle. "I bet you I can say the capitals of all fifty states in less than thirty seconds." "Impossible. It's a bet. Ready, set, go" "Okay. The capitals of all fifty states in less than thirty seconds. I said it. You lose" The innocence of children is an easy set-up for the simple truth in humor. A six-year-old asked her mother: "Ma. Tell me the truth. Where did I come from?" The flustered mother thought, "Must I really start explaining the details of sexual reproduction already?" So she asked, "Tell me, Debbie, why do you want to know?" And Debbie said, "Cause the kid next door said he came from Detroit. I wanna know where I come from." As we mature comedically, simple truth techniques permit a whole series of formula jokes. I went to a bookstore and asked the saleswoman where the self-help section was. She said if she told me it would defeat the purpose. —Dennis Miller It's no wonder illiterate people never get the full effect of alphabet soup. —John Mendoza Simple Truth Construction: It Ain't Simple On the surface, the mechanics of the simple truth seem easy to under¬ stand and structure, and therein lies the danger. To create a simple truth, reexamine every major word in a phrase, reject its most com¬ mon meaning within its context, and reinterpret it literally. This is not a simple task. I slept like a log last night. I woke up in the fireplace. —Tommy Cooper More POW: The Simple Truth and the Take-Off 91 When I got divorced, I missed my husband, but I'm getting to be a better shot. —Sheila Kay Because the simple truth is so juvenile, it's frequently denigrated as a smart-ass remark (which used to be called smart-aleck until they discov¬ ered that Aleck had nothing to do with it). "What would you say to a martini?" "Depends on what the martini said to me first" —Sophia in The Golden Girls Let's take a peek under the comedy tent to see how the simple truth works. Remember that the goal is to create the element of surprise. I like a girl with a head on her shoulders. No neck Try not to be restricted by the logic of the original idea. Comedy writers are not philosophers. In the simple truth, we are linguistic specialists concerned with exactly what the literal logic of a word conveys. You might try to visualize a phrase or cliché to help you get past the standard interpretation. If you visualize a girl with a head on her shoulders, you can see that what's missing is her neck. Once you've spotted the simple-truth potential in a phrase or cliché, you may come up with a variety of related punch lines. I like a girl with a head on her shoulders, because I hate necks. —Steve Martin Let's illustrate the construction of a simple truth by examining the dou¬ ble entendre possibilities of the word join. Join has three possible definitions: (a) to cooperate, to become a member, to enlist; (b) to unite, to bring together, to touch; and (c) to argue, to quarrel, to engage in bat¬ tle. In humor writing, the choice is always up to you. When a friend asks, "Will you join me?" the obvious understanding is that he's using the first definition ("to get together"). But if you base your answer on the second definition ("uniting"), your reply can create humor by surprise: "Why, are you coming apart?" 92 Comedy Writing Secrets If, on the other hand, you're asked, "Please join me in a cup of coffee," the incongruity of the first definition allows you to respond, "Only if there's enough room in the cup." The following examples play on the multiple meanings of the word nurse. I majored in nursing. I had to drop it. I ran out of milk. —Judy Tenuta I was at a bar nursing a beer. My nipple was getting quite soggy. —Emo Philips Such elementary simple-truth jokes will always get a physical reaction: either a laugh or—more likely—a kick in the pants. In any case, remem¬ ber that one of the rewards of humor is attention, and that people will admire your courage (maybe). The simple truth can also be effective in physical comedy. In several Mel Brooks movies and in his Broadway musical The Producers, the hero and his cohorts ask the heroine, "How do we get there?," And the beauti¬ ful hostess says, "Walk this way." Then she swishes and sways across the set and the men imitate her feminine walk. In a basic simple-truth construction, the first part of the sentence or paragraph is a cliché. The second part (the punchline) is an unexpected interpretation because it is realistically literal. Doctor: I don't like the looks of your husband. Wife: Neither do I, doctor, but he's good to the children. —Larry Wilde Boss to employee: I'd thank you, Harrison, but yours is a thankless job. —Frank Modell I bought a new Japanese car, I turned on the radio. ... I don't understand a word they're saying. —Rodney Dangerfield More POW: The Simple Truth and the Take-Off 93 With practice, your ear will find countless opportunities to make humor using the simple truth. WIFE: You never look out for me HUSBAND: Of course I do. And when I see you coming, I run like hell. THE PRESIDENT OF THE SYNAGOGUE ADDRESSED THE CONGREGATION: Lefkowitz just lost his wallet with six hundred dollars in it. If anyone finds it, Lefkowitz says he'll give a reward of fifty dollars. A VOICE IN THE REAR: I'll give seventy-five CLERK TO JUDGE: The bar association wondered if you'd like to contribute ten dollars to a lawyer's funeral? JUDGE: Here's a hundred. Bury ten of them. Actor Edmund Kean, on his deathbed, said, "Dying is easy. Comedy is hard." In the same vein, reading about joke construction is easy, but creating original humor material using these methods is not. You must find the perfect construction—and that's difficult. I bought Odor-Eaters. They ate for a half-hour and then threw up. —Howie Mandel The proper setup for a simple-truth joke is essential. If someone asked you, "Can you tell me how long to milk a cow?," a humorous simple-truth response would not be obvious. But if you reword the question to "Can you tell me how long cows should be milked?" you now have a long cow. An answer could be: "The same way as short cows." George Carlin, who uses the simple truth in his monologues, exam¬ ines words closely for incongruous variations. How come my book of free verse costs twelve dollars? Sometimes they say the wind is calm. Well, if it's calm, they're not really winds, are they? When you step on the brake, your life is in your foot's hand. 94 Comedy Writing Secrets Can placebos cause side effects? If so, are the side effects real? Why don't they have waiters in waiting rooms? Research reports and statistics are excellent sources for simple-truth humor material. If a single dolphin has as many as two thousand babies, can you imagine how many she'd have if she were married? Old joke, old punchline: Every six seconds in the U.S., some woman gives birth. So what we've got to do is get hold of that woman and stop her. Old joke, new punchlines: MARRIED DAUGHTER TO MOTHER ON PHONE: Ma, I gave birth to triplets. Isn't that exciting? You know, triplets are con¬ ceived only once in every three million times MOTHER: My heavens, Linea, when did you have time to do housework? PROFESSOR: Every fifteen minutes in the U.S., some student is contracting VD. STUDENT: I think I know him. A QUICK LESSON IN WORD ECONOMY In many literary forms, embellishment might enrich a piece; but when writing humor, less is better. A joke is not a short story. It's a small story—often a single- sentence story—told in as few words as possible. Professionals constantly rewrite jokes to remove unnecessary words, especially in the punchline. The following Mitch Hedberg joke is a picture of such high- impact shrinkage. More POW: The Simple Truth and the Take-Off 95 I'm against picketing, but I don't know how to show it. Beginning writers, on the other hand, tend to fluff up a joke with unnec­ essary words. For example, the novice might write the same joke in the following ways. I'm against picketing, but I don't know if I should protest it with a sign or whatever. I'm against picketing, but I'm not exactly sure what ways to demonstrate it. I'm against picketing, but I don't know how to let other people know that I'm against it. Each of the alternative tag lines delivers the same general idea, but the punch of the POW is lost in the verbiage. Professionals call the use of too many words in a punchline frosting the flake or stacking the wack. Your goal is avoid extra words and get to the joke as soon as possi­ ble. Brent Forrester defined this as the Humor and Duration Principle, which, simply put, states that the less time you take to get to the joke, the funnier the joke will be. Embellishing a setup or punchline diminishes the funniness of a joke. Joke Time Funny 96 Comedy Writing Secrets Top This: Combining Simple Truths A good humorist doesn't deliver just one gag and then tax the audience's patience by developing a new setup. Once you've got the audience laugh¬ ing or on a roll, it's better to stay with toppers—a series of three or four punchlines, each related to the previous one. A girl phoned me the other day and said, "Come on over, there's nobody home." I went over. Nobody was home. —Rodney Dangerfield Here are a few examples: The first contains one simple-truth punchline, while the second—a variation on the same joke—tops the first punchline with a second simple-truth punchline. The length of the pause between the two punchlines in the second joke is a matter of judgment. Knowing how long to pause separates the amateur from the pro. The forest ranger approached an Indian riding his horse up the steep canyon trail, his aged squaw trudging slowly along behind him. "Chief, I've been noticing for months now that you always ride up the trail and your wife always walks. How come?" "Because," said the Indian solemnly, "she no gottum horse." Here's the topper version of the same story. Note how the change in locale keeps the simple-truth punchline realistic. In Iraq, a Gl approached an Arab who was riding his donkey along the military highway. His aged wife trudged along ahead of him. "Hey, Abdul," said the Gl, "I've been noticing for months that you always ride and your wife always walks. How come?" "Because," said the Iraqi, "she no got donkey." "But why does she always walk ahead of you? Arab politeness?" "No Land mines." More POW: The Simple Truth and the Take-Off 97 SHOWTIME 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. SIMPLE TRUTHS AND MISPRONUNCIATION- BASED DOUBLE ENTENDRES There are thousands of words in the English language that can become simple-truth double entendres by simple mispronunciation. Every humorist has his own favorites. Most people consider such con¬ structions to be terrible puns. To overcome this conception, professional humorists put simple-truth double entendres in the mouths of children. Art Linkletter used them on his House Party TV show, and so did Stu Hample's books, such as Children's Letters to God. Everyone is familiar with take-offs of lines in the Bible (Lead me not into Penn Station) and fractured Christmas carols (On the first day of Christmas, my tulip gave to me ... and ...). You can collect your own mispronunciation dou¬ ble entendres by reading the words in the dictionary aloud. Once you find one, your cleverness must add the punchline. 98 Comedy Writing Secrets I bought a product for erectile dysfunction and the box said Cialis. I've been looking for her for the last three months. Did ya hear about the Buddhist who refused novocaine when he went to the dentist because he wanted to transcend dental medication? I'm not as concerned with euthanasia as I am with kids in this country. It wasn't my fault, it was the asphalt. My mother makes our family eat so much salad, I wish she'd let­ tuce alone. SHOWTIME The simple-truth double entendre technique works in oral presentation, but every once in a while it works best in print. Which method—oral or print—would work best for the examples below? The Paul Revere computer virus protection program warns of impending hard disk attack—once if by LAN, twice if by C:/. When George W. Bush was campaigning during an Ohio pri­ mary, he and an assistant dropped into a small luncheonette. "Oh, Mr. Bush," smiled the attractive waitress. "We're so honored. Have anything on the menu on us. What would you like?" Bush studied the menu for a few moments and then said to the waitress, "You know what I'd like, honey. I'd like a quickie." The waitress slammed her pad on the table and said, "I don't care if you are running for President, no one talks that way to me." And she walked away. "I don't know what she's so huffy about," said Bush. "It says right here on the menu: quickie." "Mr. Bush," said his assistant. "It's pronounced quiche." More POW: The Simple Truth and the Take-Off 99 If you guessed print for the first example and oral for second, you guessed right. Simple Truths and Non Sequiturs Another category of simple-truth humor is the non sequitur, an illogical statement that is humorous because of the juxtaposition of two unrelated elements. "One must have some grasp of logic even to recognize a non sequitur," warned author and professor John Allen Paulos. I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I'll never know. —Groucho Marx A hundred years from now, the works of the old masters will be a thing of the past. —A. Grove Day Roadhouse sign: Clean and decent dancing every night but Sunday. Store sign: "Big Sale—Last Week" Why are they telling me this? I already missed it. —Yakov Smirnoff Simple Truths and Non Sequiturs on Stage Many professional comedians use simple truths and non sequiturs from time to time in their monologues. Several use non sequiturs most of the time, including stand-up comedian Steven Wright. Here's a sam¬ ple; by now, you should be able to quickly anticipate most of the humorous conclusions. I bought some batteries, but they weren't included. So, I had to buy them again. I had some eyeglasses, and as I was walking down the street, the prescription ran out. 10 0 Comedy Writing Secrets I parked my car in a tow-away zone. When I came back, the entire zone was gone. If you're sending someone some Styrofoam, what do you pack it in? I used to work in a fire hydrant factory. You couldn't park any­ where near the place. I walked into a restaurant. The sign said "Breakfast Served— Anytime." I ordered French toast during the Renaissance. A lot of people are afraid of heights. Not me, I'm afraid of widths. I like to reminisce with people I don't know. Survey these bits from Mitch Hedberg, and anticipate the humorous conclusions. Once you understand Morse code, a tap dancer will drive you crazy. I don't wear a watch because I want my arms to weigh the same. It's dangerous to wave to people you don't know, because if they don't have hands, they'll think you're cocky. I used to do drugs. I still do, but I used to, too. SHOWTIME Try to finish each joke, then compare your answers to the ones listed at the end of the chapter. And I hate it when my foot falls asleep during the day ... I woke up one morning and my girlfriend asked me if I slept good. I said ... At the gym they have free weights, so ... More POW: The Simple Truth and the Take-Off 101 If you shoot a mime ... If you saw a heat wave ... I got my hair highlighted, because ... On the other hand ... THE TAKE-OFF: DO UNTO OTHERS ... THEN TAKE OFF The idea behind the take-off, one of the most popular formulas in humor writing, is to draw a humorous conclusion from the intended meaning of a standard cliché. Because the take-off is based on the intended meaning of the phrase, a take-off is the opposite of the simple truth, which inter­ prets the cliché or expression literally. In the take-off, the phrase or cliché can either start the joke or be the punchline, but the cliché is typi­ cally used as an introduction, and the surprise take-off is the big payoff at the conclusion of the joke. An invisible man married an invisible woman. Their kids were nothing to look at either. Nobody knows the trouble I've seen, but I keep trying to tell them. —Mignon McLaughlin Let a smile be your umbrella—and your hair will be a big mess. Where there's a will, there's a family fighting over it. —Buzz Nutley The hands on my biological clock are giving me the finger. —Wendy Liebman Animals may be our friends. But they won't pick you up at the airport. —Bobcat Goldthwait 10 2 Comedy Writing Secrets A fool and his money were lucky to get together in the first place. —Harry Anderson Whatever goes up must come down, but don't expect it to come down where you can find it. —Lily Tomlin Comedy is in my blood. Frankly, I wish it were in my act —Rodney Dangerfield Sign on hot chestnut stand: I don't want to set the world on fire. I just want to keep my nuts warm. Honesty is the best policy, but insanity is a better defense. —Steve Landesberg The race isn't always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong— but that's the way to bet —Damon Runyon The take-off construction is more difficult when the standard phrase is the second clause or sentence. A groan is the most frequent reaction to this construction, so it's not as popular with stand-up comedians (they get enough groans without scheduling them). The dog's breath smelled terrible, so his bark was worse than his bite. If you don't want the dentist to hurt you, keep your mouth shut. I believe Dr. Kevorkian is on to something. Suicide is our way of saying to God, "You can't fire me. I quit." —Bill Maher I know a guy who called up the Home Shopping Network. They said, "Can I help you?" and he said, "No, I'm just looking." —George Miller I stuff my bra. So, if you get to second base with me, you'll find that the bases are loaded. —Wendy Liebman More POW: The Simple Truth and the Take-Off 103 You can combine humor techniques in one joke. Here's an example (inspired by author S.J. Perelman) that combines reforming (as discussed in chapter four) with a take-off (note that the cliché comes second). The hooker was chasing the comedian down the street—a case of the tail dogging the wag. You can also put more than one cliché in a take-off. It doubles the work, but it also doubles the fun. Immortality is a long shot, I admit. But somebody has to be first. —Bill Cosby Give a man enough rope and he'll get tied up in the office. Some girls fight against being kissed. Others take it lying down. Why do people groan rather than laugh at outrageous puns? No one has the slightest idea. A pun is the lowest form of humor—unless you think of it first. —Oscar Levant Whether you put the cliché first or second in a take-off depends on which ending holds the surprise to the last possible moment. You may perform the joke with the cliché first, but remember that humor is written back­ wards. That means you must first find the cliché you want to work on, then build a story around it. The trick is not to telegraph the punchline. Here's a take-off that was so obviously stretched, it looks more like good taffy than good humor. A construction worker discovered his wife in the back seat of a Yugo making love to another guy. He got into his cement truck, drove up to the car, and dumped an entire load of concrete all over it. Then, he drove away thinking, "The longer they go, the harder it gets." This example is a labored anecdote, but it does follow one essential rule: Make sure the joke is the last possible thought, and don't add other words 104 Comedy Writing Secrets to the sentence after the joke. If you do, the audience will think that your take-off was only a setup for a topper—and they'll be disappointed when that topper doesn't pop up. Take-Offs on Stage One of the great masters of the take-off was Rodney Dangerfield, who used the technique to emphasize his self-deprecating stage persona of the man who gets no respect. I looked up the family tree and found out that I was the sap. I said to my wife, "All things considered, I'd like to die in bed," and she said, "What, again?" My father never liked me. For Christmas, he gave me a bat. The first time I tried to play ball with it, it flew away. When I was a kid my parents moved a lot, but I always found them. I could tell my parents hated me. My bath toys were a toaster and a radio. When I was born, the doctor said to my father, "I'm sorry, we did everything we could, but he still pulled through." My mother didn't breast-feed me. She said she just liked me as a friend. The Deep Thoughts book series by fictional author Jack Handey also uses the take-off. Each "deep thought" typically begins with a cliché or common phrase, and takes off with a bizarre, off-the-wall conclusion. 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. More POW: The Simple Truth and the Take-Off 105 If a kid 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 some¬ thing you did." Children need encouragement. So if a kid gets an answer right, tell him it was a lucky guess. That way, he develops a good, lucky feeling. SHOWTIME Let's analyze the saying that has more variations than any other in comedic literature: If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. If at first you don't succeed, try, try again—she expects you to. —Guido Stempel If at first you don't succeed, then quit. There's no sense being a fool about it. —W.C. Fields If at first you don't succeed, don't think of it as a failure. Think of it as time-release success. —Robert Orben If at first you don't succeed, then skydiving isn't for you. Sometimes it isn't even necessary to use the full cliché. Often, just a sug¬ gestion or variation of the cliché is enough. Here are some classic Homer Simpson lines, also known as Homerisms. If something's hard to do, then it's not worth doing. Kids, you tried your best and failed miserably. So, the lesson is, never try. 10 6 Comedy Writing Secrets How to weasel out of things is important to learn. It's what sep¬ arates us from the animals ... except the weasel. Write the opening words for this cliché (If at first you don't succeed), then create take-offs that have a surprising ending. A result often take- offs is average; twenty is outstanding. THE ANSWER MAN Here are some punchline possibilities for the exercises on page 98. How do yours compare? BOY: Are you free tonight? GIRL: Of course. Have I ever charged you? My girlfriend was faithful to the end. Unfortunately, I was the quarterback. We never serve women at the bar. You'll have to bring your own. Cleanliness is next to godliness. No, I looked in the dictionary, and go-getter is next to godliness. JUDGE: The court awards your wife 200 a week for support. DEFENDANT: Gee, that's very nice of you, Judge. I think I'll throw in a few bucks myself. Here are the professionals' conclusions to the jokes on pages 101-102. And I hate it when my foot falls asleep during the day, because that means it's going to be up all night. —Steven Wright I woke up one morning and my girlfriend asked me if I slept good. I said, "No, I made a few mistakes." —Steven Wright More POW: The Simple Truth and the Take-Off 107 At the gym they have free weights, so I took them. —Steve Smith If you shoot a mime, should you use a silencer? —Steven Wright If you saw a heat wave, would you wave back? —Steven Wright 10 8 Comedy Writing Secrets CHAPTER 6 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. As comedian Marty Feldman overstated, "Comedy, like sodomy, is an unnatural act." 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. These techniques allow you to generate multiple options for humor, thereby improving your chances of uncovering a successful play on words (POW). Brainstorming can be time-consuming, and most of the items you come up with will be discarded, but brainstorming is nonetheless an invaluable tool for writing humor. It also explains why humor writers are better at wordplay than foreplay. 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 109 that students do fifteen to thirty minutes of brain-stretching exercises each morning to clear the mind. Developing new associations is a creative- writing technique that can help you discover humor in unexpected rela¬ tionships, and create POW jokes. Association is putting two activities that haven't been previously asso¬ ciated into a plausible but audacious scenario. Association is a more for¬ mal 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 quota¬ tion 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 writ¬ ing twenty-five POW jokes inspired by the morning paper. Then, he gets to work. Others like to imagine funny captions to news photos. Humor 11 0 Comedy Writing Secrets lecturer Art Gliner gets his seminars going with a POW association exer¬ cise. 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 alarmed burned up torched fired up like a plugged nickel steamed like a ladder day saint not too hot like he had made an ash of himself POLICE OFFICER beat flat-footed half-cocked run down shot blue charged holed up badgered it was a riot that's the ticket DOGCATCHER muzzled bone tired bitchy run down pooped hounded licked dog tired collared the paws that refreshes GARDENER hosed potted plowed under bogged down bushed raked over mulched dug up seedy all wet rocky Comedy writer Gene Perret likes to associate puns on famous names. First, find a name with homonym possibilities. Then, write an anecdote to fit. POW Brainstorming Techniques 111 Before she became Madonna, she was a pre-Madonna. —K.C. Conan An Italian-American farmer erected a tombstone for his beloved wife, Nellie, that read: "Here Liza Minnelli." Take pity. I'm Jung and Freud-ened. "I just can't Handel the Messiah." "Then you'd better go into Haydn." "Oh, get off my Bach, or I'll give you a karate Chopin the neck." A microcomputer that draws geometric patterns on the screen is called a Micro-Angle-O. Here are some slogans (based on the same principle) for famous artists. Seurat: Que Seurat, Seurat. Monet: A lasting impression. Van Gogh: Lend me your ear. Warhol: The new Warhol—uncanny. Gauguin: Here we Gauguin. Goya: You can be Jewish and still love a Goya. —Advertising Age Humorists take only themselves seriously, no one else. The more you can combine realism and exaggeration, the more humorous you will be. That's why disrespectful association of the rich and famous with book or movie titles is a frequent POW warmup for professionals. Britney Spears in Once Is Not Enough Dick Cheney in Raging Bull Hillary Clinton in Cold Mountain George W. Bush in Lost in Translation Associating the last names of two different celebrities is another exercise in association. 112 Comedy Writing Secrets If Isadora Duncan had married Robert Donat, would their child be a Duncan Donat? If Betty White had married Soupy Sales, would they have called her Betty White Sales? If all this is just the first step in humor writing, you're probably reminded of the ancient warning: Watch out for that first step—it's a bitch But with patience and practice, you'll soon be skipping down the sidewalk with­ out missing a crack. REVISING FOR SURPRISE It takes a good deal of testing to create a joke with a surprise ending. So much so that jokes aren't written—they're rewritten. Precision and brevity help make a surprise ending effective. A well-constructed joke: • uses as few words as possible • does not reveal key words in the setup • preserves the funniest word until the end When you write humor, your first draft can be as long as you wish. The second draft should cut every nonessential phrase. The final draft should cut every nonessential word. No machine has needless parts, and no good comedy routine has needless words. Your mantra should be: Make every word work. As you're revising, trim redundant phrases—such as old adage, exact same, really essential, continue on, four short years, absolutely neces­ sary, advance planning, brief respite, future plans, and interact with each other—down to the one necessary word. If surprise is home plate, good humor writing runs the bases as fast as possible. Normal speech is clocked at two and a half words per second, so if you can erase just twenty redundant words from your final draft, you'll save eight seconds that will help keep your audience alert. POW Brainstorming Techniques 113 Let's analyze three different endings to the same joke. Which would you select as the most effective? He was complimented when the editor called his work sopho- moric because he had flunked out of college his freshman year. He had flunked out of college in his sophomore year, so he was complimented whenever anybody called his work sophomoric. He had flunked out of college in his freshman year, so he was complimented whenever anybody called his work sophomoric. The first joke is less effective because, after you've written sophomoric, the surprise goes past the payoff window. The second joke loses its punch because the word sophomore in the middle of the sentence fore¬ shadows the surprise word, sophomoric, at the end. The last joke works best, because the surprise word—sophomoric—is held to the last instant. The constant attention to editing may seem extensive, but the con¬ struction of a joke is as important as its content. Word economy and holding the surprise until the end are two major characteristics of a well- written joke, and humor writers spend considerable time ensuring that they maintain those characteristics. Consider the following example. First draft On the road into town there was a sign in an empty field that said, "Three miles ahead, lots for sale." So I went to the loca¬ tion, but to my surprise, there was nothing there. At two and a half words per second, the audience has to wait four sec¬ onds between hearing about the sign and getting to the punchline. This period is too long and asks too much of the audience. Second draft I saw this sign: "Lots for sale." And when I went there, I must have been too late, because there was nothing there. 11 4 Comedy Writing Secrets This joke still contains too much unnecessary information. Final draft I saw this sign: "Lots for sale." But there was nothing there. LISTING: AN EXPLODING MIRTH RATE The concept of listing seems simple enough: You break down a topic of your choice into groups of related activities, then create smaller and smaller subgroups. Regardless of your humor assignment, the technique is the same. Let's imagine you need to write material on golf, a favorite topic for speech humorists because so many clients play golf. STEP ONE: LIST GROUPS AND SUBGROUPS. The first step is to chart the subject. On paper, divide the main subject into different head¬ ings. For example: 1. golf equipment 2. golf course 3. golf play 4. golf players Now add as many subheads as you can think of, and keep adding to the list every time you have another brainstorm. Don't censor yourself. The quantity of ideas is important here; quality comes later. GOLF EQUIPMENT Under golf equipment you might list: bag argyle socks ball washer balls caddy cap clothes cart clubs flag glasses gloves hats head covers lucky ball optic yellow pencil rake POW Brainstorming Techniques 115 scorecard shoes socks spikes tees towels Now break down the subhead clubs even further: irons drivers woods wedge putter Even the woods and the irons can be listed by numeric designation: two wood, nine iron, etc. And that's only category one—golf equipment. GOLF COURSE Now do the same with category two, golf course. apron ball wash bunker divots clubhouse country club dogleg driving range eighteen-hole course groundskeeper fairway green lake locker room men's tee nine-hole course nineteenth hole out of bounds rough practice green pro tee sand trap shower trees water hazard women's tee woods GOLF PLAY And now category three, golf play: birdie bogie championship chip double bogie drop ball eagle "fore" foursome handicap hole in one hook lost balls mulligan par play through pro-am score shank skyball slice stroke tournaments trophy GOLF PLAYERS Finally, category four, golf players: 11 6 Comedy Writing Secrets amateurs betting bragging cheating curses disgust double up duffer exercise expense fanatics foursome hackers hobby hooker hustler lessons Nassau opponents pair partners pros sandbagger slicer STEP TWO: LIST CLICHÉS. The next part of the chart is a compre¬ hensive list of clichés or POWs associated with each entry. For example, in category one (golf equipment) you could list: CLUBS got a new set of clubs he hit a three-hundred-yarder make a six-footer practice swing she knows how to putt BALLS they've gotcha by the balls kiss his balls for good luck she addressed the ball he lost his balls keep your eye on the ball don't stand too close to the ball hit a pair of beautiful balls BAG that's not his bag she's a bag lady in the bag And in category two, golf course, a list of cliché expressions might include: name of the game how many strokes per round let's play a round great way to meet people she gave the caddy a tip a rich man's sport In categories three, golf play, and four, golf players, you might include: he knows the score it was a playable lie it's a gimme she got out of the trap POW Brainstorming Techniques 117 I lie three he's a poor sport she moved heaven and earth what's par for the hole? she shoots in the low seventies that shot was a prayer he's a scratch player he's a hooker she's a weekend hacker she's a slicer he got out of a hole the woods are full of them he got distance off the tee how do you like the greens? STEP THREE: ADD THE POW. As you read over the list, you can already see a number of humor possibilities, particularly with double entendres. Now is the time to list double entendres, synonyms, antonyms, and homonyms that have a connection with golf. Here's a sample list. DOUBLE ENTENDRES bag a six-footer ball game ball wash birdie hole in one handicap hole long ball hitter hooker lie lucky ball make lost ball nine holes out of bounds play play through putt rough scratch slicer score stroke socks sport swing tip trap SYNONYMS away = longest distance bar = nineteenth hole club = sticks drive = tee-off gimme = concede good shot = beauty green = carpet hat = cap lake = drink locker room = showers oath = curse par = scratch putt = tap tip = gift 11 8 Comedy Writing Secrets ANTONYMS birdie = bogie country club = public links eagle = double bogie flubbed = on the nose hold head down = hold head up lost ball = found ball match play = lowest score men's tee = women's tee opponent = partner play = practice stand close = stand away tip = advice wager = friendly game HOMONYMS fore = four, for, foreplay, foursome course = enter course (sign), intercourse, curse play a round = play around caddy = caddy (Cadillac) seventies (score) = seventies (Fahrenheit temperature) putts = putz STEP FOUR: CREATE THE JOKES. Use all this research to come up with humorous material for your monologue, sketch, or speech on golf. Remember that, to be funny, the final line of the story or joke must be a surprise. Depending on the speed of the performer, four jokes a minute is maximum, and two jokes plus one anecdote in a minute is average. So if you need five minutes of material, at the maximum you need twenty one- liners, or seven anecdotes, or twelve one-liners and three anecdotes, etc. The beginner writes the minimum to fill the time. The professional writes three times what's needed (as many as sixty different bits for this example), and tries them out on small groups (but never on her own fam¬ ily), rewrites, discards, rewrites some more, then finally settles on the twenty that work best for that specific audience. Let's try a few jokes based on the golf lists above. For this exercise, let's stick with just one scenario—the dialogue between golfer and caddy—so we can concentrate on humor technique. These stories would all benefit from personalizing—substituting a VIP's name for the golfer or the caddy, for instance. Many of these jokes would work whether the hacker was male or female. POW Brainstorming Techniques 119 CATEGORY ONE (GOLF EQUIPMENT) CADDY TO HACKER: No matter how you slice it, sir, it's still a golf ball. HACKER: I got some new clubs for my wife. CADDY: I know your wife, sir, and that wasn't a bad trade. CADDY: I don't get it, sir. First, you slice your ball into the woods. Then you hook it onto the highway. Now you top the same ball into the water. And you still insist on my finding it? HACKER: Of course. It's my lucky ball. HACKER: I hit two beautiful balls today. CADDY: The only way you could do that, sir, would be to step on a rake. CADDY: Here's a lost ball I found on the golf course. HACKER: Gee, thanks. But how did you know it was a lost ball? CADDY: Because they were still looking for it when I left. HACKER: This is my first time playing golf. When do I use my putter? CADDY: Sometime before dark, I hope. CATEGORY TWO (GOLF CLUB) HACKER: I'm moving heaven and earth to do better. CADDY: Try just moving heaven. You've already moved plenty of earth. CADDY: The traps on this course are certainly annoying, aren't they, sir? HACKER: Yes, and would you please shut yours? HACKER: How does one meet new people at this country club? CADDY: Easy. Try picking up the wrong ball. 12 0 Comedy Writing Secrets CATEGORY THREE (GOLF PLAY) HACKER TO CADDY: I play golf in the seventies. When it gets hotter, I quit. HACKER: Golf is sure a funny game. CADDY: It wasn't meant to be, sir. HACKER TO CADDY: This hole should be good for a long drive and a putt. CADDY (AFTER HACKER FLUBS HIS FIRST SHOT): Now for a helluva putt. HACKER: Any ideas on how I can cut about ten strokes off my score? CADDY: Yes, quit on hole seventeen CADDY: How come you're not playing with Mr. Anderson today, sir? HACKER: Would you play with a man who lies, cheats, and moves his ball? CADDY: No, sir HACKER: Well, neither will Mr. Anderson. CADDY: Sir, you're teeing off from the ladies' tee. HACKER: Shut up, willya? I lie three here. HACKER: With my score today I'll never be able to hold my head up. CADDY: Why not? You've been doing it all afternoon. PRIEST: I wonder if it would help me if I prayed each time I teed off? CADDY: Only if you prayed with your head down. CADDY: Father, is it a sin to play golf on Sunday? PRIEST: The way I play, it's a sin on any day. HACKER: Ever seen such a long ball hitter as me? CADDY: Sure, the woods are full of them. POW Brainstorming Techniques 121 CATEGORY POUR (GOLF PLAYERS) HACKER TO CADDY: My wife says if I don't give up golf, she'll leave me. And you know, I'm going to miss her. HACKER: What do you think I should do about my game? CADDY: Well, sir, first I'd relax, then stop playing for six months, then give it up entirely. Now let's see how several anecdotes are used to construct one golf joke. A young man in his twenties went to Las Vegas, met a girl, had a fabulous night, got drunk, got married, and woke up the next morning. He said to her, "Look I've got a surprise for you. Last night when I said I don't have a handicap, I meant I am a no- scratch golfer. I spend all my time out on the golf course, and you're the first girl I ever went out with." The girl said, "Well, I really have a handicap. I'm a hooker, and I can't stop." So, the kid took out one of his clubs and said, "Look, I can help. Next time, before you swing, just put your right hand high on the shaft. You'll do fine." —Bob Hope Why Work So Hard? This seems like an awful lot of labor just to create a few one-liners. Well, it is. No humor writer will deny that associations are laborious, tedious, time-consuming, and frustrating when it doesn't come out right. (And just as you're about to find that last elusive punchline, your spouse will come up and say, "As long as you're not doing anything, take out the garbage.") FOUR MORE BLOCK BEATERS Here are four more tools for busting through humor block. 1. WORK BACKWARDS. Create the last line—the punchline first. Then write the anecdote or setup that best prepares the audience for the 12 2 Comedy Writing Secrets punchline. For instance, you might accidentally dis­ cover a unique literal interpretation of a cliché (which can happen easily when you accidentally make a whittle typo). But creating setups isn't easy; you might try half a dozen before the best one is apparent. Then you may spend hours changing words and paring the joke down, whittle by whittle. To get out of the habit of starting with the setup, take a trip to a greeting card store and read some of the humorous cards backwards. Start with the inside (the punch­ line) of the card, and then guess the line on the outside (the setup). 2. LOOK FOR OPPOSITES. One key method of creating surprise is associat­ ing two dissimilar things. Choose a topic, then brainstorm for people, places, things, phrases, clichés, and words that are dissimilar to this topic. 3. TALK INSTEAD OF WRITING. Put down the pen and start talking out loud. Use a voice recorder to capture ideas, which may come faster than you can write. 4. IMAGINE INSTEAD OF WRITING. Albert Einstein recognized that the mind's visual powers greatly exceed its verbal abilities, and he used visu­ alization to discover many of his famous theories. Whenever you need to kick-start your imagination, close your eyes and let your mind create a mental movie of you telling jokes to a receptive audience. SHOWTIME Aggressive editing is important. Remember that a good joke: 1. uses as few words as possible 2. preserves the funniest part of the joke until the end 3. does not reveal key words in the setup, and does not contain words after the funniest part of the punchline POW Brainstorming Techniques 123 If the three criteria for a good joke are not met, a potentially good joke will become lame. Complete the following exercises to practice aggressive editing. Aggressively edit the POW jokes you have written. First, remove any unneeded words. Second, identify the funniest word or phrase in each punchline, and if any words appear after the funniest part, rewrite the joke to get rid of them. Third, make sure that key words that telegraph the surprise ending are not used in the setup. Now do the same with one of your favorite funny stories. How can it be aggressively edited to be even more effective? 12 4 Comedy Writing Secrets CHAPTER 7 The Next Giant Step: Reverses My boyfriend and I broke up, even though we're still deeply in love. He wanted to get married and I didn't want him to. —Rita Rudner The term reverse has many definitions in humor writing, but one of the best is "a device that adds a contradictory tag line to the opening line of a standard expression or cliché." I couldn't wait for success, so I went ahead without it. —Jonathan Winters Other writers call it the old switcheroo; a technique that switches the characters and setting of a standard humor bit to fit the existing situation. We were incompatible in a lot of ways. Like for example, I was a night person, and he didn't like me. —Wendy Liebman The most common definition of a reverse is "an unexpected switch in the audience's point of view." Surprise comes from a basic change in direc¬ tion—a reversal of habitual thinking or activity. To maintain the element of surprise, the writer must drop at least one prominent clue to mislead the audience, to push the audience in a false direction. See if you can spot the misdirection in the example below. A man and woman are making passionate love in the bedroom. Suddenly, the apartment door opens, and a man comes in and shouts, "Darling I'm home." He walks into the bedroom, sees the naked couple and says, "What is she doing here?" Did you spot it? The misdirection is the man shouting, "Darling" The audience thinks he's calling to the woman. The unexpected change in point of view occurs in the last line: "What is she doing here?" The Next Giant Step: Reverses 125 In each of the following examples, the writer wants you to be thinking predictably. Despite the careful step-by-step analysis above, you may be so accustomed to the logical thought process that many of these reverses will still catch you by surprise. BOY: Can I take your picture in the nude? COED: Absolutely not You'll have to wear your socks and a tie. A junior executive walks into his boss's office. "I'm afraid I'll have to leave early today, sir. I've got a terribly sore neck." The boss says, "Whenever I get one, I go home and my wife makes love to me. She knows how to massage every muscle in my body, and when she's finished, all the tension is gone. You should try it, and that's an order." The next day the boss walks over to the young executive: "Did you try what I told you?" "Yes, I did," says the young man, "and it worked just fine. By the way, you have a beautiful house, too" The standard reverse, then, is a simple statement setting up a point of view that is effectively cancelled out by the last few words. Pro writers sometimes spend hours polishing that important last line. In the exam­ ples below, the setup statements have been underlined. I sold my house this week. I got a good price for it—but it made my landlord mad as hell. —Garry Shandling I stayed at one of the crummiest hotels in town. In the middle of the night, I called the desk clerk and said, "I've got a leak in the bathtub." He said, "Hey, you paid for the room. Go right ahead." When the old Sheraton hotel was being renovated, they sold the ripped-out fixtures, so I bought the two front doors for my house. After they were installed, I pointed them out to a friend, "These came from the Sheraton hotel." He was astonished, "Most people just take soap and towels." 12 6 Comedy Writing Secrets REVERSES AND THE ART OF SURPRISE Why humor reverses continue to surprise us is a mystery. After all, the end­ ing is logical (if not realistic). A magician is able to use physical misdirection to accomplish his sleight of hand, while the comic has only words—and the hope that the audience goes off on the wrong train of thought. I understand that the doctor had to spank me when I was born, but I really don't see any reason he had to call me a whore. —Sarah Silverman When I was young, I thought that money was the most important thing in life. Now that I'm old—I know it is. —Oscar Wilde Effective humor is carefully scripted to ensure the surprise ending remains hidden until the writer is ready to reveal it. Each phrase, idea, or fact is carefully designed so that when the performer reverses the train of thought, the audience is totally surprised. If they can see the reverse coming, they're not surprised, just smug. I made a killing in the stock market. My broker lost all my money, so I killed him. —Jim Loy In the following routine, comedian Emo Philips plants clues that encour­ age the audience to think along predictable lines. One day I was playing—I was about seven years old—and I saw the cellar door open just a crack. Now my folks had always warned me: Emo, whatever you do, don't go near the cellar door. But I had to see what was on the other side if it killed me, so I went to the cellar door, pushed it open and walked through, and I saw strange, wonderful things—things I had never seen before— like ... trees, grass, flowers, the sun—that was nice Note how he built up the reverse by playing on the audience's assump­ tion that he is outside the cellar. The Next Giant Step: Reverses 127 I was about seven ... A child could be forbidden to enter the cellar. He might fall down the stairs, or the cellar might contain something dangerous. I saw the cellar door open just a crack. The parents have warned Philips away from the door, so the audience thinks there is something dangerous in the cellar. When the door opens just a crack, tension is created in the audience (who is still thinking that Philips is outside the cellar). My folks had always warned me ... whatever you do, don't go near the cellar door. The cellar is beginning to sound like some mysterious, horror-filled dungeon. I had to see what was on the other side if it killed me. The word killed further builds tension. I saw strange, wonderful things—things I had never seen before. Now the audience is sure that the mysterious cellar is filled with relics from King Tut's tomb. Like ... This is a necessary long pause, which is the apex of tension in prepara­ tion for the surprise ending—Philips revelation that he was in the cellar, looking out. SHOWTIME A reverse should not be easy for the audience to spot in advance. Write a reverse for each of the following setups, and then compare your best efforts with the pros' versions at the end of the chapter. 12 8 Comedy Writing Secrets Condoms aren't completely safe. A friend of mine was wearing one and ... My wife insists on turning off the lights when we make love. That doesn't bother me. It's the ... We have a presidential election coming up. And I think the big problem, of course, is ... After twelve years of therapy, my psychiatrist said something that brought tears to my eyes. He said ... THE ANECDOTAL REVERSE An anecdote—like the Emo Philips routine just discussed—is a short story with a sudden climax. The setup includes just enough information to encourage the audience to proceed automatically in a direction the performer reverses at the end. "Let me tell you about my big-spending husband," one woman said to another. "It was our anniversary, so he took me to the most famous restaurant in town and told me to order the most expensive dish on the menu. I did ... a Big Mac." Two old men were watching a Great Dane lick his balls. One turned to the other and said, "All my life, I've wished that I could do that" The second one said, "Better pet him first, he looks mean as hell." —Billy Crystal The trick to creating a good anecdotal reverse is to lay out the plot line of the story so realistically that the reverse isn't expected—even a little bit—by the audience. A man was driving on a narrow, winding mountain road when he almost collided with a car that wildly careened around a blind curve. "You stupid fool," he shouted at the other driver. The other The Next Giant Step: Reverses 129 car came to a dead stop. A woman rolled down the window, looked at the man and yelled, "Pig Pig Pig" and then quickly drove off. Furious at the insult, the man slammed his car into gear, roared around the mountain curve—and slammed head-on into a giant hog standing in the road. The reversal in this anecdote works so well because the events leading up to it are completely believable—they could happen to anyone. Films and sitcoms can lay the groundwork for surprise endings with seemingly insignificant dialogue sprinkled throughout an entire scene. But jokes can't take a half-hour, so clues using the minimum number of words must be dropped seamlessly into anecdotes. Only after audience members have been fooled by the magician are they anxious to analyze what really happened. When your audiences retrospectively analyze your anecdotes, make sure they can note the cleverness of your construction. A worker on a construction site would wait until the end of the day, then walk out with a wheelbarrow filled with dirt. Management was positive he was stealing supplies, but every security check of the wheelbarrow accounted for nothing but plain sand. After the job was completed and the worker collected his final paycheck, the foreman walked up to him and said, "Mike, I know you were steal­ ing something. Tell me the truth, what were you takin'?" And Mike said, "Wheelbarrows" WRITE, DON'T TELEGRAPH Telegraphing—inadvertently cluing the audience in to the upcoming sur­ prise—is a sign of a beginner. Telegraphing can take the form of a too- detailed introduction, making the setup so obvious that the audience can anticipate the ending of the story. Here's an example: Jack Ellis, a former fund-raising director, was being given a testimonial dinner. One speaker told the following story. A carnival strongman wet a towel and then squeezed every drop of water out of it. Then he offered to bet anyone in the audience 13 0 Comedy Writing Secrets fifty dollars that they couldn't squeeze out just one more drop. Up sprang our guest of honor, and sure enough, he squeezed out three drops. "Who in the devil are you?" asked the strong man. And the man said, "I'm a fund-raiser for Ohio University." There is an unwritten law in humor that only one reverse is permissible in any one anecdote. Two is pushing it, and the audience can usually pre¬ dict a third reverse in advance. The following joke successfully with¬ holds the single reverse until the end of the anecdote. A man finds a chimp in the middle of the street. A police car drives by and the man asks the cop, "Hey, what do you think I should do with him?" "Take him to the zoo," yells the cop. The next day the police notice the same man with the same chimp. "I thought I told you to take it to the zoo," said the cop. "I did," said the man, "and we had so much fun, today I'm tak¬ ing him to Disneyland." A Texan, visiting Vermont, asked a farmer how much acreage he had. "Oh, I've got a big farm," said the farmer. "More than 150 acres." The Texan swelled up and said, "You know, mister, I get into my car in the morning, I drive all day, and I still can't get to the end of my property." The farmer said, "I know what you mean. I've got a car just like that." If they are too obvious in their layout, reverses can be telegraphed even in the shortest anecdotes. "Sorry to hear your wife ran away with your gardener." "Oh, that's all right. I was going to fire him anyway" After two drinks, my wife turns into a screaming bitch. After five drinks, I pass out completely. The Next Giant Step: Reverses 131 HIDE AND PEEK Hiding is the opposite of telegraphing. Hiding is successful when the audi¬ ence believes the setup to be a straightforward statement. After a short pause, the humorist reveals the surprise ending—since the audience was¬ n't expecting anything further, the punchline is even more of a surprise. Ohio University was founded in 1804 and opened with a freshman class of twelve students. And this year, eight of them graduated. REVERSES ON STAGE Reverses are common techniques for all stand-up comedians. I divorced my first wife because she was so immature. I'd be in the tub taking a bath and she would walk in whenever she felt like it and sink my boats. —Woody Allen The doctor enters the examination room and says, "Okay, lay down." I say, "Buy me a drink first, pig." —Judy Tenuta When I went to college, my parents threw a going-away party for me, according to the letter. —Emo Philips My mother buried three husbands ... and two of them were only napping. —Rita Rudner Every day people are straying away from the church, and going back to God. —Lenny Bruce To me, clowns aren't funny. In fact, they're kind of scary. I've won¬ dered where this started and I think it goes back to the time I went to the circus, and a clown killed my dad. —Jack Handey 13 2 Comedy Writing Secrets My husband and I didn't sign a prenuptial agreement. We signed a mutual suicide pact. —Roseanne Barr My grandfather is hard of hearing. He needs to read lips. I don't mind him reading lips, but he uses one of those yellow highlighters. —Brian Kiley I don't believe in reincarnation, and I didn't believe in it when I was a hamster. —Shane Richie I was with this girl the other night, and from the way she was responding to my skillful caresses, you would have sworn that she was conscious from the top of her head to the tag on her toes. —Emo Philips OPPORTUNITIES FOR REVERSES One delight of the reverse is that it can be used in speeches to make a serious point, not just tell a joke. As a result, it's an excellent technique for sermons as well. Two manufacturing competitors were roommates at an industry association outing at a mountain resort. The first night, they heard scratching outside their cabin door. One went to look, came back, and started to put on his running shoes. "What's the trouble?" asked his roommate. The competitor said, "There's a giant bear outside who's so hungry he's gonna smash his way right into this room." "Well," said the other, "why put on sneakers? You can't outrun a bear." "I know," said the other, "but all I need to do is outrun you." MCs are notorious for incorporating reverses into their brief introductions. We usually go for the best in live entertainment. But, tonight we have to settle for... The Next Giant Step: Reverses 133 Is everybody having a good time? Well, we'll put an end to that right now Reverses can occur in physical humor as well. During an appearance on David Letterman's late-night TV show, Jack Hanna, then director of the Columbus Zoo, was displaying a toucan. Letterman was tossing grapes to the bird: "One, two, three," toss. The bird caught each grape to the roaring approval of the audience. Suddenly, Letterman said to Hanna, "Jack, why don't you try one?" "Fine," said Hanna. "Here we go," yelled Letterman, and he began tossing grapes into the air for Hanna to catch in his mouth. "One, two, three," toss. Reverses are also very practical for deflecting insults. If the critic isn't carefully specific, the target has the thrill—and it is a thrill when that opportunity comes—to reverse the point of view and change the critic's javelin into a boomerang. I don't like country music, but I don't mean to denigrate those who do. And for the people who like country music, denigrate means "put down." —Bob Newhart Goldie Hawn is funny, sexy, beautiful, talented, intelligent, warm, and consistently sunny. Other than that, she doesn't impress me at all. —Neil Simon People say to me, "You're not very feminine." Well, they can just suck my dick. —Roseanne Barr HUSBAND TO WIFE: You are not only beautiful, but stupid. WIFE TO HUSBAND: Well, God made me beautiful so you would be attracted to me. And he made me stupid so I'd be attracted to you. 134 Comedy Writing Secrets SCHOOL DAZE: REVERSING A CLICHÉ Now that we've discussed the uses of reverses and how reverses are con¬ structed, let's write a reversal of a cliché. For the target, let's use the begin¬ ning of the school term, when summer is over and parents everywhere happily send their children back to school. Just writing We all feel relieved when our kids go back to school and the house is quieter and neater is not wit. Your first efforts to reverse a cliché may look something like these. TOO OBVIOUS When my kids go back to school, I go back to sanity. For parents, Thanksgiving takes place in September—on the day school starts. BETTER When school starts, my kids think they're going back to hell, and I think I'm going back to heaven. The meaning of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" gets a lot clearer the first day my kids go back to school. BEST September is the month when millions of beautiful faces radiating happiness turn toward school. ... They all belong to mothers. It helps to work backward from the reverse. The most obvious reverse might be to make a point about mothers when the audience thinks we're talking about the children. This type of joke would be a fun opening for a speech to a PTA-type group because the audience members are likely to share a parent's ambivalence toward children. When school is out, there's always the tearing up of homework, screeching, and giggling. You would think professors would act more dignified —Paul Sweeney The Next Giant Step: Reverses 135 SHOWTIME The "news" reports on shows such as Saturday Night Live and The Daily Show With Jon Stewart commonly include reverses in the form of one- sentence news headlines followed by contradictory tag lines. Write a reverse for each of the following setups, then compare your responses to the pros' versions that appear on the next page. A Harvard Medical School study has determined that rectal thermometers are still the best way to tell a baby's temperature. The University of Nebraska says that elderly people who drink beer or wine at least four times a week have the highest bone density. A man in France was arrested today for using his car to run down a pedestrian he thought was Osama bin Laden. THE ANSWER MAN Here are the pros' conclusions for the reverse setups on pages 128-129. Condoms aren't completely safe. A friend of mine was wearing one and got hit by a bus. —Bob Rubin My wife insists on turning off the lights when we make love. That doesn't bother me. It's her hiding that seems so cruel. —Jonathan Katz We have a presidential election coming up. And I think the big problem, of course, is someone will win. —Barry Crimmins 13 6 Comedy Writing Secrets After twelve years of therapy, my psychiatrist said something that brought tears to my eyes. He said, "No hablo ingles." —Ronnie Shakes Here are the conclusions for the headline news setups on page 136. A Harvard Medical School study has determined that rectal thermometers are still the best way to tell a baby's tempera¬ ture. Plus, it really teaches the baby who's boss. —Tina Fey The University of Nebraska says that elderly people who drink beer or wine at least four times a week have the highest bone density. They need it—they're the ones falling down the most. —Jay Leno A man in France was arrested today for using his car to run down a pedestrian he thought was Osama bin Laden. Even though it was a mistake, it still ranks as France's biggest military victory. —Jay Leno The Next Giant Step: Reverses 137 CHAPTER 8 The Harmony of Paired Elements: Phrases, Words, Statistics, and Aphorisms She was an earthy woman, so I treated her like dirt. —George Carlin Humor is a feat of verbal gymnastics, and paired elements are examples of the type of clever writing that is commonly used in political addresses, sermons, academic oratory, and toasts. A paired element consists of two grammatical structures (words, phrases, clauses, or sentences) that are similar in construction and that play off each other in meaning. Paired elements appear in humor formats as varied as ad slogans, bumper stickers, and Shavian wit. You might find paired elements in the "thought for today" in your desk calendar. There are three varieties of paired elements. 1. paired phrases or sentences 2. paired words 3. paired numbers PAIRED PHRASES AND SENTENCES To be most effective, paired phrases or sentences must be parallel—equal in grammatical purpose, structure, and rhythm. Some need an introductory setup line; most do not. In most cases, the first unit in the pair is a simple declarative statement. The carefully crafted second unit of the pair echoes the first, but a key word may be altered, or the order of the words may be reversed to change the meaning. Aphorisms, which will be dis­ cussed later, often contain paired phrases, which 13 8 Comedy Writing Secrets are almost lyrical in repetition, and valuable because they make the words easy to remember. Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country. —John F. Kennedy Better a witty fool than a foolish wit. —William Shakespeare When the going gets tough, the tough get going. Figures don't lie, but all liars can figure. Imagination compensates us for what we are not. Humor compen¬ sates us for what we are. As a humor technique, paired phrases with word reverses are facile but not necessarily simple. The basic rule, common in most humor writing, is that the last line is written first—the last line is the one that makes the point and is most easily remembered. Then, you try to reinforce the theme by reversing the words so the first line introduces the cadence. Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care. Pilot over intercom to impatient passengers: We're having a short delay for engine repairs. Aren't you glad you're down here wishing you were up there, rather than up there wishing you were down here? —Joan White Book Paired phrases are popular with clichés, which afford many opportuni¬ ties for take-off humor—the line after the paired phrase. Boss to new employee: "Relax, Bitler. You have nothing to fear except fear itself. And me, of course" —Robert Mankoff The Harmony of Paired Elements 139 Paired elements are frequent applause-getters, and writers know that the audience is more stimulated by the turn of phrase than by its logic. Homonyms get laughs even when they don't make much sense. It is better to have loved a small man than never to have loved a tall. —Mary Jo Crowley As a general rule, you don't want the audience to be able to fill in your punchline for you. You want to surprise them, because they won't appreciate the humor if it's predictable. But audience participa¬ tion—mentally engaging the audience—can also be an excellent tech¬ nique for increasing appreciation. If you can create a strong, fresh, paired-element joke, it may not be necessary to state the second part of the pair if the audience can deduce it from the first. You can flatter the audience members by letting them complete the thought them¬ selves. Then they will applaud not only your cleverness, but their own perspicacity. The difference between herpes and mono is that you can get mono from snatching kisses. Each sentence in a paired-sentence element contains one of two paired phrases. In a joke format, each sentence is usually attributed to a differ¬ ent person. The final impression is of a snappy comeback—the audience appreciates the responder's ability to reverse the order of the words and toss them back in the originator's face. TELEGRAM FROM PLAY PRODUCER TO GEORGE BERNARD SHAW: Send manuscript. If good will send check. SHAW'S REPLY: Send check. If good will send manuscript. A creditor enclosed a picture of his four-month-old daughter in a collection letter to a customer, pleading: "This is why I need the money." The customer replied with a picture of a voluptuous blonde in a bikini. His note: "This is why I don't have the money." 14 0 Comedy Writing Secrets SHOWTIME Review your jokes from chapters four and five and rewrite seven to ten of your favorites as paired phrases or sentences. PAIRED WORDS Most paired words fall into one of four classifications: synonyms, homonyms, antonyms, or groupings. No professional humor writer is without a dictionary of synonyms, antonyms, and homonyms. Synonyms Synonyms are different words that share a meaning (horses sweat, gen­ tlemen perspire, ladies glow). Synonyms are popular word pairings. There are so many words in the language that have a similar meaning that there are countless double entendre opportunities. One simple technique for pairing synonyms is to express an idea in one line or phrase, then include in the second line or phrase a synonym for a key word in the first. But the synonym should evoke a different and unex­ pected meaning of the key word in the first phrase. SHOE SALESMAN: Don't worry about the shoes. They'll stretch. WOMAN: Then don't worry about the check. It'll bounce. —Rita Rudner In the example above, the paired words are stretch and bounce. Although stretch and bounce aren't strict synonyms, their close relationship (some­ thing that can stretch may be likely to bounce) allows them to work together in a play on words. In each of the following examples, the second phrase features a highly exaggerated synonym for a key word in the first phrase. The Harmony of Paired Elements 141 She wasn't just throwing herself at him. It was more like taking careful aim. He only acts mean. But down deep in his heart, he's thoroughly rotten. The paired synonym take-off, like any take-off, begins with a cliché or standard expression and includes a synonym with the unexpected insight in the punchline. I love mankind. It's people I can't stand. —Charles M. Schulz Redneck against women's lib: I told my wife to stick to her wash­ ing, ironing, sewing, cooking, and cleaning. No wife of mine is going to go to work —John Boblitt Homonyms Homonyms are words that sound the same but are spelled differently or have a different meaning (see the full discussion of homonyms in chap­ ter four). Our language is rich with words that are pronounced alike. Take gene, for instance. Gene can be a scientific term or a man's name, but when spoken, it can sound like pants made of denim (jeans) or a woman's name (Jean). One DNA molecule to another: Those genes make me look fat. License plate of sheep rancher: EWEHAUL. She was a girl who preferred men to liquor. Ad for telephone system: From high tech to hi, Mom. Antonyms While synonyms are words or phrases that share the same meaning, antonyms are words or expressions that mean the opposite of each other: hot vs. cold, tall vs. short. Paired antonyms generate humor because they are the simplest form of a reverse. The first word of the phrase starts you in one direction; the antonym flips you in the oppo­ site. When Saturday Night Live was having a bad season, critics were quick to dub it Saturday Night Dead. 14 2 Comedy Writing Secrets There are good and bad politicians in the government: Some are trying to clean it up; some are trying to clean it out. —Robert Orben Young boy to friend: If I'm too noisy they give me a spanking. If I'm too quiet, they take my temperature. The use of antonym pairs is compatible with humor based on double entendres and puns. Since laughter frequently arises from the apprecia¬ tion of clever word play, even antonym non sequiturs can get laughs. Let's get out of these wet clothes and into a dry martini. —Robert Benchley It's no wonder foreigners are confused by our language. Here a slim chance and a fat chance mean the same thing. —Joyce Mattingly Three most frequently used antonym pairs are (a) good and bad, (b) right and wrong, and (c) good and lousy. FATHER TO PRETEEN DAUGHTER: "There are two words I want you to stop using. One is swell and the other is lousy. Promise?" DAUGHTER: "Sure, Dad, now what are the two words?" Your manuscript is both good and original, but the part that is good is not original and the part that is original is not good. —Samuel Johnson Antonyms can exist as two words that mean the opposite of each other (hot vs. cold), or one word can form its own antonym by the addition of a prefix such as un- or in- (sensitive vs. insensitive). There are hundreds of words that become their own antonyms just by the addition of a prefix—uninteresting is the antonym of interesting, and impatience is the opposite of patience. I left journalism because I met too many interesting people at an uninteresting salary. The Harmony of Paired Elements 143 The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreason¬ able man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man. —George Bernard Shaw Brainstorming Paired Antonyms The first step of brainstorming humor is association, as discussed in chapter six. When brainstorming antonyms, you must dredge up every related combination. For example, when you think of the antonyms right and left, you think of the directions right and left, and perhaps the political perspectives of the right and the left. But good humorists would notice that the word right is also an antonym to the word wrong. Some of the most sophisticated (and appreciated) humor combines the meaning of a word from one antonym pair with the meaning of a word from another antonym pair. Most bankers recommend that you wait until you've completely paid for the right running shoe before you plunge in and buy the left. —Dave Barry In comedy, antonym pairs need not fit the dictionary definition of an antonym perfectly. As long as the suggestion of an opposite is inferred, the humor can work. This administration brags that it has developed a new balance of trade: Young people go south of the border to buy drugs and sen¬ ior citizens go north of the border to buy drugs. —Mel Helitzer A new patient was asked by his doctor to list all the prescriptions he was taking. The doctor looked at the long list of different med¬ ications and said, "You know, Bill, you look better in person than you do on paper." It is important, however, not to mix up proper antonym combinations. The antonym of born is died and the opposite of started is finished. You shouldn't combine born wit h finished or started with died. 14 4 Comedy Writing Secrets ACCEPTABLE In this nightclub, a number of famous comics were born—and tonight, a number just died. ACCEPTABLE A number of famous comics started here—and tonight, a number just finished here. UNACCEPTABLE A number of famous comics started here—and tonight, a number just died here. It is sometimes possible to include two or more antonyms in the same bit. Hard work pays off in the future. Laziness pays off now. Groupings Another type of word play relies on the grouping of two or more words loosely associated with the same topic. These words don't have to be synonyms, antonyms, or homonyms. A political candidate must learn not only to stand on a platform, but also to sit on the fence and lie on the spot. —Frank Tyger I come from out west, where men are men and women are women, and you can't ask for a better setup than that. —Red Skelton I come from New York, where men are men—and women are men, too —Robin Williams SHOWTIME Use a thesaurus to create a list of antonyms for the two most frequently used antonym pairs: good and bad, and right and wrong. Write The Harmony of Faired Elements 145 seven to ten reverses in which the antonyms are used as paired words. PAIRED NUMBERS Numbers and figures can also be paired to humorous effect. As with any joke, save the surprise number or figure for the very end of the joke, just as if it were a word. The sheriff said to the outlaw, "I'll give you a fair chance. We'll step off ten paces and you fire at the count of three." The men pace off, the sheriff shouts, "One, two"—and then he turns and fires. The dying outlaw says, "I thought you said to fire on three." The sheriff said, "That was your number. Mine was two." Professional humor writers often use numbers in sequences. The progression of a numerical sequence should be logical and rhythmic, and sequences should always progress in one direction only: up or down. SON: Dad, can I be your caddy? FATHER: Son, a caddy has to be old enough to keep score. SON: I can keep score. FATHER: Okay, if I got six on the first hole, seven on the second hole, eight on the third hole, and nine on the fourth hole, what would my total score be? SON: Eleven. FATHER: Okay, son, you're my caddy. Numbers Progressing Up MC AT OLD-AGE HOME: "We're going to give a prize to the old­ est person here." FIRST VOICE: I'm 63. SECOND VOICE: I'm 73. 14 6 Comedy Writing Secrets THIRD VOICE: I'm 83. FOURTH VOICE: I'm dead There are still things you can get for a dollar—like nickels, dimes, and quarters. —Charles Lindner Numbers Progressing Down Professor to class: Don't be afraid of rewrites. Just remember the first draft of Dickens' book was called A Tale of Ten Cities. The sec­ ond draft was called A Tale of Nine Cities, then it was Eight, then it was Seven. ... —Kathy Leisering Numbers Repeated The following example not only repeats number pairs, it repeats phrases— with a reversal of the numbers in the second phrase of the pair. To have twenty lovers in one year is easy. To have one lover for twenty years is difficult. —Zsa Zsa Gabor The example below repeats the number five and establishes a pattern of phrases. The kind of humor I like makes me laugh hard for five seconds and think hard for five minutes. —William Davis APHORISMS AND PAIRINGS: PLEASE WAIT TO BE SEEDED Aphorisms are concise expressions of a bit of truth or wisdom. Following a misfortune, we have certain options. We can turn pessimistic and curse bad luck, or we can be optimistic and consider that fate has provided a valuable learning experience. (The comic writer is trained by necessity to see humor through woes-colored glasses.) These two The Harmony of Paired Elements 147 options form the basis for one type of aphorism—a humorous contrast between the point of view of a pessimist and that of an optimist. This type of aphorism makes good use of paired elements. Let's imagine how you might go about creating such an aphorism. You can start with a built- in antonym pairing: optimist vs. pessimist. Your first effort might read something like this. A pessimist curses fate; an optimist looks for benefits from every decision. There is some wisdom in that line, but nothing particularly marketable. So, you try again, using some repetitive adjectives and subjects. An optimist sees benefit in every disaster; a pessimist sees recur­ rence in every disaster. The word disaster is repeated, and benefit has been contrasted with recurrence. Still nowhere, but certain possibilities are starting to appear. The contrast of benefit and disaster is stronger than the contrast of benefit and recurrence. This could make for good word- reversal opportunities. However, the word disaster seems too exagger­ ated for this problem. Perhaps calamity, one peg down, might be more appropriate. An optimist sees a benefit in every calamity; a pessimist sees a calamity in every benefit. There's something wrong with the sound and connotation of benefit. Opportunity could work, but not every decision is an opportunity. You might try the word test before settling on challenge. That sounds better An optimist sees a challenge in every calamity. A pessimist sees a calamity in every challenge. The result is a set of paired phrases and a set of paired antonyms. It's good writing, and it's good advice, too 14 8 Comedy Writing Secrets SHOWTIME Paired elements are another example of how humor is written back­ wards—joke-first And whichever medium is used for humor (printed word, spoken word, cartoons, etc.), writers find paired elements increase commercial value. The work will get funny, and the funny will get work. Whether you're working with paired elements or any of the previously discussed techniques, humor writing requires daily practice. The follow­ ing exercises will help fuel your comic imagination. (Additional exercises are included in chapter nineteen.) Write a funny ... • set of new malaprops and Tom Swifties • list of new college degree programs • neighborhood watch guide • online personal ad • etiquette guideline for using a cell phone • list of new Starbucks coffee offerings • review of a local restaurant, bar, or convenience store • set of announcements for a K—12 PA system • e-mail soliciting money for a bogus charity The Harmony of Paired Elements 149 CHAPTER 9 Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered: Triples I can't think of anything worse after a night of drinking than wak­ ing up next to someone and not being able to remember their name, or how you met, or why they're dead. —Laura Kightlinger Every joke structure has its devotees, but the triple is one format that all humorists use repeatedly. Featuring a grouping of three examples or a sequence of three actions, comments, or categories, the triple increases tension with its longer buildup. I celebrated Thanksgiving in an old-fashioned way. I invited every­ one in my neighborhood to my house, we had an enormous feast, and then I killed them and took their land. —Jon Stewart Triples are one of the most common humor formulas. They have been used for so many years in the "There was a priest, a minister, and a rabbi..." for­ mat that, when three such clergymen actually did walk into a bar, the bar­ tender asked, "Is this some kind of a joke?" The triple formula uses hostility, exaggeration, a buildup of tension, and a surprise ending that inflates the payoff. Most triples are short—two or three sentences—but longer triples can work if done correctly. The opening lines are logical setups and the final line is the most audacious. A woman recently had a baby from an embryo that had been frozen for seven years. She said, "I had no idea if I was having a little boy, a little girl, or fish sticks." —Conan O'Brien 15 0 Comedy Writing Secrets At eighty-eight, the king of popcorn, Orville Redenbacher, passed away. His family is mired in an ugly dispute over whether to cre­ mate, microwave, or air-pop him. —Stephanie Miller If peanut oil comes from peanuts, and olive oil comes from olives, where does baby oil come from? —Lily Tomlin Neurotics build castles in the air, psychotics live in them. My mother cleans them. —Rita Rudner The only really good place to buy lumber is at a store where the lumber has already been cut and attached together in the form of furniture, finished, and put inside boxes. —Dave Barry Reverse Construction: The Power of Threes The mystical power of three has been known and used for centuries. The Bible is filled with triple designations: three wise men, the Trinity, and the Hebrew forefathers: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Triple elements occur in our most powerful historical literature: Thomas Jefferson wrote "Life, lib­ erty, and the pursuit of happiness," and one of Abraham Lincoln's most- quoted phrases is "Of the people, for the people, by the people." Three may be an odd number in math, but its even da-da-Ta da-da-Ta da-da-Ta cadence makes it the most important number in comedy. It's not a coinci­ dence that we treasure Goldilocks and the three bears, the three blind mice, the three little pigs, the three musketeers, and the Three Stooges. People in the theater are so superstitious about numbers that actors will knock on stage doors three times and only three times. And that's the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered: Triples 151 Bart, a woman is like a beer. They look good, they smell good, and you'd step over your own mother just to get one —Homer Simpson According to a comedic theory developed by author William Lang, there are only three parts to most comedic bits. We call these three elements humor's SAP test. S = Setup (preparation) A = Anticipation (triple) P = Punchline (story payoff) Notice how SAP fits these examples. S = We were Pentecostal. A = When I was growing up we couldn't go to movies, we couldn't listen to rock music, we couldn't wear makeup. P = That's just a lightbulb and a car away from being Amish. —René Hicks S = My wife and I don't get along. A = I take my meals separately, I take a separate vacation, and I sleep in a separate bedroom. P = I'm doing everything I can to keep this marriage together. —Milton Berle It's possible, of course, to abbreviate the SAP formula by combining two of the elements in one sentence. In the following example, the third part of the triple also includes the punchline. 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. —Harland Williams Notice how the triple sequence in the next example sets up the value of the last line. If you want to be seen—stand up 15 2 Comedy Writing Secrets If you want to be heard—speak up If you want to be appreciated—shut up The joke wouldn't be as effective as a series of two. When we leave off the first line, the triple reads: If you want to be heard—speak up If you want to be appreciated—shut up The humor is still there, but the punch is softer without the tension buildup of the triple. If you were to add more lines to this joke, you would overstretch the sequence and make the audience impatient to get to the punchline. If you want to be involved—show up If you want to be seen—stand up If you want to be heard—speak up If you want to be important—pay up If you want to be appreciated—shut up There's no reason to give five examples when three accomplishes all the preparation that's needed. The final element of SAP humor can include a reverse to make it sound fresher. I was told to be accurate, be brief, and then be seated. So I prom­ ise I shall be brief as possible—no matter how long it takes me. —Willard Pearson The trilogy is not a commandment; it's a formula (which means it can be taught in schools). Although most series-based jokes are most effective when they contain three elements, the number of introductory setups in the series can be two, three, four, or as many as you wish—whatever it takes to build anticipation and a climax. A Washington, D.C., police chief once claimed he had broken down crime in the Capitol into four categories: murder, assault, robbery, and acts of Congress. Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered: Triples 153 Comic Bill Dana once explained why a ranch with eleven names (Bar Nine, Circle Z, Rocking O, Flying W, Lazy R, Crazy Eight, Bar Seven, Happy Tow, Flying Nun, Lazy Six, and Bar Five) had no cattle: because none could make it through branding. Erma Bombeck preferred to use four, five, and sometimes six in a series. The length of a series is not what's critical—it's the anticipation created by the series. I called my friend Bernie in Miami and asked how he was feeling. "Not well," he said. "I've got cataracts in both eyes, my hear­ ing is almost totally gone, my memory is so bad I can't remember where I put anything, and my hands shake all the time." "That's terrible," I said. "Any good news?" "Yes," he said, "I still have my Florida driver's license." It's no surprise that there are three rules specifically geared to the num­ ber three. Tension is important in humor structure, and a triple helps build tension, but be wary of too much of a good thing. 1. Never use more than three jokes about one subject in a monologue. 2. Three minutes is the ideal length for a skit. 3. Don't exceed three themes in an article. SHOWTIME The punchline to the traditional lightbulb joke (How many s does it take to change a lightbulb?) often consists of a triple. Again, the first and second answers are only setups for the third. Here are some examples based on state stereotypes. How many Louisianans does it take to change a lightbulb? Three: one to hold the ladder, one to screw in the bulb, and one to bribe officials for the permit. How many Virginians? Three: one to hold the ladder, one to screw in the bulb, and 15 4 Comedy Writing Secrets one highly refined lady to remark how much lovelier the old bulb was. How many Oregonians? Forty-two: one to hold the ladder, one to screw in the bulb, and forty to draft the environmental impact statement. Use a triple to write a lightbulb joke for each of the following professions. Compare your punch lines to the ones listed at the end of the chapter. How many politicians does it take to change a lightbulb? How many lawyers? How many doctors? How many L.A. cops? How many auto mechanics? TH E ANECDOTAL TRIPLE An anecdote, as you know from chapter seven, is a short story told in the fewest possible words. That's why, even in a long triple, you need to give just enough information to set up the payoff line. A minister comes home to his apartment early and finds his wife nude in bed and the room filled with cigar smoke. He looks down from his tenth-story window and sees a man smoking a big cigar just leaving the building. Enraged, he picks up his refrigerator and throws it out the window, killing the man instantly. "Why did you do that?" someone yelled from the street. " 'You killed my priest." The minister was so distraught that he threw himself out of the window. A few moments later, three men—a priest, a minister, and a rabbi—approach heaven's gate and an angel asks each how he died. "I don't know," says the priest, "except suddenly a refrigerator smashed me into the ground." Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered: Triples 155 The minister says, "I threw it. But I was so filled with remorse, I jumped out of the window and killed myself." "What about you, rabbi?" asks the angel. "You got me. All I know was I was minding my own business, sitting in a refrigerator..." Humor takes even more literary effort than the average editorial story because the climax must be powerful enough to cause an immediate physical reaction in the audience. Your goal is to tell an anecdote in the fewest possible words. But sometimes cutting words can lessen the effect of a joke. Consider the following example. Three sons, with their wives, were celebrating their parents' fiftieth anniversary. At the dinner, the first son stood up and said, "Dad. Mom. I'd have brought you a present, but Suzy and I spent the summer in Europe, so we're kinda broke, but we do wish you the very best." The second son said, "My dear parents, I, too, would have brought a present, but I just bought Nancy a diamond necklace, and we're short right now." And the third said, "Folks, we purchased a powerboat, which left us strapped, but good health and love for years to come." "That's okay, sons," said the father. "I know how it feels to be broke. I never told you this, but when your mother and I decided to get married fifty years ago, we didn't even have the money for a license, so we never had a ceremony." One of the sons burst out, "My god, Dad. You know what that makes us?" "Yes, I do," said the father, "and cheap ones, too" You can tell the same story without a triple in half the words. A son attends a fiftieth anniversary dinner for his parents. He apologizes that, because of personal luxury expenses, he couldn't afford a present. The father sympathizes, "We know how it is. When Mother and I were courting, we were so poor we couldn't afford a license, so we never got married." 15 6 Comedy Writing Secrets "My god," says the son, "do you know what that makes me?" "Yes," says the dad, "and a cheap one, too " The elimination of the triple decreased the suspense and minimized the buildup of hostility that makes the father's retort so funny. It isn't that one example isn't funny; it's just that ridiculing three is more pleasurable. The third element in a triple can also be customized to fit a specific event. PAINTING HUMOR Some humorists are blessed with the ability to paint a picture with words, affording the listener or read­ er the chance to visualize the joke. For example, the success of Garrison Keillor's mythical Lake Wobegon adventures is in large part due to his colorful phrasing and vivid references. Here are the opening lines to Keillor's book Wobegon Boy. I am a cheerful man, even in the dark, and it's all thanks to a good Lutheran mother. When I was a boy, if I came around looking glum and mopey, she said, "What's the matter? Did the dog pee on your cinnamon toast?" And the thought of our old black mutt raising his hind leg in the pas de dog and peeing on my toast made me giggle. Humor provides the writer with great latitude to embellish—even exag­ gerate—with imagery. Consider the following triple. Based on what you know about him, what do you think Abraham Lincoln would be doing if he were alive today? One: Writing his memoirs of the Civil War. Two: Advising the President. Or three: Desperately clawing at the inside of his coffin. —David Letterman The joke works only because of the imagery in the final line, "Desperately clawing at the inside of his coffin." If a general phrase were used, such Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered: Triples 157 as "Trying to get out of his coffin," the joke would be less effective. The colorful language encourages the audience to visualize the joke. The lack of imagery in many play-on-word (POW) jokes explains why the response to them is often less than enthusiastic. Most POW humor depends entirely on language subtleties to produce surprise, and only half of the brain—the left hemisphere—experiences the joke. When imagery is incorporated into a joke, both hemispheres are stimulated, and the result is full-brain humor. One of the ways to enhance the visual nature of humor is by specificity. For example, the term candy bar is less likely to conjure up a visual cue than a specific reference, such as a Snickers bar. The challenge for comedy writers is to avoid general, abstract phrases and use concrete descriptions that stimulate the senses. SHOWTIME The following exercises will punch up the imagery in your writing. 1. Rewrite each of the following phrases using specificity. grab some food watch TV read a book drive a car 2. Replace general words or phrases in your previous jokes with specific, graphic descriptions. 3. When you record everyday events in your humor diary, use the most vivid, colorful, and graphic descriptions. 15 8 Comedy Writing Secrets TRIPLE VARIATIONS A common variation on the SAP formula is to set up a joke with a triple— in other words, to include the triple not in the A (anticipation) part of the formula, but in the first P (preparation). The second element of the joke then refers to something unrelated to the triple. Finally, in the punchline, the answer to the question references the triple in the setup. Once you learn this formula, the variations multiply. WAITRESS, IN HOARSE VOICE: For dessert, we got ice cream - vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry. CUSTOMER: You got laryngitis? WAITRESS: No, just vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry. Triples can easily be combined with other joke formats. For example, you can start with a triple and add a take-off. The thing about being a professor is that if you can make just one student successful, if you can make just one student see the light, if you can make just one ready for the outside world, then you're still stuck with nineteen failures. —Mel Helitzer The thing about being a humorist is that if you only get one laugh, if you only get one smile, if you can make only one person happy, then you know your act stinks —Gene Perret Another very popular combination of techniques is to start with a triple, then switch to a reverse. The reverse can supplement or replace the third element in the triple. More than any time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter helplessness, the other to total extinction. Let us pray that we have the wisdom to choose correctly. —Woody Allen Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered: Triples 159 Younger men are all right They also come too quick and go to sleep right after, but they can do it every goddamn night. —Roseanne Barr I'd like to introduce a man with a lot of charm, talent, and wit. Unfortunately, he couldn't be here tonight, so instead ... Any of you see Survivor on TV last night? Talk about plot, drama, great acting—it had none of those things. I had a nightmare I was trapped in an elevator with Yanni, Kenny G., and Michael Bolton ... and I had a gun with only one bullet. —Dave Attell My wife's family consisted of three brothers and a dog: Tom, Dick, Harry, and Rover. Harry was the dog. You can also combine a triple with another triple. My rules for dating: I don't want to hear about your car, I don't want to hear about your ex-girlfriend, I don't want to hear about your boring-ass job. The most romantic thing you can do is relax, buy me drinks, and shut the hell up. —Wanda Sykes Triples can also be used to enhance a mild piece of humor. Topping the first bit of humor with two additional comments encourages the audience to laugh instead of thinking Is that all there was to it? There are three ways to be ruined in this world. First is by sex, the second is by gambling, and the third is by telling jokes. Sex is the most fun, gambling is the most exciting, and being a comedian is the surest. —Paul Roth Triples can also be used in physical humor. Bob Nelson does a visual triple during his monologue about college football players being inter­ viewed on camera He places two balloons under an oversized sweater to indicate shoulder pads. But as he is putting them under the sweater he 16 0 Comedy Writing Secrets fills the time with a visual triple. He first pushes the two balloons under­ neath from the bottom and leaves them momentarily side-by-side. "Wanna see my grandmother?" he asks while the balloons are in a low position. Then he moves the balloons midway up the sweater and says, "This is what my dream girl looks like." Then he moves the two balloons, one to each side of the sweater, and says, "My dream girl lying down." Finally, he puts them in the shoulder-pad position for his football segment. This is called a joke on the way to a joke because the triple is used to enhance a dead moment while changing props. Except in intentional pauses, silence is a comic's deadly enemy. SHOWTIME Like a joke in any other format, a triple must be concluded with an auda­ cious and surprising climax. Write an unexpected conclusion for each of the following jokes. Compare your answers to the pros' versions on the next page. Someone did a study of the three most-often-heard phrases in New York City. One is "Hey, taxi." Two is "What train do I take to get to Bloomingdale's?" And three is ... I like Florida; everything is in the eighties: the temperature, the ages, and ... Men should be like Kleenex: soft, strong, and ... Making love to a woman is like buying real estate ... THE ANSWER MAN Here are some possible punchlines for the lightbulb jokes on page 155 How many politicians does it take to change a lightbulb? Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered: Triples 161 Thirty-six: Two to sponsor the bill, thirty-three to constitute a quorum, and one to change it. How many lawyers? Three: One to change it, one to call the electrician who wired the house, and one to sue the power company for causing the surge that made the bulb burn out. How many doctors? Three: One to find a bulb specialist, one to find a bulb instal­ lation specialist, and one to bill Medicare. How many L.A. cops? Six: One to screw in a new bulb, four to beat the crap out of the old one, and one to videotape the scene. How many auto mechanics? Six: One to give you an estimate, one to force it with a hammer, and four to go out for more bulbs. Here are the professionals' conclusions for the triples on page 161. Someone did a study of the three most