Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Precision in Comedy

Precision in comedy is and as essential and as unequivocal as a surgeon’s cut. Make a mistake, miss your mark by a laugh-inducing millimeter, and your joke, like your patient, is

Dead.

By the way, I’ve never felt comfortable with the idea of “making people laugh.” To me, making someone laugh suggests wrapping your hands around their throat and screaming, “Laugh!” It seems very unpleasant.

Inducing a laugh is an art. And a bit of a science. There is, of course, no certainty in this area, but there are techniques you can employ that will invariably make an audience want to laugh. You can learn about those elsewhere, I’m not a huge fan of comedy rules, and they're boring to talk about. However, if you’re desperate, do a joke about sex. It works every time. It doesn’t have to be clever. The reference is enough.

There will always mystery involved in getting people to laugh. Many times, you just don’t know what’s going to work. And that’s serious. Not only is a laugh on the line, but if you don’t get it in the place you’re expecting to get it, it can literally take your breath away. The breath is the one you were going to take while the audience was laughing. If the laugh doesn’t come...

Ackh! (A glottal sound, meaning no air is getting in.)

You have time for a quick, often audible, gulp, and you keep going.

Here’s a story about the agonizing mystery of getting a laugh. I’m working on this talk/variety show in Canada. Part of my job involves interviewing the guests who, after they perform, will be interviewed by the show’s host. Part of my job was to prepare some questions for the host – biographical material, where do you go from here?, a funny personal story. It’s called “the pre-interview.”

One time, one of our guests was Stanley Myron Handelman. Stanley was a quirky comedian, who wore a shirt with a vest, a tweedy, cloth cap and large, horn-rimmed glasses. His material matched his look, a little goofy. I was a fan.

One of Stanley's jokes was premised on the idea that if you put an infinite amount of monkeys in front of an infinite amount of typewriters (now computers), they would eventually write the works of Shakespeare. Stanley first delivers his personalized version of that setup, then goes on to say that he left them alone in the room, and an hour later, he peeked in to see how the monkeys were doing. To his surprise,

“They were just fooling around.”

That’s Stanley Myron Handelman.

Okay, so I knock on Stanley’s Dressing Room door, I need to do the pre-interview. I come in, and there’s Stanley, pacing like a caged panther. I introduce myself. Stanley ignores me. I press on.

“I just need to ask you a few….”

Suddenly, he turns on me and, and in a scarily intense tone, he starts telling me this:

“There was a story in the paper. It said that, in the supermarket, there was this new kind of bread that had a shelf life of forever. It never went bad. When my uncle read this, he ate nothing but that bread. Six months ago, he died. But to look at him, you’d think he died three months ago.”

Silence. Then he says,

“But to look at him, you’d think that he’d been dead three months.”

He stares at me.

And I stare back. I had no idea what he was talking about.

I return the conversation to why I was there.

“I need to ask you some questions, so we can…”

“Which one is it?”

“What?”

“’But to look at him, you’d think he died three months ago.’ Or ‘But to look at him, you’d think he’d been dead three months’?"

Handelman's face bore the desperate look of a condemned prisoner whose survival depended on the right answer. He came at me again.

“’But to look at him, you’d think he died three months ago.’

Pause.

‘But to look at him, you’d think he’d been dead three months.’”

I was starting to get nervous.

I was also starting to understand. Stanley Myron Handelman was telling me a joke he was about to deliver in front of a live studio audience and the people watching on T.V. At this point, he had two endings to his joke, and had no idea which one of them to use. The fear, of course, was that one ending would deliver a laugh, and the other…

Ackh!

Stanley needed an answer. “Which ending should I use?” He most likely had a preference, but he needed confirmation. And I was the only one around.

I wanted no part of this. First, of all, his ferocity was playing havoc with my “fight or flight” response. I wanted to run, but I needed to complete the pre-interview. If I’d had an opinion, I wouldn’t have offered it. Who needs that kind of responsibility? What if I was wrong, and the audience stared at him? When he came offstage, Stanley Myron Handelman would not be a happy comedian.

“I don’t know which ending your should use,” I replied, playing it sensibly safe.

Not good enough. Handelman needed an answer. He started towards me, talking as he advanced.

“’But to look at him…’”

I started backing away.

He kept coming.

“’…you’d think he died three months ago.’”

I continued to backpedal, blubbering...

“I just need to ask you some questions.”

He kept advancing.

“’But to look at him…”

“I don’t know!”

“…you’d think he’d been dead three months.’”

I was now backed against the wall. And Stanley Myron Handelman was hovering over me.

“But to look at him…”

His arms were braced high against the wall, with me standing in between. He was tall, and I was short. That was my opening. I slipped under his arm, raced to the door, and escaped, his last words ringing in my ears.

“’But to look at him…’”

I don’t recall which ending Stanley used during the show. Perhaps he did the smart thing, excluding the joke till he was certain.

Ten years later, my wife and I were walking along the Santa Monica beach. And there's Stanley, strolling in the other direction. I had to talk to him.

I went over and introduced myself. I reminded him about the show where we’d met. Then I brought up the joke, asking him which ending he’d finally decided on. And he told me.

“’But to look at him, you’d think he died three months ago.”

I thanked him for providing the long-awaited punch line. It was great, and a little freaky, seeing him again. Our encounter had been brief but perfect. He was friendly, he was patient, and, regarding the joke in question…

He was right.

I had known it all along. I just couldn’t take the chance.

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Hi. If you feel like contacting me, but, for some reason, don't want to leave a "Comment", you can reach me at talktoearl@gmail.com.

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5 comments:

Dimension Skipper said...

No indeed, this blog doesn't stink. In fact I enjoy your writings, musings, reminiscences, whatever... quite a bit.

And I too preferred the "three months ago" version of the punchline. Nice to have my comedic instincts verified by the pros.

If I'd been in that same position, though, chances are I would have given him my answer and tried to move on, figuring that if the joke worked I could take some credit and if it didn't, well, then it's Stanley's fault for either A) listening to me, or B) not delivering it right.

Neil said...

According to Wikipedia, Stanley Myron Handelman died six months ago. Sad, but after hearing the joke about his uncle, it seems like maybe there's a punch line in there somewhere.

By the way, I really enjoy your blog. For someone who's made a living writing comedy, you come up with some amazingly profound stuff.

Max Clarke said...

Sex. Funny you mentioned that as a way to get a laugh. When I was a kid, I went to see the movie Arabesque, which starred Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren. Good mystery/thriller, excellent music by Henry Mancini.

Gregory Peck plays a university professor eventually hired to decode a cypher. We see him first droning on about Egyptology or something, a lecture at Oxford. One of the students has fallen asleep at his desk. Peck walks around the classroom and says something about the middle dynasty of Egypt or whatever, and then adds to the end of the sentence, "...which brings us to the subject of sex."

The student woke up and his classmates laughed, and the people in the theater laughed.

Anonymous said...

Maybe it's just me but I didn't think the joke was funny with either endings. You should have helped him "punch" it up, Earl.

Alfred said...

This blog is the high point of my day...providing it's a day you've written something new. Otherwise, I just cry myself to sleep.

It's brilliant Earl -- and it smells good too.