Wednesday, March 12, 2008

"The Smartest Thing I Ever Said"

It was the smartest thing I ever said.

When I ran Major Dad – meaning to you non-TV-writers I was in charge of the writing room – a good writer named Lisa, said to me, “Sometimes when somebody pitches a joke, you say, ‘Too many words.’ What exactly do you mean by ‘too many words’?”

Instead of answering Lisa directly, I responded by singing the opening notes to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, except I deliberately added one note, so it came out


That’s what I meant by “too many words.”

Announcing this may be giving away more than I realize, but that was the smartest thing I ever said. It was the type of thing that normally wouldn’t occur to me until I was in the car on the way home, but this time, it materialized smack in the moment. I was thoroughly delighted with myself.

Here’s why it’s a smart thing. Or, at least, why I thought it was at the time. I’ll admit some reservations shortly. For now, just let me bask in the glow of my rightness, will ya? How many times do you say the smartest thing you’ve ever said? Once.


All right. Moving on.

Comedy is like music. There’s a rhythm to it, a specific number of beats. A good joke (“joke” meaning any line of dialogue leading to a “ha-ha” reaction) will get a good laugh. But the same joke, delivered in exactly the right rhythm, will get you a bigger laugh. I can’t explain why. The rhythm is noticeable. It just makes a difference.

I once heard a story about a young writer who was working on The Red Skelton Show, a variety program that ran for on television for something like eighteen years. Red Skelton was a famous clown/slash/sketch comedian with decades of comedy experience – night clubs, movies, radio. As the story goes, the young writer spotted Skelton conferring with his longtime producer. The young writer edged closer to the two men, eager to pick up some comedy wisdom. What he heard was Red Skelton, pointing to the script, and complaining:

“There’s too many words before ‘chopped liver’.”

It’s a funny thing. When you’re talking, you don’t think about beats, the correct phrasing emerges spontaneously. But when you start thinking about it – like when you’re writing rather than talking – it’s like the centipede that starts thinking about which of his hundred legs to move first, and in the process, finds itself unable to walk anymore. Actually, it’s not exactly the same – unless you’re talking about Writer’s Block – because, normally, you can still write. It’s just harder, at least, for me, to write as fluently as I speak. I think it has to do with typing being slower than talking. Maybe you could get closer to spontaneity by speaking into a tape recorder; I don’t know about you, but I’ve always been too self-conscious to pull that off. I end up singing into the tape recorder instead.

The Red Skelton story and my story make the same point, only mine came with music. I felt good about my wise musical response for quite some time. Then I started wondering if it was true.

Yes, comedy has a rhythm. But is it always the same rhythm? Or does the rhythm differ from situation to situation?

The answer, of course, is the latter. Chris Rock performs his comedy differently than Jerry Seinfeld. How do they differ? Subject matter, curse words, ethnic chatter, but infusing it all is a noticeably different rhythm. My point stands, however, because inside the material each comedian delivers, there’s an individualizedly-set metronome, steadily counting off the beats. Deviate from that rhythm and it’s “Da-da-da-da-dahhhhh!”

My answer to Lisa could have left the implication that I was saying all jokes have the same rhythm. (It also sounded like I was saying that my jokes were comparable Beethoven’s music; you can’t see me but I’m looking ashamed about that one.) Every comedy context has its natural rhythm, but the rhythms can definitely differ.

Sometimes, it’s Da-da-da-dahhhh!

Sometimes, it’s Dum p’tang-p’tang wop!

And sometimes, Deedle-de-deedle-de-doo.

A writer needs to find the appropriate rhythm for the people or characters they’re writing for, and stick to it unswervingly, like the beat in a rock song, or any song, I was trying to sound cool there, and failing. What you can’t do, is impose the same rhythm on everything you write. Unless you’re writing for yourself.

Which I am. Which is what I’m doing. And that’s what I’m doing. Like in this blog.

Gimme a minute. I’ll get it.


alan said...

The most "in the moment" I've ever been was in college when we were sitting around the lunch table, and Dan was visiting. I asked Dan what he was majoring in and he said, "I'm majoring in the same thing Mike's mom does." "Really," I said. "I didn't know you could get a degree in banging Mike's dad."

It's not the smartest thing I've ever said, but the timing was great.

HART said...

A bon mot is a slight of mouth.

The brain laughs at realizing it has been tricked