Monday, March 9, 2009

"Getting It Right"

A few years ago, I attended an Oscars party on the Big Island of Hawaii. In attendance were Senator-In-Waiting Al Franken and his family, the late actor Peter Boyle (the Dad on Raymond) and his family, Franken’s book agent and his family, my daughter Anna and myself. (Dr. M, studying for a licensing exam, had requested our absence while she prepared.)

The Oscars party took place in the Boyles’ condo, adjacent to our hotel. It was nice to be invited. There was great food, an Oscars pool (which I co-won), and the “Big Show” itself on TV.


They come to the award for “Best Editing.” Before it’s presented, the producers inexplicably stage an elaborate production number, featuring The Lord of the Dance. There are smart people in the room. And one of them reasonably inquires:

“Why are they doing a dance number to introduce an Editing award?”

Without missing a beat, I reply,

“It’s a little known fact that when an editor does a particularly good edit, he gets up and he does a little dance.”

The room explodes in a thunderclap of laughter. And it just keeps going. An extended eruption of spontaneous hilarity. I am genuinely taken aback. Having never uttered the line before, I had no idea it was going to be funny.

It turns out it was.

I’ve thought that moment many times. Not about why it was funny. I’ll never know why it was funny. A happy confluence of I don’t know what. What I thought about was the line itself. Where had it come from? And why precisely those words, in precisely that order?

Where did the line come from? I have no idea. I just opened my mouth and out it came. I’m completely in the dark as to where the stuff that comes out of me comes from. To me, it’s magic. And I’m eternally humbled to be the medium of its expression. (Except when it comes out not funny, which it occasionally does. My brother once mused about that situation. Confused by a joke he had blurted that fell flat, he complained: “It felt just like the good ones.”)

Why precisely those words, in precisely that order? (Why does that matter? Because delivering the line precisely that way contributed significantly to its success.) At the risk of repeating myself, that’s magic too. Which I’ll return to in a moment. But first, I'll digress.

Someone once said, “Writing is ten percent inspiration and ninety percent perspiration.” Another guy explained about writing, “You sit down at the typewriter and you open up a vein.” They were both making the same point. Writing is really hard.

As a writer, you try to reproduce what your mind’s telling you, struggling to retain the original naturalness and spontaneity. Unfortunately, there’s this time lag due to the process of stenography that inevitably slows things down, at which point, you’re likely to start thinking, and when you start thinking, there goes the naturalness and spontaneity. Self-censorship aside, this problem does not occur when you’re talking.

Confession: On my best writing day, I could never write as intuitively as I talk.

(Another time, I’ll talk about how the computer brings a writer closer to “talk” than any medium of putting things down in history. Way closer than chiseling words into a tablet.)

Which brings us back to my “dancing editor” line. Mentioning it represents my oblique response to a commenter’s question about “funny numbers.”

The commenter writes that after years of marriage, his wife, a First Grade teacher, still “talks to me like I’m five.” The commenter proceeds to examine why “five” is the right and funniest number.

I’ll tell you why “five” is the right and funniest number.

Because it is.

Unlike the comedic “rule of threes”, which you ignore under penalty of “no ha-ha”, no number is inherently funny or unfunny. It depends entirely on the context. In his context, the commenter concludes that “She talks to me like I’m six” is not funny. He’s right.

However, in Neil Simon’s hit comedy, Barefoot in the Park, the lead male character, a starting-out attorney, reports that he just won a case where his client was awarded ten cents. As a result, his firm has now assigned him all cases valued at “six cents or less.”

The number six? Funny as heck.

The “funny number” rule does not exist. Getting it right involves surrendering to the magic. When you do, as with the “dancing editor” line, the right thing just naturally pops out.

And when it’s right, it’s funny.

That goes for talking and that goes for writing.


thevidiot said...

A number of years ago, I won an Emmy Award for editing (at the "Creative Arts Awards", not on the telecast). The presenters were Morey Amsterdam and Rosemarie.

When they got to our category, Morey was supposed to say "and the nominees are..." and they would roll the tape. Instead, he said "and the winner is..." and my name.

They rolled the tape... everyone was laughing and Rosemarie called me to the stage to accept.

Things got very quiet and I went to the mic and said the first thing that came to my head: "What a big surprise!" That line brought the house down. I can still feel the anticipation and the explosion of laughs and I told Rosemarie in the wings that I now understood the "rush" that a comedian gets when a joke "kills."

To this day, I don't know what was funny about it but I loved the result.

Very good topic Earl! Keep up the good work. I look forward to your blog every day.

growingupartists said...

This may be way too New Agey, but I think the number five has more of a hit than six, because of the long 'i' sound versus the short 'i' that is further squashed by the complicated 'x' sound. Not that six doesn't have it's place.

Back when I was studying the elements of everything we take for granted. I think it was occultist Rudolf Steiner who connected speech to movement, suggesting that the basic "sounds" we make, the consonants and vowels, resonate deeply in our biology.

For example, a word starting with a 'b' brings up a feeling of enclosure or embrace, like a bowl, or a balloon, etc. While 'm' words remind of nurturing like "mother" or "mmm, mmm good".

So, long 'i' five, with the 'v' further digging into some metabolic system functioning obliviously, yet reacting to vibration nonetheless...

I think there must be some science of linguistics in there somewhere. In addition to punchlines delivered directly from comedic angels.

A. Buck Short said...

Hey Ma, I’m participating in this blog with three other people, and I just found out that that 50% of us are Emmy winners!

Thank you for having indulged my query about the comedy of numbers. I think I had sort of touched on the context issue briefly, but you’ve stated it so much better – if not slightly Zenly.

But I do think there really might be something to this linguistics theory. Brilliant or not, to this day I find it difficult to say the words Noam Chomsky without giggling just a little. As far as “What a big surprise!” goes, the trick wasn’t to figure out what was funny about it. The trick was to take credit for the laugh before Morey (name a topic, I’ve got a joke for it) Amsterdam did. I think for your audience, part of it may have been the kind of relief laugh similar to the one generated when any degree of tension is broken. E.G. “Oh boy, these people just got themselves in a little mess, but look how well they got out of it.”

So just enjoy the afterglow, because that doesn’t always follow. About 10 years ago I was involved with a Dallas awards show in which people received Oscar-style recognition for pictures shot the previous yearin Texas. We knew we couldn’t afford to fly in nominees, and that in most cases a major celebrity wouldn’t come all the way to Texas just on a bet – so all the winners knew in advance. Shirley McClain won for the reprise of her “Terms of Endearment” role in “The Evening Star” sequel. Accepting the award, her first words were, “Oh my God. What a surprise, I’m so unprepared1" didn’t get the laugh it deserved, I think because most in the audience were so caught up in the pseudo Academy Awardness of it all, few noticed that our ceremony didn’t involve “nominees.”

I think one of my favorite Neil Simon lines, with a similar feel to your six cents illustration was in "Come Blow Your Horn," where Lee J. Cobb looks over all the foil wrapped leftovers in the fridge and snarls, as only Lee J. Cobb could snarl, “This isn’t a refrigerator, it’s an aluminum mine.”

I have loved Peter Boyle in so many things, but I don’t think you’ll ever find much that tops his performance as the title character in the early 70’s“Joe," a poignant/nourish and rougher-edged sort that Archie Bunker played for laughs soon thereafter. And both he and Mitchum will always be on my dance card for “The Friends of Eddie Coyle." I hope more Raymond fans can check him out in these other types of roles on video.

Nicole said...

I'd wager that "five" is funny in the first example because it sounds right in the sentence. Like Growingupartists mentioned -it's the the "i" pronunciation makes it fit - in this case by coming off of the "i" in "like."

In the second, I'd say six is funny 'cause it's not a number we hear in legalese much - you round to zeroes or count by fives... So the specificity of the six brings the unexpected giggle. No, they didn't go the 50% from 10 to 5, they chose 6! How random! And thus, funny.

Of course, it's one thing to analyze after the fact and quite another to actually birth the brilliance in the first place! ;)

(sorry to change your percentage, A. Buck Short)

growingupartists said...

Jesus, Buck Short! You sure like to talk! Emmy winners, huh? You ever thought of kissing Ken Levine's ass long enough to get him to stop talking about boring baseball? We've airtime to sell!

Anonymous said...

You were so right on the money. Everything is lovable about the quip. It's rhythm is good, the setup is just long enough to build anticipation (and there's the double editor / edit for sonority), the punch line "dance" shows up at the very end where it should, perfect.

But what makes it really work the the vivid image making of the descriptive gets up and does a little dance. Instant image flash. Add to it that "does a little X" is always funnier than just plain X. He walked. (Not funny.) He did a little walk. (Ah!) He sang. (Boring.) He did a little song. (Brings a smile.)