Thursday, March 5, 2009

"The Mathematical-Emotional Matrix of Comedy"

Woof! What a title! It could be my most impressive title yet!

Much, and by “much” I mean virtually all, comedy construction is mathematical in nature. Totally “by the numbers.” A structural formula, if you will. Mathematical formula alone, however, is not comedy. It’s logarithms. And other “numbers” things I’ll never understand. The element that masks the mathematical formula, turning it into comedy, is emotion.

You with me?

Allow me to explain.

No, no more talking. I nearly choked on those last couple of sentences. Instead, I’ll give you an example. Observe how the emotion draws you in, though it’s the precise, mathematical infrastructure that inevitably gets you the laugh.

I devised a “Cold Opening” for a Cheers episode I wrote. A “Cold Opening” is a comic vignette, generally independent of the episode’s story, appearing at the beginning of the show – before the “Opening Titles.” That’s what makes it a “Cold Opening”; it starts the show “cold.” No introduction. Just…Boom. You go.

My Cheers “Cold Opening” went as follows:

Carla, the acerbic barmaid, is on the phone. Carla’s babysitter has called her, explaining that she can’t get Carla’s baby to go to sleep. You can hear the child wailing heartbreakingly over the phone.

Carla comes up with a strategy. She instructs the babysitter to bring the “receiver” to the baby’s ear. When it’s reported that’s been done, Carla begins singing, softly and soothingly, into the telephone:





The Cheers bar crowd is moved by Carla’s serenading her baby over the phone. One by one, they begin to join in.



The chorus continues to grow…


Till by the end, the entire bar is crooning...


Carla holds her ear to the phone. She smiles, then reports to the awaiting crowd...

“She’s asleep.”

Hearing the good news, the crowd erupts in a celebrational cheer! Horrified, Carla goes back to the phone. Her face says it all. The cheer has woken the baby, who is wailing its lungs out once again.

You see the mathematical construction?

You see the emotional camouflage?


There’s nothin’ to it.

(I add one other element: The “Reality Factor.” When I wrote that “Cold Opening”, Anna was a baby, and it was impossible to get her to sleep.)
A Reminder: If you have questions about comedy writing, or any other aspect of the work I was engaged in, do not be discouraged by the fact that I am often sidetracked from writing about such matters and write about living in England instead. I am happy to share my wisdom and experience concerning any and all issues related to the wonderful business of show. Warning: Do not allow questions to fester inside you unasked. Such behavior could prove dangerous to your long-term health.

Ask me. I know stuff; viz, “The Mathematical-Emotional Matrix of Comedy.” Where else would you see something like that? Well, lots of places. But it’s unlikely they used the same title.


Anonymous said...

There IS something though about threes isn't there?

I mean when I first started realizing this, noting classic comedy (Laurel and Hardy) on up to today, sitcoms, all of it, way more often than not, three is in there.

Guy attempts something, once, twice, third time it works (or backfires).

More examples? IS there a "rule of threes" in comedy writing?

growingupartists said...

Finally, you explain the yo-yo you have us all on. Math and emotion, huh? Never would've figured.

JED said...

I remember that episode! It was great and the opening, although it had nothing to do with the rest of the episode, set it up wonderfully. Your introduction had me in such a receptive mood for the story that followed that I almost felt like I was in a different state of consciousness. Not in a weird way but in the sense that I was better able to appreciate the episode. You are a terrific writer.

Sorry to gush. I get like that when the Red Sox pull off a great play, too.

Joe said...

More about the math, I'd like to get my MIT pal involved in crafting a sitcom.

A. Buck Short said...

I agree with commenter #1. Threerah, Leerah, Leerah is infinitely funnier. Now if you can please tell me which comedian I might have heard creating a mythical character named Toorah Loorah Lipschitz. For us older timers, it sounds a little Joan Riverish, or maybe Jackie Vernonesque. Some cousins decided to name their newborn daughter Shifrah Shapiro. When asked where they got the name, they informed that, “It’s in the Bible.” I turned to my wife and observed, well so is the Whore of Babylon, but they wouldn’t name her that?

I too remember this Cheers episode fondly, and am please to know it was yours. Oddly, it had only been a year or two after we discovered the only song that would get our infant son to sleep was the Gershwins’ curiously up-tempo “Fascinatin’ Rhythm,” complete with obligatory choreography (charleston, charleston). I don’t know why. I don’t even want to think about what inspired us to try that.

But your conflation of emotion and math is a (decimal) point well taken. See now you’ve got me riffing again -- absurdly, as seems your want. I truly don’t mean to be a comment-hog; it just happens.

As I recall, a number of scholarly writings have attempted to apply mathematical theory, or at least concepts, to humor. (I forget whether it was Euclid, Pythagoras, or Stephen Hawking, who, when asked how he was able to resolve mathematical equations that others could not, interrupted the interrogator mid-question with the word, “timing.” OK, maybe I’m just imagining that. On second thought I think it was Kepler – that being a funnier name than anything advanced thus far, with its implication of someone who kepples).

I think a Temple University professor had written papers on things like “The Catastrophe Theory Model for Jokes” and “Humor and Topological Models of Discontinuity.” This only proved the axiom that no matter how you attempt to analyze the comedic, you only succeed in taking all the fun out of it. Sometimes, Dr. Freud, a joke is only a joke.

At the very least, this is something that should be left to the professionals. Over the years I’ve observed a number of old-school comics discourse briefly on how, in joke construction, certain numbers are funny and others just aren’t. For example, Mort Sahl had a line I stole, something about the president and a group of generals and admirals with all of their medals and military trappings: “Extremely impressive. If you’re twelve.” For some reason, that doesn’t seem to work as well with any other number. I think it’s more than that twelve is a funny sound, I think it’s the way a sound of that length resolves the rhythmic structure.

I often tell a joke, feigning annoyance, about my wife, the first grade teacher, after all these years of marriage still talking to me “like I’m five.” I think that’s more than just five being the age you’d probably be in the first grade. And yet, here, “Like I’m twelve” just doesn’t cut it. You’d think three would be even funnier, but it’s harder to visualize someone trying to reason with a 3 year-old. Six is only one year off, but sounds unnecessarily specific, removing things an unnecessary step from the central concept. It may just be the “v” sound, but five just also sounds cuter and nostalgic than six.

It’s the same with other images. Awhile back, again using my wife as a foil, while apparently trying to become the next Alan King of Komedy, I would proclaim that after all these years, sex had become so boring, “now I have to close my eyes and pretend that I’m Sandra Bullock.” The humorous implication, of course, being the listener filling in the gaps with the realization that there must have been an intermediate stage where I had to pretend she was Sandra Bullock. I don’t know if it was just the actress's image and its relative wholesomeness in the fantasy, that it wasn’t the normal cliché name (Dolly Parton, etc) you’d expect to be inserted for a cheaper laugh, or the number of syllables or both, but the joke did not seemed to work as well tagged with any other name.

Of course, while comedy might be mathematical, mathematics itself is almost never a laugh riot. Which is probably why Judd Hirsch was so much funnier for you on Taxi then he is now on that Numbers series.

Should you ever have the urge, I think I would appreciate your wisdom on comedic rhythm, and why certain things are funny and others are not – besides just the fallback that you pros just know when it is. Thanks for the enjoyment you’ve been providing.

Stuka said...

*aplause for the tilte*

Hey Earl,
I had a thought. A gooed one.
You make more posts about the names of things, like this 'cold opening'. Maybe you could think about a list somewere on your blog of all these trade nicknames as soon as you use them.
Then in a couple of years, you have a whole dictionary of them.

Think about it.