Yesterday, I wrote about the agony of writers searching for a desperately needed joke and being unable to come up with it. Today, I’ll tell you about a joke that was written because the writers couldn’t come up with the desperately needed joke.
To me, this is heroic and wonderful. It’s more than taking lemons and making lemonade. It’s taking lemons and devising a joke that’s arguably better than any joke they might ultimately have found. We’re talking magic here.
Maybe this joke is funnier to me than it would be to a non-writer, because I know where it came from. It came from futility and failure. For me, that doubles the funny. But even cut in half, there’s still enough ha-ha to go around.
The joke comes from a play called A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, written by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart. I know very little about Burt Shevelove. But Larry Gelbart, unfortunately now departed, is a comedy-writing icon. Among his other award-winning projects, Gelbart created the television series M*A*S*H, and worked on maybe the last great movie comedy, Tootsie.
(Gelbart is also reputed to have been exceedingly – and uncharacteristically for a comedy writer – nice. Most comedy writers are angry people, masquerading, with greater or lesser degrees of success, as nice. Not mentioning any names.
Forum, based on a play by the Roman playwright, Plautus, is a musical farce. Fast and funny. And stunningly complicated. I saw the original production in 1962. Its star was Zero Mostel. He was the best comic actor I have ever seen. A dominating stage presence with razor-sharp timing. A corpulent man who, when dancing, could miraculously appear dainty.
The situation is this: Pseudolus, played by Mostel, is a slave, craving to be free. He is told he can become free, if he helps his young master, Hero, connect with his true love, Philia, an arrangement complicated by the fact that Philia, a sex slave, though still a virgin, has been purchased by another man, who is approaching rapidly to take her away. I told you it was complicated.
The problem is clear; the solution, far less so. The tension mounts as Pseudolus and Hero pace up and down, trying to find a way out of this dilemma.
Finally, Pseudolus, breaking the silence, proclaims:
“A brilliant idea!”
An excited Hero races to his side.
To which Pseudolus responds,
“That’s what we need. A brilliant idea.”
They didn’t have a brilliant idea. Not the characters, and not the writers. So they devised a joke that would accentuate the void. It didn’t solve the problem. Or move the story forward one centimeter. They had concocted a “place-holder” joke. And it made the audience howl.
Writers, as well as future writers, who in 1962 didn’t know they were writers, though they maybe should have known, because they sensed immediately what the professionals were up to
laughed hardest of all.
A joke about not being able to come up with a joke. And it gets an enormous laugh.
What do I say to that?
I simply nod appreciatively, and bow respectfully towards my betters.