Wednesday, December 14, 2011

"The Power Of The Pause"

Commenting on “A Response To Mac” (December 12), Zaraya, in the course of her genito-centric joke reference wondered about the scripting of pauses, to wit,

“Just how do script writers put pauses into a script? Do they do it, or do they actors delivering the jokes do it, either consciously or unconsciously?”


First, to me, the pause can be one of the most powerful tools in the comedy-writing arsenal. One of my heroes, Jack Benny, used the pause to arguably the greatest effect ever on one of his radio programs, radio by the way being the high point of pause use success.

Since radio is a uni-sense medium – ears only – nothing could generate tension better than the pause, leading to an explosion, be it a reflexive scream in the scary shows, or an explosive laugh in a comedy.

Over his more than fifty-year career, Jack Benny developed a universally recognized comedic persona, characterized by vanity, cowardliness and, most significantly, his extreme stinginess.

In a famous episode, Jack Benny is walking along, when a mugger comes up behind him, sticks a gun in his back, and says to Benny,

“Your money or your life.”

What ensues is purportedly the longest pause in comedy history. And when you pause on radio, you’ve got ‘em. With TV, you watch the guy pause. That’s not nearly as much fun. On radio, with nothing going on but sound, a prolonged silence gives the audience has no alterative but to wait. And wait. And wait. And wait.

Aware of Benny’s character’s notorious stinginess, the audience “knew” what this extended pause was about. As a result, the audience’s laughter in response to the reason Jack Benny was pausing built and built and built. Finally, at precisely the right time – and we’ll get back to that in a minute – the mugger broke in.

“Well?” he barks gruffly.

To which Benny replied, putting the cherry on top of that delicious comic moment,

“I’m thinking it over!”

Boom! The roof comes off!

That’s what a skillfully executed pause can do. Even on television, it can still be devastating. The climax of the Best of the West pilot involves a showdown between the hero, Sam Best (Joel Higgins), and his gunfighter adversary “The Calico Kid” (Christopher Lloyd).

As it turns out – and as was often the case in the real West – neither of their six-guns function to perfection, resulting in the bullets slamming into everything but the two combatants. Observing from a distance is the series’s “Bad Guy”, Parker Tillman (Leonard Frey) who had hired “The Calico Kid” to gun Best down.

Tillman is disgusted by this travesty of a gunfight. During a pause, where the adversaries are both out of bullets and checking themselves out for gunshot wounds, Tillman glowers furiously, and then, at the optimally-timed moment, he shatters the silence with three carefully-chosen words –

“Well…I mean…”

A thunderclap of laughter! Set up by the ridiculous gunfight , but equally importantly, by the pause.

Okay, I’ve mentioned timing twice. And herein will I (finally) address Zaraya’s question.

For maximum results, the pause must be perfectly timed. Getting to the heart of Zaraya’s question, the pauses are frequently inserted in the script. You might see stage directions with the words,


A beat is a pause.

If the pause occurs within the dialogue, the word (PAUSES) may be written where the writer desires the pause to occur. Another option is the one Zaraya chose in her query, the “three dots” option at the “Point of Pause.”

They all say “Pause”, inserted in the most fervent hope that that pause will make that comedic moment funnier.


Many actors – perhaps the majority of them, though I have never done a poll on the matter – do not like any kind of “stage directions” – including the pause – believing that the writer is disrespectfully encroaching on their actorly determination regarding how to deliver the line.

When receiving their script, the first thing I’ve seen actors do, even before counting their lines, is to take a black Magic Marker and obliterate every stage direction, other than those involving movement (“HE MOVES TO THE CLOSET”) or physical “business ” (“SHE JUGGLES THE OVERLY MICROWAVED MUFFIN.”)

Sometimes during a “runthrough” (read: rehearsal), it will be discovered that a pause, not indicated in the script, is needed to heighten the comedic effect. At that point, the actor will be instructed (by the writer or the director) to “take a beat” before delivering a line. Again, some actors respond cooperatively to these “notes”, and others run off call their agents, railing against the “blatant strangulation of my creativity.”

Who knows best about what’s required? The writer, or the actor? Excluding those rare few performers (e.g. Bill Cosby) who possess natural comic timing, my answer is, “Experience knows best.” My faith is in the practitioner who has done the most things right the greatest number of times. In Best of the West, a renowned character actor, Tom Ewell (The Seven Year Itch) played “Doc Culllins”, the show’s inebriated town doctor. I would always defer to his judgment. Except once. And I was wrong.

Ultimately, it’s in the hands of the actor. It is they who deliver the words when the cameras are rolling. However, there is a court of last resort, where pauses and their length are ultimately finalized.


Editing is the last rewrite. In the context of pauses, editing allows you to manufacture a pause, shorten a pause, extend a pause, and time the pause to, as with the current technology, milli-secondal precision. You can tinker with that pause to your heart’s content, fashioning it for maximal results.

During the editing sessions, traditionally, the actor is nowhere in sight.

When I ran the shows, I often permitted the actors to go with their instincts, knowing that the final determination would be mine. With careful editing, not only could I repair the misjudgments perpetrated by the performers,

I could also bury my own.


Mr. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mr. said...

Mr. Pomerantz
I'm a big fan of your blog and your writing. Since you mentioned radio comedy, I've attached a copy of a comedy sketch I wrote for Paul Dooley on KPFK this Thanksgiving. I hope you enjoy it. It's 4 and half minutes you'll never get back.
Thank you.

Zaraya said...

Dear Mr Pomerantz; so it's everyone, writer, director, editor with, as you say, the final word being in the editing.

My summing up, if it's live you better hope your performers make it lively. If it's recorded/edited, you're in charge. Had I thought about it I'd have recognized that editing is used to exert some control over a show. We can sometimes forget that the events on TV are not live because the people look so lively.


p.s. still sorry about sullying your comments with my poor attempt at a humour.