(If you’re in a hurry, you can go now, because that’s pretty much all I’ve got to say.)
I was thinking about this during the recent “Spring Forward” time change. I have a CD clock-radio that wakes me up every morning (to the energizing welcome of the old Hockey Night In Canada theme music my friend Paul gave me.) When the time change comes, I reflexively tense up, because I have no idea how to adjust the clock. The thing came with instructions, but after fifteen years, I think they disintegrated. Either that, or a candy got stuck on them, and I threw them away.
After hours of frustrating effort – actually ten minutes, but it felt like hours – I discovered this wonderful thing. There’s a button on the side of the clock-radio marked “Summer.” You press that button, and the clock instantly jumps to an hour later. (I am still looking for the “Fall” button.)
To me, this is magic. A little silver button that knows when it’s March. Equally – no, even more – amazing is my cell phone, which is the old “flip” type of phone. I believe it’s the model Thomas Edison used. (That’s how old it is, you see.)
My phone displays the time in a little window. I happened to notice it on “Time Change” Day, and, if I were chewing gum at that moment, I would have swallowed it. My cell phone – passé as it is – had changed the time to an hour later…
All by itself!
You didn’t have to do anything. The phone said, “I got it!”, and it changed the time without any human participation whatsoever. Other than, of course, the human, or team of humans, who originally programmed the thing to do that!
Which brings me to my point. The people who made the phone “Time Change” itself, as well as the people who made it so I can press “Summer” and my clock-radio jumps ahead – those people are smart. I, on the other hand, am ignorant.
I know some things – like who the tandem of Maple Leaf goalies were who won the 1967 Stanley Cup – Johnny Bower and Terry Sawchuck – but I do not know clock adjustment.
The source of my wonder over these miraculous gadgets I own is this ignorance, from the Latin ignoscere, meaning “to not know.” (The opposite is cognoscere, meaning “to know”, which it the root of the English word “cognition”, and, if you “know” more than once, “recognition. “ Okay, so I cognosco a little Latin too.)
My circuitous message here is, that among the numerous generators of comedy – one arrow in the comedic quiver, if you will – is unquestionably
Ignorance is a bountiful source of comedic exploitation. It’s everywhere. Situational misunderstandings. Mistaken identities. “Inadvertent” malapropisms. Or simply, not knowing something, and getting things hilariously wrong.
Think of sitcoms of the past where characters seemed innocently unaware of factual reality. Taxi had two them, the Andy Kaufman and the Tony Danza characters, one of whose “not quite up to speed” sensibility was explained by the fact that he was “a foreigner”, and the other, a journeyman boxer, beaten into literal “insensibility” by having been continually pummeled in the cranial area.
(Writers like to have rationales when their characters are less than conventionally knowledgeable, because otherwise, they are simply “writing stupid.”)
I hesitate to anoint knowledge the all-time “enemy of comedy”, but sometimes, it is. I recall a friend who, after an assertion of ignorance on my part intended for comedic effect, would propose a solution to my ignorance, the result of which would make me significantly informed on the matter, but the trade-off would be that I lost a joke. (When that happens habitually, one has to seriously weigh the price of retaining that person as a friend.)
Ignorance in comedy is tricky. You have to be just “ignorant enough.” Here are two examples from the late iconic British comedian Tommy Cooper’s Secret Joke File book. One of them reflects too much ignorance, the other, just the right amount.
"When I complained my ears hurt, the air hostess gave me some chewing gum. I’m still trying to get it out of my ears!"
"My little boy asked me how you can tell a boy fish from a girl fish. I said, 'It’s all in the worms you to catch them with. If you bait your hook with a male worm, you catch a female fish, and if you use a female worm, you catch a male fish.' He said, 'How can you tell the difference between a male worm and a female worm? I said, “How should I know? I only know about fish.'"
Some people might find those two jokes equally ignorant. But they can probably tell a boy fish from a girl fish, and I can’t. That’s another destroyer of comedy, when your audience possesses knowledge you don’t, or at least pretend you don’t. I’m telling you, if you’re not careful, this “knowledge thing” can bring down comedy like the proverbial “House of Cards.”
Of course, there is also the comedic risk of knowing something your audience doesn’t.
But, for some reason, I don’t really worry about that.