Monday, May 13, 2013

"A (Hopefully Illuminating) Glimpse Behind The Curtain"

I don’t know, this may be stupid or embarrassing or unhelpful, or a combination of all three, though not necessarily in equal proportion.  On the other hand, it’s something to write.  So here we go.

A couple of scribblings back, in a post entitled “Long Distance” wherein I marveled at the wonders of modern transcontinental phone technology, I wrote a paragraph whose structural responsibility, explaining how I don’t care about how anything works, is intended to set up the following paragraph, explaining that, in this particular case, I do.

In its original form, the “Paragraph in Question” proceeded thusly:

(TALKING ABOUT MODERN PHONE TECHNOLOGY)  “Normally, I am not interested in how things work.  To me, it’s all magic, and, as with actual magic, I prefer to remain mesmerized and in the dark.  But this one’s an exception.  I’d like to know how phones today work.  I know there’s a satellite involved.  But that’s like saying electricity has to do with Niagara Falls.  I believe there are intervening steps.” 

What follows is a story that you may perceive to be bragging, and I’d be embarrassed.  Even worse, you may perceive it to be bragging about something that’s unworthy of bragging about, leaving me embarrassed plus humiliated. 

The “upside” here is very limited.  And still I proceed.  (Courageous?  Foolhardy?  Let history decide.)

At this juncture, nothing comedic has transpired in the course of the perfectly serviceable “Paragraph in Question.”  Perhaps an approving half-smile at my analogizing “Niagara Falls” example, but nothing approximating a laugh.  (On the “plus” side, I have not tried to be funny.  So no duds either.)

In my first pass, “I believe there are intervening steps” was the final sentence of the “Paragraph in Question.”  I then abandoned work on that paragraph, double-clicked on the “return” key, and moved on, having achieved a totally adequate “setup” paragraph.  But nothing more.

As is my habit, I printed up my first pass, making changes on paper, which I subsequently transcribed into the post.  I rewrite on paper, one, because I do not want to interrupt my revising “flow” with typing, and two, because, when I rewrite on paper, I relocate from my desk chair to my office couch-bed, where I am able to write while reclining, relieving the pressure on a low back that tightens up during extended sitting.

In my revisionizing, I altered a substantial amount of my original version.  But I left the “Paragraph in Question” virtually untouched, manicuring here and there, but inserting nothing that injected “funny.”

Let me at this point make it clear that, during my five-plus years of blog writing, I have never intentionally “looked for funny.”  The “funny” comes to me.  Or it doesn’t.  If it doesn’t, so be it.  At no time do I lament the inadequacy of funniness in a post and dive back in to, as the comedy writers describe it, “punch it up.” 

It is what it is.

And that’s all what it is.

Moving on…   

I typed in the changes from my first revision, I printed up this now second pass, made further revisions – though considerably less of them than in my first pass – typed in those changes, and, once again, printed up the result.  I then made changes a third time, and I began typing them in.

It was then, on my third re-typing of the blog post, that an additional sentence occurred to me.  Suddenly, the “Paragraph in Question” became not merely a setup for the following paragraph…

It became the setup for a paragraph-capping joke.


“I’d like to know how phones today work.  I know there’s a satellite involved.  But that’s like saying electricity has to do with Niagara Falls.  I believe there are intervening steps.”

Entirely out of the blue, I was then suddenly inspired to add:

“Otherwise, there’d be water coming out of your light bulb.”

Et voila!  An impeccable soufflé!  

Full disclosure:  My original version of the line – the one that popped into my head – was “Otherwise, water would be coming out of your light bulb.”  I believe my adjusted version – “Otherwise, there’d be water coming out of your light bulb” is funnier.  (A subsequent revision, “Otherwise, there’d be water dripping out of your light bulb”, was considered, but abandoned.  Sometimes, you can be too specific, and the more generalized version is funnier.  Determinations in such matters are entirely by “feel.”)   

Though I do not look for “funny”, when “funny” finds me, I try to make it as funny as I possibly can.  (Some pejoratively call this process “stabbing the frog.”  I call it “honing and perfecting.”  Still others might call it “making it worse.”  It’s a judgment call.)

So there you have it.  An entirely adequate paragraph finding its (perhaps always present but originally unseen) raison d’etre.  (Apologies for the multiple Frenchisms.  I was recently in Paris.) 

I was once labeled a “comedic counterpuncher.”  Which means, to be funny, I require something tangible to play off of.  In this case, what I played off of was an unsuspecting expositional paragraph, which, to my surprise and delight, wound up triggering a comedic payoff.

Interesting, don’t you think?

If not, may the rest of you day prove more fruitful.


JED said...

I really enjoyed this. I like how you made it small so we could actually see the differences. I like how you explained each step of the process. I will never be a professional writer but I do need to write and to be understandable. I have to write to my fellow engineers explaining problems, illustrating my solutions, asking for help or just keeping in touch. I want to write to my Congressman and explain things concisely. I want to write to my friends to tell them the news. Learning from you has helped in all of those areas. I don't have to be funny but it often helps as long as I don't try to overdo it.

But one more thing I enjoy about your "lessons" - it's like watching baseball on TV. I get to imagine what it would be like to write for a TV comedy and it helps me to appreciate the good ones and to more quickly turn off the bad ones.

Jim Dodd

Anonymous said...

Mobile phones only occasionally use satellites for intercontinental phonecalls. Domestic calls use the landline network (communicating with your handset via cell towers).

I don't know if strict factual accuracy figures into your comedic sensibilities.

Scott McCaan said...

Had to laugh when I read your initial blog - water coming out of the light bulb. Two times my upstairs neighbor's water heater busted and the 'raging' waters made their way thru the light fixture on my kitchen ceiling thus giving the appearance of water coming out of the light bulb. To be accurate, the water was POURING out of the fixture. Amazingly, nobody got electrocuted.

PS: sorry about the Leafs.

Mac said...

Very interesting, but then I'm endlessly interested by the how & why of funny - to pick it apart step by step is fascinating.