Thursday, March 27, 2014


Conventional wisdom suggests that I probably should have flipped them, writing today’s post yesterday, and yesterday’s post today.  But I didn’t feel like it, so I didn’t.  That’s the kind of power you have when you answer to nobody.

In contrast to yesterday’s post, which I have never read anywhere else, today’s post is more traditional in nature, relegating today’s post to a somewhat of an anti-climactic position.      

Are you trying to drive us away?

I am simply being truthful, in the hopes that your respect for my honesty will outweigh your disappointment at my strategic faux pas.       


I appreciate your support.  Now…

Specificity:   The Short Version

“I dropped a heavy object on my foot.”
“I dropped an anvil on my pinkie.”

From the “specificity” standpoint, the second example is superior.  Also – hearkening back to yesterday’s post – from a “mellifluity ” standpoint, the second example also “flows” better.  (I was hoping that, maybe if I “called back” yesterday’s post, recalling how sparklingly illuminating it was, you might cut this one a little qualitative slack.)

As a rule, “specificity” makes jokes funnier.  But there are limits.  Sometimes, for example…wait.  I’m getting ahead of myself.  I’ll come back to that later.  Just remind me, or I’ll forget. 

How are we supposed to do that?

Retroactive telepathy.   Never mind.  I’ll remind myself.

Oh, man!  We are never hearing that example.

Okay… two things brought the “specificity” issue to mind.  One was my mentioning that, during my rewriting process, I look to infuse my earlier drafts with more evocative descriptives, a significant element of that process involving replacing the “general” with….everybody?


Thank you.  Which brings me back to my example.  No, sorry.  It’s still too soon.  But at least I remembered.

Now, the second thing that brought “specificity” to mind was this commercial I saw recently.  I cannot quote it verbatim, since it is not yet on YouTube and, because I’ve been desperately looking for it – of course – I can no longer find it on TV. 

It is utterly ridiculous.  Here’s a guy who tries his best to avoid commercials, and all I’ve been doing the past two days is jump from channel to channel, trying to track down this suddenly unavailable commercial. 

They used the run the thing a couple of times an hour!  Sometimes, twice in the same commercial block!  Now – because I want to – I cannot find it anywhere!

The ends a man goes to in the service his readership.

Anyway, it’s one of those series of commercials promoting DirecTV, all of which hew to the same structural template: 

Something leads to something, which leads to something, which leads to something, which leads to something, which leads to something, which finally leads to something unfortunate that you don’t want to happen; so, if you don’t want that unfortunate thing to happen, you should switch to DirecTV. 

That’s what they’re offering, on the premise that a humorous commercial will impel me to alter my television-viewing delivery system.

The commercial in question goes something like this:

When you look at your cable bill, you feel down.
And when you feel down, you stay in bed.
And when you stay in bed, they give your job to somebody new.
And when they give your job to somebody new, he has a lot to learn.
And when he has a lot to learn, mistakes are made.
And when mistakes are made {since the guy’s a zoo employee and the “New Guy” allows him to escape}
You get body-slammed by a lowland gorilla.

The message:  If you don’t want to get body-slammed by a lowland gorilla, abandon your cable system and switch to DirecTV.  As if a stunt man in a gorilla suit is going to influence my decision-making.  (Note:  In my day, the commercials used to explain why their product was better.  They were lying, but at least they made the effort.)

What struck me most strongly about the DirceTV commercial was the descriptive “lowland” preceding the word “gorilla.” 

That, my friends, is “specificity.”  It’s not any gorilla.

You get body-slammed by a lowland gorilla. 

(By the way, another example of “specificity” is “body-slammed.”  You will not get “knocked down by a lowland gorilla.”   Nor will you get – a marginal improvement – “bowled over by a lowland gorilla.”  Nor will you – which is almost as good – get “blind-sided by a lowland gorilla.”  You will, most specifically, get body-slammed by a lowland gorilla.”

On the “Specificity Grid”, “body-slammed” is a virtual “Ten.”  It is, by the way, also the “musical” optimal choice as well.  That’s hitting the “appropriate word selection” jackpot.  As a writer, you combine “specificity” with “musicality”, and it’s “Tip your hat, and give him a candy!”

Are we almost done?

Yes, except my qualifying example.  Although, as a rule, “specific” is funnier, it is possible to be too specific.  For example, had the commercial writers gone all “genus and species” on us and said, “You get blind-sided by a gorilla beringei”, the response, rather than “Ha-ha”, would instead have been “What?”  

“Lowland” was specific, without deteriorating into “What?”  Meaning that, though “specificity” is your primary “Rule of Thumb”, you have to careful not to lose your audience by being “too smart for the room.”

What about The Big Bang Theory?  The characters in that show are arcanely specific about their physics jargon and no one has a clue what they’re talking about.  And yet, the show is extremely funny and monumentally successful.

-----------------------------  (denoting “No answer.”)

Also, when in the Two Thousand Year-Old Man routine, Carl Reiner asks Mel Brooks, concerning the greatest inventions of all time, “What about the wheel?”, and Brooks replies, “That was good.” – “good” is funny, because it is the opposite of specific.

-----------------------------  (denoting “You got me again.”)

Okay, I am officially declaring today’s post an unmitigated disaster.  It happens.  I am not a machine.  Just know that I meant well, and I tried my best.

I am now going to stop writing, and cry.


Brian Fies said...

I thought this was a TERRIFIC post. Very insightful, plus the advantage of watching you think through it. Always neat!

Several years ago I was at an event that was also attended by a large gentleman in a garish wrinkled rust-colored silk suit. I said, "He looks like a Cambodian pimp" to great humorous effect. People still remember that joke today. They all think it was funny because of the "pimp" part, but I know it was "Cambodian" that made it work. Specificity.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I also loved this post. I have a similar thing to Brian's - a particular technology evangelist who I said looked like a "used Jaguar salesman".