As comedy continues to evolve – for some people to a point where it has stopped being funny which, for them at least, is an “Evolving” Too Far” – in certain ways, it remains noteworthily the same.
He said, setting up today’s blog post.
I was thinking about “exaggeration”, a comedy stand-by, though you have to be careful with the recipe, making certain not to exaggerate too much. I used to be famous for responding to an unsuccessful joke pitch (including my own) by saying,
“Too much gunpowder.”
“Too much gunpowder” means that the joke is funny, but its over-exaggerated formulation has taken it beyond funny into wincing incredulity. An over-exaggerated joke is inevitably rewritten, or not included in the script.
Consider, as an example of “just enough” exaggeration, a scene some people consider to be the funniest sequence in Taxi.
“Drug-induced burnout” Reverend Jim is taking his written Driver’s Test. He gets stuck on an answer. He goes “Psst” to his buddies who are standing nearby and he says,
“What does a Yellow Light mean?”
To which one of his buddies responds,
Jim says, “Okay.” He then proceeds to repeat the question, only this time, more slowly. There’s a big laugh from the studio audience. Jim is again told “Slow down.” He then asks the question a third time, but now, even more slowly than the second time (earning a bigger laugh from the audience.) Then, after the third “Slow down”, Jim asks “What does a Yellow Light Mean?” a fourth time, as slowly as a person can possibly speak while still being able to be understood. The audience is screaming, and peeing in its pants. (Though hopefully not literally.)
And that was it.
But what if that wasn’t it? The question being, “How many times can you go to that same comedic well before the joke wears out its welcome and becomes tedious?
There are two possible ways of determining that:
“Trial and error” in rehearsal – you repeat the sequence until it becomes less funny rather than more funny. Or “comedic feel”, in which your instincts instruct you when to move on. In the Taxi case, given the gifted writers involved, I am pretty sure it was the latter. Using yourself as a barometer, you sense when the “fun’s over” – or more specifically at its peak – and that’s precisely where you end it.
Conclusion: “Exaggeration” is virtually “sure-fire funny.” But, as I explained to my four year-old daughter when I was teaching her to pour milk into a glass:
“The trick is to know when to stop.”
Though sometimes, in comedy’s earlier years, the joke was actually ignoring when to stop.
1930’s radio comedian Jack Pearl played the character “Baron Munchausen”, whose stock-in-trade was the hyper-exaggerated anecdote. In a clip I saw recently on YouTube, the “Baron” brags about diving under the sea and hauling up eighty tons of sponges in one dive.
The man listening this story says, “That’s preposterous. Nobody can bring up eighty tons in one dive. It’s impossible.”
To which Pearl replies, with his signature “catch-phrase”:
“Vas you dere, Charlie?”
In this case, the exaggeration itself is the joke. Heightened by the exaggerator standing adamantly behind it when he’s challenged.
Today, that sounds like “old vaudeville shtick” but there is evidence that the “straight-faced exaggerator” format still worked well into the 1960’s, where it was popularized by a comedian named Timmie Rogers, albeit but with his own inimitable spin.
Rogers would tell a transparent “whopper”, and then leaving after a beat for audience to take it in, he would open his eyes wide and say,
During a routine he performs about how he doesn’t have a dime to his name, Rogers proclaims,
“You see this suit? Three years old. You see these pockets? Brand new.”
The audience laughs solidly. But then, a beat later, when he shouts,
The laugh literally doubles.
Thirty years later and the “Munchausen” formula continued to prevail – an incredulous statement followed by an indignant, “And I am not backing down!”
Overall, it seems to me, comedy advances in the direction of reality. I’m not sure even that Taxi sequence would be successful today, the victim of a simple “Reality Test.”
“Why didn’t they just say, ‘A Yellow Light means ‘Slow down’?”
“Because it would ruin the ‘funny’.”
“That’s not funny. That’s stupid.”
Actually, it’s both. And within the parameters of Reverend Jim’s character. (Though not necessarily within the other characters’ parameters.) Today, unless they are offered certifiably stupid movies – as with the “Dumber and Dumber” franchise – the audience believes they are too 21st Century hip and cool to fall for such shenanigans.
But that does not mean, “Exaggeration is Dead.” Ever sensitive to changing fashions, comedy writers have simply slipped onto the opposite foot.
Imagined But Not Out Of The Question Movie Sequence:
A “Dressed For Success” businessman walks purposefully down the street, sporting an expensive suit and tie, top-of-the-line Italian shoes, a “designer” briefcase and a red, Styrofoam clown nose of his face. (Exaggerating his “standing out from the crowd.”)
Passing him, a woman – who will end up marrying him – shoots him a look of ironic incredulity and goes,
But now, the exaggeration serves as the setup, paid off by the verbalized certification that “We Cool Kids are officially ‘Not buyin’ it.’”
“No, I mean that’s the best example you could come up with?”
Let me now leave you with a little “do-at-home” Longevity Test:
Tell me: Does this still work comedically?
No readers over fifty need reply. If you are above the line, show it to someone who isn’t, and let me know what they think.
I laughed when I saw it again. But I apparently no longer count.
What do the kids think?