Tuesday, January 10, 2017

"The Delicate Art Of Storytelling"

You relate a story or joke or anecdote and at its conclusion, your reward is not the reaction you expected – the big laugh, the nodding concurrence.  And you tend to wonder,

What happened?

Well, a lot of things could have happened.  You may have stumbled in your delivery –  “Two parrots were… wait, did I say ‘parrots’?  I meant cockatiels.” 

Forget it, it’s over, your aborted attempt hoisted on the petard of avian specificity.

Another possibility?  Your timing was inadvertently thrown off, by, say, an unscheduled coughing fit or an unwelcome “breakage of wind”, which may well get you a laugh, but not necessarily the laugh you were shooting for.

Moving beyond “execution” – which may in fact have been impeccable – you could be simply addressing the wrong audience, pitching a sure-fire “hilarium” to a crowd that, for example, lacks the minimal requisite of speaking English.  

The derailing “disconnect” could also be diagnostically tonal in nature.  I recall a friend at a dinner party at our home offering a demonstrably off-color anecdote – that I am sure “wowed” them in more permissive circles – in front of my daughters, when I abruptly cut him off at the pass.

Assuaging his ruffled sensibilities, I gently explained to him later,

“You’ve got the wrong audience.”

He might actually not have.  But I did not like thinking that my delicate daughters may have possibly been the right one.

The “wrong audience”, retrospectively, was me.

And then there’s this issue, which I have been pointing to all along.  (As if regular readers are not more familiar than they would like to be with my meandering though always fascinating introductions.)

Here’s how precariously balanced the art of storytelling is. 

Consider, if you will, the conundrously “Mixed Audience.”  

A group – it could be as small as two people – a segment of which shares the storyteller’s contextual understanding surrounding the anecdote and another segment that does not.  They are both hearing the same story.  But one group immediately “gets it”, while the other’s left scratching their collective noggins.
Example: 

My all-time favorite “hockey story.”  Which, it recently occurred to me, I may have related less than optimally correctly. 

The Condensed Version of “The Hockey Story” 

(Which is also a dangerous proposition, every story requiring its calibratably “right length” to achieve maximum “lift-off”, neither overly hurried nor ponderously embellished.  But anyway, here we go)

A Toronto teenaged girl had an unquenchable crush on a Maple Leaf hockey player, an ancillary “bench sitter” who very rarely got into the game.  Getting the opportunity of seeing her heartthrob in person, the enamored adolescent made her way behind the Leaf bench where, unable to control herself, she tapped her fantasy “dreamboat” lightly on the shoulder.  Responding to the touch, the player leaped over the boards and the Leafs were immediately penalized for “Too many men on the ice.”

It’s still a good story.  But I may have made a self-inflicted faux pas in telling it.  At least for some people.

Because I am familiar with the game and made the unthinking assumption that my listeners are equally knowledgeable, when relating the story I excluded the fact that tapping a player on the shoulder is the coach’s recognized signal, sending the selected hockey player into the game.

Without the awareness of that necessary tidbit, some listeners may, understandably, miss the connection between the girl’s impulsive gesture and the player’s jumping excitedly over the boards.  Explaining that is important, being an integral ingredient for appreciating the story.

On the other hand stopping to explain the “tapping tradition” would “inhibit the flow” at a critical juncture, morphing a humorous anecdote into a tutorial on “line changes.”  (A term, again leaving some listeners in the dark.)

It’s a tough call.  Clarification for the “hockey challenged” risks wearying the “cognoscenti.”  “Split the baby”, and you may just lose everyone. 

I do not know the answer to this “close call.”  My “cultural instincts” led me to ignore the, to some, “pertinent information.”  I now wonder if I was wrong.

I guess I needed an asterisk. *  (* “Anyone not understanding this story, please contact me and I will send you an explanation on sending players into the game.)


But how funny is that?

3 comments:

Stephen Marks said...

Great post Earl, thanks. Let's put actual names in your hockey joke and see what happens, or if anybody remembers these people.

Trudy Young had an unquenchable crush on Maple Leaf hockey player Terry Clancy, a bench sitter who very rarely got into the game. Getting the chance to see Clancy in person, Young made her way to the bench and before coach Floyd Smith told her to "fuck off", Young tapped Clancy on the shoulder to say 'hi'. Responding to the touch, Clancy leaped over the boards just as Billy Duke and Art Hindle were coming off. Clancy, accepting a pass from Rocky Saganiuk, skated in on North Stars goalie Cesare Maniago, beating him five hole for the Stanley Cup winning goal. Clancy is mobbed in the corner by teammates Mike Pelyk, Claire Alexander, Jim Dorey, Inge Hammarstrom and goalie Bruce Gamble. The next days Toronto Telegram had a front page picture of Harold Ballard, sitting next to Donald Shebib, showing off his prize on Elwood Glover's Luncheon Date.

JED said...

I remember buying a book, when I was a teenager, about how to tell jokes. It was a dizzying mix of keeping it short versus giving enough information (like in your example) and being specific versus not going into too much detail (as in Stephen Marks' example) and making eye contact versus not intimidating any of the audience. I studied it and memorized the jokes and tried it in front of a mirror and I could never get it. No matter how much I learned, I couldn't change the fact that I just could not talk in public. Even with friends, I'd forget the punchline, give away the punchline or just stammer too much for them to understand.

What a gift - to make people laugh. Or it the gift of helping people to laugh?

Alan said...

I still don't get the fact that there is a hockey team in Los Angeles