Spec is a Little Piece of Dirt

One of the first and best ways to attain skill in sitcom writing is to write for an existing show. Not that you're going to sell the script, competing with a dozen pro writers who sweat the show weekly. It's just that these shows provide a benchmark for evaluating your scripts. There are plenty of shows to choose from. Daily Variety and The Hollywood Reporter list shows in production and the names of producers to contact for script submission. Your public library will have addresses of these...

Advertising Parodies Honest I Was Only Kidding

There is a great debate in broadcasting about advertising parodies. Some agencies feel that a spoof degrades the real spot. Others, more sophisticated about humor, are flattered and claim the listener will pay more attention to all commercial spots, not knowing which ones are supposed to trigger a laugh. Unfortunately, many real commercials do that even when they're trying to be serious. Matt Neuman specializes in advertising satire and has written ad parodies for a number of network comedy...

Appearance

Some comedians like Buddy Hackett (the face that launched a thousand quips) have such comic looks thatyou're laughing just watching them screw up their faces. Durante played off his Cyrano nose, and Rickles rushes to be the first to kid about his bald head. Ben Turpin's crossed eyes were such an important trademark that he had Lloyds of London insure them against accidentally getting straightened out. Buster Keaton, the great stone face, learned at an early age that audiences enjoyed him more...

At Ease

The humor must be comfortable for the speaker and every joke must make a relevant point. Gene Perret describes what he calls the sandwich technique. The top line tells the audience the point you wish to make. Then, in the middle, a humorous one-liner or juicy anecdote is added which illustrates the point. Finally, the bottom line is reached by summarizing the point in different words. Here are just a few do's and don'ts. Your client must believe in the importance of your material, because this...

Be My Guest

People who have something to promote authors, recording artists, actors, show promoters, athletes, and even zookeepers-are expected to be entertaining as well as informative. The funnier they are the more often they're invited back to Johnny's couch. As a result, they frequently hire freelance humor writers to help them prepare for their media tour, which may take them to a dozen cities in two weeks. Nurse of diet expert to patient Sorry, the doctor is booked up for three months and that's just...

Be Prepared

Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse If you are going to deliver a speech, play back the audio cassettes over and over. Many speakers sincerely be lieve that one run-through is sufficient before going onstage. But once is not enough in comedy or any other art, business, or sport. And it's particularly not easy with humor, where timing is so critical. The pros just make it look easy. Nobody realizes that I woik eighteen hours a day for a solid month to make that TV hour look like it's never been...

Bumper Snickershumor On The Move

Bumper stickers publicly indicate the way we feel about ourselves and mirror our contemporary lifestyle. They are for adults what T-shirt humor is for adolescents. They are more popular than buttons and more socially acceptable than painted graffiti. 1. They must be short, rarely more than eight words. Honey lovers stick together. 2. They are usually a POW play on words. Archaeologists do it with any old thing. Old mailmen never die, they just lose their zip. 3. Paired words are encouraged. To...

Chapter

Saw the Picture, Loved the Gag Humor for Cartoons and Comics Most Humor Historians Agree That The Advent of The New Yorker, in 1925, most influenced the development of the gag cartoon. This magazine made cartoons respectable, and, according to M. Thomas Inge, it also established the standard against which the works of all modern cartoonists are measured. Prior to The New Yorker style, humor cartoons primarily consisted of illustrations indicating a dialogue between two people, both of whom were...

Cheaper by the Dozen

Once again it's a seller's market for those writers who can consistent- ly produce acceptable material and, once again, the key word is consis- tently. Writers not only make good bread, they eat cake with all the frosting. Not only are there as many sitcoms as before, but each show has realized the need for a squad of writers to maintain quality while maintaining night-crawling deadlines. A team of six writers is standard, but it's becoming increasingly more common to see as many as twelve...

Comedians Do It Standing Up

Comedians have unusual opportunities to test material that print writers never have. They can do jokes in small speeches and they can try out their monologue bits in small comedy clubs. There are more than 300 comedy clubs in the U.S. and Canada. These clubs and performers are tracked monthly by the trade newspaper Just For Laughs, 22 Miller Avenue, Suite G, Mill Valley, CA 94941. These comedy clubs are rehearsal halls for many of the big names. Crowds at clubs like the Comedy Store (Los...

Comic Strip Humor The Plot Never Thickens

Here are some of the basic rules regarding humor strip (not adventure) comics which vary from the single-panel cartoon. 1. Keep the spotlight on the star. The focus of humor is always on your lead character. This is also true in sitcoms and in sketch comedy. The cast is there to support the central character, that's why there are never more than three main characters in any one panel. 2. A character isaconstant. The star doesn't change, but always looks the same, wears the same basic...

Costume

A farcical costume is certainly one of the most visual ways to signal the audience that the performance is nonthreatening. It's the first thing we notice that is, after we note whether the performer's male or female, and that's getting harder to tell every year. In the Middle Ages, jesters wore floppy, belled caps, scalloped shirt and trousers, large, pointy-toed shoes, and carried a wand or scepter so as to appear silly and nonthreatening. Even today, baggy pants signal a comic character. Only...

Crazy Like a Foxx

Obscene language and graphic descriptions of all bodily activities are popping up everywhere books, films, cable TV, records, magazines, ad vertising. Editors no longer cross out an expletive if they feel it's germane to the story. In the 1984 presidential election campaign, one public interest group headlined their ad with the word Bullshit Blue vocabulary isn't shocking to young urban blacks and Hispanics because it's'their street language. It could be said (colorfully) that the shocking blue...

Do I Need an Agent and If So How Do I Get

Agents are a great example of a Catch 22 situation. The big agents won't touch neophytes, but beginners can't get into any major undertaking without an agent. There are many exceptions, however, and your job is to find them. Abe Burrows said he thought of his agent, the William Morris agency, as family. When he paid them their 10 percent, he didn't think of it as a commission but as sending money home to mother. There are directories at public libraries that provide names and addresses of...

Dont Fight City Hall

The biggest mistake beginning sitcom writers make is to write in new characters who share, let alone hog, the spotlight. For many good reasons the stars demand 80 percent of the dialogue. The audience, too, has been conditioned to see the whole show as a vehicle for the star they love. Don't fight it. Whatever the problem, the lead characters always support moral goodness a throwback to the American film code which insisted that crime does not pay. Characters continually fight for right against...

Early Birds

You and your client should get to the hall early. You must check the mikes, the podium height, whether all audiovisual systems are cued up and the lighting system is organized. While you're doing all that, the client should be shaking hands with as many members of the audience as possible, calling them by their first names as soon as they're introduced (or read their name tags). The speaker should circulate quickly, not staying in any one place for too long. The object is to make friends, since...

Family Aggression

People in close contact develop basic competition. Husbands compete with wives, in-laws compete with married children, children compete with parents, and families, not just children, compete with relatives and neighbors. Laughter is created when characters interplay with love, illness, jealousy, prejudice, death, and cream pies. The mother-in-law coming for a visit is still one of the hundred most common plots on TV. Someone in the family must always be the fall guy, because we'll watch the...

Final Notes

A well-researched, well-written speech takes a full week to compose. Writers' rates vary, but prices just for the humor material range from 100 to 500 per double-spaced page. There are two reference resources for speechwriters that are highly recommended. The Executive Speaker, Dayton, Ohio, is an invaluable monthly publication. It gives hints on speechwriting techniques with illustrations from dozens of important speeches delivered by business and government executives. The dean of humor...

Funny Business

It must be funny, and not just funny on paper, but performable. Some humor takes a long buildup (that's out), some requires a dialect (that's out), and some reformed clich s (puns) contain homonyms that work only on paper (red, read ox night, nite, knight). The following puns would be next to impossible to pull off aloud Once a knight, always a knight, But once a night is always enough. In my day, the little red schoolhouse was very common. Today, however, it's the little-read schoolboy who's...

Getting Offstage

Any speaker can rise to the occasion, but few know when to sit down. The best speeches are those that have a good beginning and a good ending close together During my last speech, I noticed a little old man in a wheelchair. After I stepped down from the podium, I went over to him and thanked him for coming. I said, And I hope you get better real soon. And he said, After listening to you, I hope you get better, too Never speak at length at the tail end of a long program. No matter how you may...

Groupings

The final classification of clever word pairing is a miscellaneous category called groupings. They aren't quite synonyms or antonyms. Instead, they are a group of two or more words loosely associated with a particular activity or profession. There is a good deal of controversy over this category, but who cares if the purists argue as long as the audience laughs A political candidate must learn not only to stand on a platform, but to sit on the fence and lie on the spot. Frank Tyger I come from...

Heartbreak

This is the oldest of all emotions next to love and frequently runs in tandem with it. In humor, it must focus on absurdities an American GI falls for a Korean aristocrat, an old flame is discovered but is already married, a doctor must tell a patient the truth about her illness. Then there's always the line, I think I'm pregnant. Other typical plots in this category a character finds a lot of money but it's counterfeit, a role in a movie or play is on the line, there's a big bet on a sports...

How Do You Localize Humor

Localizing tailoring material for specific audiences is an important and common practice for professionals who play on the road or make frequent personal appearances at banquets. The audience wants to know that you care enough to use material personalized for them. Bob Hope is famous for inside material. He'll send a writer to a site a few days before his appearance to write dozens of opening lines about local people, places, and controversial activities. If you need material for a hotel, do it...

How Many Does It Take to Change a Lightbulb

The lightbulb jokes often consist of triples. The first and second lines are setups for the third. Here, as an example, is a group based upon needling a neighboring state, a common inspiration for hostile humor. How many Louisianians does it take to change a light bulb Three one to hold the ladder, one to screw in the bulb, and one to bribe officials for the permit. How many Virginians Three one to hold the ladder, one to screw in the bulb, and one highly refined lady to remark how much...

Humor for Business

Besides speechwriting, humor material can be effectively used in business in the following areas 1. Interviews, where it encourages both parties to relax. 2. Training sessions, which begin with humor references. 3. Sales meetings, because attention starts to wane after five minutes. 4. Bulletin board signs, which boost employee morale. In order to continue to produce the highest quality work possible, all company executives will be trained in our new Special High Intensity Training (S.H.l.T.)...

If a Comic Says Stop Me If Youve Heard This One Should I

A pro never stops another person from reciting. Here's why 1. The other person has the spotlight, and you don't want to kill his laugh. 2. You might hear an even better way to tell the joke than the way you already know. 3. It may have a familiar opening, but it might have a new punch line. Many jokes begin with a stereotyped setup. Here's a classic story about Hawaii A married couple, on their first vacation flight to Hawaii, argue about the island's pronunciation. As soon as...

If Youve Got A Message Dont Telegraph It

Here are a few more reverses, but the jokes are telegraphed, which professionals work hard to eliminate. You don't want the audience to anticipate the ending. The following are examples of jokes that are too easy because they're too obviously laid out. I know an actor with a figure like Sophia Loren, sings like Dolly Parton, can be as dramatic as jane Fonda, but can't land a job. The reason is he's a man Sorry to hear your wife ran away with your gardener. Oh, that's all right. I was going to...

Its Still The Same Old Story

One of the things you'll notice are recurring themes. Successful shows, like the Bill Cosby Show, spawn copies. The Honeymooners and I Love Lucy begat dozens of shows with bickering married couples, and don't forget that there was a radio show called The Bickersons in the '50s. When Phil Silvers starred as Sergeant Bilko, a dozen comedy service shows soon marched along in step. Hillbillies, cops, show biz, and talking apparitions each went in and out of favor. You can bet on one thing they'll...

Make Yourself at Home

The humor must be comfortable for the audience. Find out from your host, long before the speaking date, as much as possible about the composition of the audience. Stag or mixed, young or old, and with political, racial, and religious differences, audiences require tailored material. For instance, this joke might lay a big egg if you cracked it in a meeting of Bible-thumping fundamentalists As one tropical fish said to another, Okay wise guy. If there's no Cod, just answer me one question. Who...

Moral and Ethical Conflicts

These scenarios so obvious and predictable are the kindergarten of original satirical humor. The protagonist is a lone dissenter, or wants to go to a class reunion without a date, or tries to crash a celebrity party. Deeper issues include fighting for women's rights, single parent families, and unique professional, business, or religious practices. Typical plots include finding money, a lost lottery ticket, or jewelry, calling the police to report a crime committed by a well-known person,...

New York

Sarah Blacher Cohen, SUNY Albany, Albany, NY 12203 Joseph Dorinson, Long Island University, Brooklyn, NY 11201, (718) 834-6000 Roger Firestien, Center for Studies in Creativity, Buffalo State College, 1300 Elmwood Avenue, Buffalo, NY 14222 Dr. Joel Goodman, The Humor Project, 110 Spring Street, Saratoga Springs, NY 12866, (518) 587-8770 Don Hauptman, 61 West 62nd Street, New York, NY 10023, (212) 246-8229 Paul Herzog, United Federation of Teachers Learning Center, 260 Park Ave. South, New York,...

No Pryor Restraint

Obscenity is partly in the eye (or ear) of the beholder. To get mass attention in public concerts, Eddie Murphy, Sam Kineson, Richard Pryor and Andrew Dice Clay deliberately use material guaranteed to offend everybody by attacking women, homosexuals, foreigners (particularly Asiatics) and people with debilitating diseases or handicaps. According to Professor William Chisholm of Cleveland State University, obscene language is now so prevalent and commonplace in our society that nobody is really...

Numbers

Even some numbers are funnier than others, and we're not just talking about three or sixty-nine. In humor, the economy of words is almost fanatical. There is one exception and that is when numbers are used. If they're essential in the joke, when we want to give them extra power, they must sound or look important. The number 1,500 should be pronounced (or written) as one thousand, five hundred. The time of 8 15 should be pronounced (or written) as a quarter after eight. The height of 6'2 should...

Outrageous Humor Neednt be Obscene

Reforming words is an easy way to be shocking. It takes no great talent. The talent comes from suggesting hard-core humor, but never actually stating it. A sexually frustrated young girl sat on Pinocchio's nose and said, Now lie to me. Now tell me the truth. Now lie to me. Now tell me the truth. Paul Krassner Everytime I look at what I have to pay in taxes, it scares me shirtless. Robert Orben Gilda Radner, on Saturday Night Live, loved to use malaprops like endangered feces. When Ron Nessen, a...

Paired Statistics

The mechanics of constructing paired statistics require you to save the surprise number for the very last, just as if it were a word. Sheriff to outlaw I'll give you a fair chance. We'll step off ten paces and you fire at the count of three. The men pace off, the sheriff shouts, One, two, and then he turns and fires. The dying outlaw says, I thought you said fire on three. The sheriff said, That was your number. Mine was two. My tennis coach told me I was one year away from being a good player....

Partners

Comedy partnerships like the Smothers Brothers, Bob and Ray, Smith and Dale, Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Martin and Lewis, Amos and Andy, Stiller and Meara, Burns and Allen are rare today. No one seems to be able to explain why. There may be a unique opportunity here for two new comedians to team up and fill this void. The original purpose of team humor was to permit the audience to laugh at a schlemiel (fall guy). It may have been just a coincidence, but the first name on a team...

Performance Secrets

The performer must immediately communicate the following information to an audience 1. Establish an identifiable character. 2. Let the audience feel superior. 1. If the character isn't instantly recognizable, the performance is off to a risky start. Generally, there's no time to build a hidden character the first time the audience meets you. Comedy demands that you get laughs within the first few paragraphs or within the first thirty seconds. 2. To make the audience feel secure, the performer...

Putting The Triple On Hold

A common formula is to set up a joke with a triple. Then a question refers to some outside physical occurrence and the payoff line, again, goes back to the triple. Once you learn this formula the variations multiply. Waitress, in hoarse voice For dessert, we got ice cream vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry. Customer You got laryngitis Waitress No, just vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry. Waitress, scratching her behind Our specials today are steak, chicken, and pot roast. Customer You got...

Quiz Show Guests

A number of quiz programs invite celebrities to team up with members of the audience. Stars are used for their name value, but they're also good for spouting a few one-liners. Comedian Paul Lynde became famous as a regular quiz show guest on Hollywood Squares for thirteen years. His distinctive laugh and his quick ad-libs were actually carefully prepared answers to the MC's questions. Host Why do motorcyclists wear black leather Lynde Because chiffon wrinkles too easily. Host What do they call...

Realism

When a thing is funny, search it for a hidden truth. Humor Only Appears To Be Free Form. Most often it is carefully structured and predictable. A good deal of humor is observation on everyday life twisted into absurd shapes, said Patrick J. Sweeney. Nowhere is this more evident than in the interaction of realism and exaggeration, two of the six ingredients in the THREES formula. In humor they balance each other like equal weights on a scale. Sometimes the scales may tip, but the variation is...

Reforming

This is the most common clich category that coins new double entendres. The results are often puns such as this tire ad We skid you not, or fast food restaurant-names like Mustard's Last Stand, Blazing Salads, and Aesop's Tables. That restaurant inspired the TV show That's Inedible The humor here comes from altering one or two letters in a word of the clich and arriving at a twist which cleverly changes the point of view. The reformulated word will most likely be a homonym or a rhyming...

Retaliatory Humor

The reverse is also a favorite device for delivering an insult or a surprise compliment. Goldie Hawn is funny, sexy, beautiful, talented, intelligent, warm, and consistently sunny. Other than that, she doesn't impress me at all. _ Neil Simon Howard Cosell is America's greatest sportscaster. And that's not only my opinion, it's his, too Casper Weinberger is one of the most maligned, ridiculed and insulted administrators in government today and rightly so When I wrote my first humor book, Comedy...

Roasts

Roasts are very popular but difficult to bring off. They require a lot of organization, including a number of different speakers, all of whom must agree not to take more than two minutes. Roasts are intended to be fun at the expense of the guest of honor, so even though he claims to have a thick skin and a good sense of humor, don't take anything for granted. Clue him in advance as to the type of material, the names of the roasters and warn him that the audience will be watching him at the end...

Script Mechanics

Scripts are decided upon six months before air date and final taping takes place three to six weeks before airing. Therefore, writers must be thinking of what the world might be like a year in advance. That's normal. What happens if the show you're working on gets cancelled That's normal, too Scripts must be timed precisely. In most cases, playing time is less than twenty-five minutes in every half hour. Commercials take three-and-a-half minutes, opening and...

Seeing is Believing

TV is a visual medium, so what we see must be even more entertaining than what we hear. Otherwise, radio soap operas would still be popular. Characters must wear unusual clothing, flash signals with their face, hands, and body. Slapstick works only in visuals and there is nothing funnier than seeing the wall of a house fall on your victim, only to see him standing in a spot where a neatly cut-out window frame permits him to escape without a scratch. It is not the mark of a poor writer to write...

Should I Work Alone or with a Collaborator

I recommend partners whenever possible. Despite the added difficulty of scheduling, teams of two or three writers spark each other, test and refine each other's ideas. Finding someone in your own city is worth the effort. Together you should shut yourselves off from everything else during creative sessions no telephone calls, no family chores, no long breaks, not even for lunch. Work for a solid morning, a solid afternoon, or a solid evening. Start with brainstorming. Write down as many ideas...

StandUp or Sit Down Humor for Live Entertainers

The Need For Humor Writing Seems Inexhaustible because every professional performer needs fresh material they need it when they're getting started, and they need it even more when they're on top, because that's when they're the most fearful. David Letterman says, Now that my ratings are good, I have a different kind of fear. It's like a tap on the shoulder from an ominous unknown force. That's the position you don't want to find yourself in, the one you can't sustain. It's like a warning that...

Surprise em or Shock em Nihilistic Humor and Language

A walking path bordered the golf course. One afternoon a tee shot nearly smashed into a little old lady. She screamed, Why didn't you yell fore I didn't have time, said the golfer. Oh, no said the woman, Then how come you had time to yell 'Oh, shit ' If we laughed at this story, it wasn't just the element of surprise alone, but a combination of surprise and shock. The vulgarity so unexpected, so unfettered delights us, like watching a Mend take a classic banana peel fall. We laugh uproariously,...

Synonyms

Synonyms are different words that have a similar meaning (Women sweat but ladies perspire). Humor usage stretches the definition a bit but a close relationship must exist. Definition of the upper crust A bunch of crumbs held together by dough. Once you learn the formula, a whole series of jokes falls into place It's difficult to act youthful without acting childish. Synonyms are popular word pairings. There are so many words in the language which have a similar meaning that there are countless...

The Bumbler

This category includes the buffoon, the bungler, the scatterbrain, and the shlemiel. Here's another standard characterization that's going out of fashion. The humbler is sometimes part of a comic team (Gracie Allen) where the straight man (George Burns) sets up the gags. The fall guy becomes the humor target who not only can't do anything right, but whose language often takes on the color (or drunken odor) of a misfit. The bumbler can be a dullard or a plain tightwad. Where there's weakness...

THE DJsThe Talkers And The Hawkers

A stand-up comedian does ten to fifteen minutes of material regularly. When she's headlining a show, she may do up to an hour. No matter how much she needs new material, she's entertaining a new audience every show, so her material is mostly repeats. Not so the DJ. He's on live radio four to six hours for five days a week and his audience is fairly loyal. With humor, a DJ changes from a voice-over announcer to a personality. The memorable DJs of the past ten years (like Larry Lujack, Howard...

The Hidden Element

The basic gag in this illustration is that something is hidden from one of the characters. Everyone else, including the reader, knows what's taking place. For example a scuba diver doesn't see what's coming up behind him, or a wife, looking out into the jungle, keeps talking to her husband, who's being swallowed by a python. Incongruity is fundamental in humor and this type of cartoon is a perfect example of the superiority theory. We laugh because we know somebody else is about to become, in...

The Improvisors

These are the newest and most exciting characterizations to hit comedy in hundreds of years. They still have one character but they have dozens of voices. This group includes the most imaginative comedians in show business Lily Tomlin, Jonathan Winters, and his disciple, Robin Williams all of whom are breathtaking in their versatility. Robin Williams has been called the poet laureate of the eighties. His rock-and-roll comedy has spawned a new generation of fast-talking, inexhaustible comics...

The Luck Of The Draw

Until they learn the importance of being earners, however, comedy writers start out very lean and hungry. To be a sitcom writer you must reflect your world, not through an ordinary mirror but through what Bert Andrews once called a Coney Island mirror that distorts and makes amusing every little incident, foible, and idiosyncrasy. You must also be aware of the serious limitations to the creative process. A successful sitcom must satisfy the production company, the networks, the stars, the...

The More the Merrier

Better fifty standees than fifty empty seats. Also, the smaller the room, the better laughter sounds. Laughter is contagious. Everyone wants to know, while they're laughing, that this experience is being shared by the group, so they can enjoy even taboo material without being ridiculed. There is something else unique about laughing out loud. We rarely laugh out loud when we're alone. In order to encourage the individual TV viewer to laugh out loud and, thus, to...

The Political and Social Satirist

Like topical humor, it has a life no longer than that of a fly, and one of the most famous satirical stylists, Mort Sahl, used to carry a rolled-up newspaper on stage as if he were ready to swat that fly. Satire reflects who and what are in the news at the very time a joke is being told. Next week the same material may be too old. Satire attacks social and political targets and, therefore, is very controversial for large, mixed audiences. Satirist Will Rogers felt...

The Reverse

This technique, so popular in other forms of humor writing, surprises us when we take a topsy-turvy look at the world. This can work either as a visual, as a verbal, or as a combination of both. As a visual, an example would be two horses playing horseshoes with a set of human shoes. As a verbal it's a standard scene Woman talking to friend I like sex in the morning right after Bill goes to work. As a combination, the reverse works like this MC introducing beautiful girl to reunion dinner party...

The Right Balance

Take an incident that really happened and make it bigger than life. But be careful. Just because your work is outrageous doesn't mean it's creative. Consider this description by Laurence Shames of a silly walk sketch, in which John Cleese portrays a very ordinary Englishman on his way to work at a government office. Suited, hatted, carrying briefcase and cane, the Silly Walker faultlessly conforms to the type of the proper civil servant. Except that something is very wrong with the way he...

The Sad Sack

I said, Doc, I have this terrible feeling that everyone is trying to take advantage of me. He said, Relax. Everyone thinks somebody else is trying to take advantage of them. Gee, thanks, Doc. How much do I owe you How much have you got Rodney Dangerfield practically owns this character at present, but it has been a comedy standard for hundreds of years. The comic plays the insecure, timid Milquetoast, always seeking approval, confused by women, unable to get dates or...

The Shock Exchange

Moving beyond the morass of obscenity, another way to achieve shock is to use names of celebrities national or local in your humor. As stated previously, they're excellent targets. Trading gossip, wrote Daisy Brown, is the shock exchange. It may seem like a cheap shot, but celebrities are usually happy to be used and misused in humor stories it's called free publicity. The People columns in entertainment and most major consumer magazines are based on press agents' abilities to write humorous...

The Simple Truth

The simple truth is just that simple and true. By taking the literal meaning of a key word, we surprise the audience, who's automatically interpreted the expression with its traditional reference. It makes logic illogical. It's commonly referred to as the Call me a taxi or Call me a doctor formula. (Call me a taxi. Okay, you're a taxi or, Call me a doctor. Why, are you sick No, I just graduated from med school.) My wife went window shopping yesterday and came home with seven windows. Rodney...

The Simple Truth on Stage

Many professional comedians use the simple truth technique from time to time in their monologues. Several use this technique most of the time. One of its most famous practitioners is George Carlin, whose shtick is examining words closely for incongruous variations. He is truly the first serious linguist of comedy. Steven Wright is another stand-up comedian who uses the simple truth as basic material. In his first HBO special, nearly 40 percent of his material was non sequiturs. Here's a sample...

The Speakers Introduction

A humorous introduction humanizes your client, and it's your responsibility to see that it's done properly. Don't let some inept MC start the speech off on the wrong footnotes. Who remembers any facts when a detailed bio is lifted from Who's Who The right way is for you to write your own client's clever introduction. A day or two in advance ask the MC if there's one already written, but even if there is, suggest that yours may contain some ideas that will help make the introduction more fun....

The Speech

Usually, the easier something reads, the harder it was to write. Public speaking is like writing. It comes more easily if you have something to say. Never lose sight of the reason your client was given prime time. Speechwriters who spend their time putting funny words into a speaker's mouth would be better off if they put in a few important ideas. Wit is the salt of conversation, not the meat. There are a number of truisms about after-dinner speaking The recipe for being a successful...

The Standup

The most popular comedic character is the stand-up comedian, sometimes called a jester, a wag, a wisecracker, or a quipster. The most successful personalities dress neatly, in anything from sport jackets to striped for-mals. Women wear evening gowns, bejeweled or feathery. The material is a series of one-liners and short comments on the contemporary scene. There are hundreds who could be listed in this category, but some examples are Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett, and Bob Hope. According to Milton...

The Stretchband Theory

Humor comes out of the unexpected no surprise, no laugh. In a series, the first two lines are usually straight lines (realism). The third line is the twist logical but unexpected. Realism is the setup, exaggeration is the joke. Get your facts first, wrote Mark Twain, and then you can distort them as much as you please. Thus humor is like a rubber band the more it can be stretched, the more useful it is. I call it the stretch-band theory. When the rubber band is stretched to capacity, several...

The Title

The speech title is far more important than most writers at first believe. The title not only indicates the subject, but attracts attention when listed in advance publicity sometimes it can even prompt press coverage. Then, announced by the MC at the meeting, the title sets the mood for the audience. They are ever hopeful that the next speech they hear will be far better than the last one. We may be speaking more, but audiences are enjoying it less. The last time I made a speech, the program...

The Triple Reverse

A very popular combination of techniques is to start off with a triple, then switch to a reverse. I'd like to introduce a man with a lot of charm, talent, and wit. Unfortunately, he couldn't be here tonight, so instead. . . . Any of you see Hollywood Wives on TV last night Talk about plot, drama, great acting it had none of those things. My wife's family consisted of three brothers and a dog Tom, Dick, Harry, and Rover. Harry was the dog. Triples can also be used to enhance a mild piece of...

The Triple Takeoff

Bride to marriage broker Your prospect is old, his eyes squint, and he has no teeth. Broker No need to whisper, he can't hear either With triples, you have established a formula that can easily work by just substituting different occupational features. Note these sound-alike twins one for a professor and the other for a humorist. The thing about being a professor is that if you can make just one student successful, if you can make just one student see the light, if you can make just one ready...

The Ventriloquist

This classification also generally includes the monologists who work with an unseen partner on the telephone. Archie (of Duffy's Tavern) and George Jessel established the telephone skit, Shelly Berman and Lily Tomlin perfected it. The orthodox ventriloquist act performers like Edgar Bergen, Shari Lewis, Paul Winchell, and Ronn Lucas seems to have lost its appeal to contemporary audiences, although there are scores of excellent artists still playing lounges and small clubs. The basic format...

The Wild Kingdom

Certain pets also convey funny images. Puppies, cats, mice, and rabbits all have double entendre associations. Zsa Zsa Gabor went on the Tonight Show carrying one of her prized felines. As she was sitting there, she suddenly turned to Johnny Carson and asked, Would you like to pet my pussy Sure, said Carson, but first move the cat. A little girl and her mother came to the doctor's office. Following the girl was a little dog. Does your dog bite asked the ctoctor. The girl shook her head. As the...

This Is Balloony

Humor copy can be written in balloons above the speaker's head or as a caption underneath the illustration. The balloon doesn't even have to contain copy, as in Randall Harrison's cartoon which shows a man with an empty balloon above his head, while the balloon above the woman reads Richard, you're always so thoughtless. Humor copy can appear in a wide variety of other forms and places. Here are just a few The sign, which must be very short, is frequently a reformed clich Man tunes piano as...

Understated Numbers

On the other end of the numerical scale, understated numbers are an equally effective technique A newspaper editor was honored at a testimonial dinner by the governor as one of the great leaders of his community. Flushed with pride, he asked his wife on the way home, I wonder just how many great leaders our city has The wife said, One less than you think. I have three children one of each. Rodney Dangerfield When New Yorker editor Harold Ross was once asked why he printed the cartoons of James...

Unrealistic Humor

In show business, the key word is honesty. And once you've learned to fake that, you're in. George Burns Many believe that failed humor is most often the result of too much exaggeration. That isn't true. Most often it results from too little realism. Here are a few simple examples of humor that's unrealistic. It doesn't mean they're not funny. It does mean they have to work harder (through performance) than those that are realistic. The following anecdote works realism too hard Tommy came home...

Variations on a Theme by Stravinsky

To appreciate the innumerable variations this technique provides, let's take the title of Stravinsky's famous ballet The Rite of Spring. Okay, the sound rite can be spelled in the following ways rite, write, right, and wright. Each spelling, singular or plural, contributes to a variety of humor possibilities, such as these examples of newspaper photo headlines. Over a photo of a high school commencement The rite of spring. Over a photo of a book on spring gardening The writes of spring. Over a...

Visuals

The ability to produce visual humor without captions or dialogue is a very rare talent. It's the ultimate skill in graphic humor. Otto Soglow, who draws The Little King strip, has this talent, as does Charles Addams. One of Addams's cartoons has remained a perfect model of illustrated humor for more than forty-five years. In the cartoon, a skier looks in amazement at the tracks of another skier who has mysteriously maneuvered one ski around the right side of a tree and the other ski around the...

What About Recycled Humor

Most writers write only on assignment, but material comes to mind frequently when there is no immediate need for it. Then ideas should be jotted down and warehoused for future delivery. More and more often, computers are being used for indexing. Recycling is taking previously used material and holding it for anticipated events election jokes, holiday jokes, sick-in-bed material. Greeting card publishers aren't the only ones wise enough to plan seasonal humor material. Every time there is news...

What Advice Do You Have for a Beginning Humor Writer

Writing humor is an eighteen-hour-a-day assignment, which means new ideas pop into your head anytime, anyplace. Some claim humor can be conceived even when you dream, so keep a notebook by your bedside. Once you've learned the basic techniques, don't let anybody talk you out of writing your own way. Humor styles change with each generation and, while formulas rarely vary, standard subject matter, formats, fads, and characterizations are constantly being challenged. New ideas are the lifeblood...

What Kind of Sex Jokes Should Comediennes

During the height of the feminist movement, female comedians (who even resent the word comediennes) focused their sexual humor attacks against the virility of men, our natural enemy. But the payoff in humor isn't advocacy, it's laughs. And the payoff was more silence than the feminists would have wished. According to Joanne Cantor, who researched the subject at the University of Wisconsin, the sad truth is that both women and men prefer sexual humor directed at women. The reason is, no matter...

When the Clich Comes Second

It's a more difficult construction when the clich is in the second clause or sentence. As with puns, a groan is the most frequent reaction. The dog's breath smelled terrible, so his bark was worse than his bite. Wife to friend I'm in trouble. I broke my husband's favorite golf club. What did he say He said, 'What hit me ' Sign in Berkeley, California Hubert Allen Accountant Guest of honor at roast I'm standing so you'll know I don't take insults lying down. If you don't want the dentist to hurt...

Why Are So Many Humor Writers and Performers from Minority Groups

People whose backgrounds have included a good deal of fear, pain, and deprivation tend to be more creative because their minds have been constantly challenged on how to survive. Jerry Lewis claims that not one great comedian ever came from a wealthy family and most come from a ghetto, street-smart background. At last count, 85 percent of the writers and performers were Jewish, but they are ambivalent about it. (Are you Jewish one reporter asked Woody Allen. Yes, he said, but with an...

Why Arent There More Comediennes

In all of Shakespeare's comedies, women emerged as wittier and shrewder than the men, but the problem has been that since humor is brazen, audiences are uncomfortable seeing ladies being aggressive, sexually intimidating, and coarse. But, the more honest we become as a society, the more we appreciate the need for women to air their criticisms. Numerically, women performers may soon come close to equaling the number of men. And in writing comedy, that equality is growing faster yet. Performers...

Why Is the Same Performance Great One Day and Terrible the Next

Some psychologists believe outside factors account for the wide vari ety of humor appreciation from different audiences receiving identical humor material (as at a movie). The rule is that you can not hypnotize nor amuse an unwilling subject. External factors like bad weather, current news (the stock market went down sharply), or temporary physical irritations (the air conditioning broke down or the show started late) increase audience tension and take precedence over our initial desire to take...

Now the Hard Part

Using all this research, the assignment is to come up with humorous material for your monologue (or sketch) on golf. Remember that to be funny, the final line of the scenario must end in a surprise. Depending on the speed of the performer, four jokes a minute is maximum or two jokes plus one anecdote is average. So if the assignment is for five minutes of material, at the maximum you need only twenty one-liners, or seven anecdotes, or an assortment. The beginner writes just twenty pieces. The...

Whats a Premise

A premise is an idea, a conflict like deception that may be raised by details of a plot. A common trap for humor writers is to believe that a single joke can be the basis of a premise. That rarely happens. In the end it's only one joke. Woody Allen once wrote, I try to develop a long story with as many laughs coming as close together as possible. After I'm finished, I have a lot of jokes and comments, but as I look at them I find 90 percent don't meet my standards.

Writing a Reformed Clich for Print

Our paper carried the notice last week that Mr. Herman Jones is a defective in the police force. This was a typographical error. Mr. Jones, of course, is a detective on the police farce. Most newspaper bloopers, known as typos, fall in this category, but you can also write a reformed clich for print. In the summer of 1985, two Czechoslovakian tennis stars, Ivan Lendl and Hana Mandlikova, respectively won the US Open men's and women's tennis championships. The fact that they were both Czech gave...

What Do They Mean When They Say Humor is Written Backwards

The last line the joke is created first. Then the anecdote or setup is written to prepare the audience. For instance, in a play on words (POW) you might accidentally discover a unique literal interpretation of a clich or a reformed clich (which can happen just as easily when you accidentally make a whittle typing error). But creating setups isn't easy you might try half a dozen before the best one is apparent. Then you can spend hours changing words and whittling it down whittle by whittle....

Overstatement Going for Baroque

Humor writers get more recognition in print than in any other medium. Pulitzer Prizes have been awarded to three syndicated columnists who are outstanding humorists Russell Baker (1979), Ellen Goodman (1980), and Art Buchwald (1982). Even though there is no humor category, Pulitzer judges properly classify humor under Criticism or Commentary, and all three writers do both. Russell Baker is a master of literate humor. He is a natural cynic who sees the world as it is, instead of as it should be....

The Walled Off Astoria

Starting with realism, the humor writer tries to determine how far in any direction the truth can be exaggerated without destroying credibility. It's called good, better, best. A story about a prisoner who calls his companion a cellmate is good, calling him a bedroom mate is better, and calling him a suite mate is comedically the best of all. Realism is frequently funniest when it's exaggerated to the most extreme possibility. In math, 1 + 1 2. In humor, 1 + 1 11. This can be done by either...

Speakeasy

The strongest advice I can give is that the speechwriter must work directly with the presenter and not get the assignment from a third party. Writing and thinking are interwoven. You can't have one without the other. Writers must know the client's philosophy intimately in order to organize, fine-tune, and clarify executive thinking. I asked my secretary to find some good quotable quotes that packed some solid advice in them for today's speech and she came back with this little memo Dear Boss...

The Basic Rules

There are thousands of phrases that lend themselves to this simple truth construction. The basic rule is that the first part or first sentence is a clich . The second part (the punch line) is an unexpected interpretation that's realistically literal. Doctor I don't like the looks of your husband. Wife Neither do I, doctor, but he's good to the children. Boss to employee I'd thank you, Harrison, but, as you know, yours is a thankless job. Frank Modell As your mind gets more practice, your ear...

Does Giving Author Credit to Someone Else Add or Diminish Audience Appreciation When You Retell a Joke

Actually it may help beginners get bigger laughs, unless you do it every time. The audience respects famous comedians and is predisposed to laugh at something attributed to them. It's a fair deal. They get the credit and you get the laughs. When I encourage students in workshops to plunge immediately into active experiments, I use Woody Allen's story of how his father taught him to swim My father took me out into the lake on a boat and then just threw me overboard. It wasn't half bad once I got...

Lets Write A Paired Phrase

Following a misfortune, we have certain options. We can turn pessimistic and curse the frequency of bad luck, or we can be optimistic and consider that fate has provided a costly learning experience. This is the base for an aphorism a concise expression containing truth or wisdom. The comic writer is trained by necessity to see humor through woes-colored glasses. In this case we look for wit through paired elements, since we already have an obvious optimist-pessimist pairing. Our first effort...

What is Telegraphing

Generally, this is a sign of the beginner who gives too detailed an introduction, making the setup so obvious that the audience can anticipate the ending of the story. Jack Ellis, director of development (fund-raising) for Ohio University was being given a testimonial dinner. One speaker told the story of the carnival strong man who wet a towel and then squeezed every drop of water out of it. Then he offered to bet anyone in the audience fifty dollars that they couldn't squeeze out just one...

The Computer Mind

It seems like a lot of work for one photo caption. It is. But before long, your mental computer will have a file of all the different possibilities that you can call up at a moment's notice. Do all those steps really become automatic Think of it like the moves Jimmy Connors has to make setting up for a tennis shot. As the ball approaches, Connors decides to move diagonally forward or backward, left or right. At the same time, he is getting his racket back, planting his feet properly while...

Testing One Two Three Writing Humor for Speeches

The Closest Most People Come To Humor Performance is when they're called upon to deliver a speech. David Brinkley commented that we may be reaching the point where there are more people willing to give luncheon speeches than are willing to listen to them. But that's only a joke. The fact is that speechmaking continues to be more popular than ever. In this electronic society, where so much information comes to us via radio, television, newspapers, and specialized newsletters, office computer,...

Simple Truth Exercises

Having read the above jokes, now you should be able to finish some on your own. Read the first part of each of the following clich s, and see if you can come up with a simple truth tag. To help you get started, the key word with the best possibility for a double entendre is in italics. Check your pay-off line with the ones suggested on page 64. 1. Every twelve and a half seconds, some woman in the US is giving birth. 3. My girlfriend was faithful to the end. 4. We never serve women at the bar....

Whats a Saver

It's a line used to save you from embarrassment when a joke bombs. Johnny Carson frequently uses, I knew that joke wouldn't work. (If he knew, why did he use it ) Others are That's the last time I buy a joke from (the president of the club). Or, When did you all become members of a jury Comedy writers have to prepare a fistful of savers for their clients. Your most dangerous time is when the fist is empty. There are also savers when a performance is interrupted by an unexpected event but no...

The Twenty Masks Of Comedy

He was born with the gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad. Raphael Sabatini Theater began in Greece with one actor in a variety of masks playing all parts. In humor, there are approximately twenty major and distinctive character masks. But each comedian can have only one. The paradox is that it must be a perfect characterization of an imperfect character. The character can be anything from an erudite scholar to a simpleton, a suburban yuppie, even a dope addict, a sexual deviate,...

Freelance Options

The mechanics of sending out freelance material for consideration by greeting card publishers is rather simple. Companies prefer submissions to be sent in batches of ten to twenty card ideas. Each idea should be typed in dividually on a 3x5 index card. Some will even accept handwritten ideas, but the writer looks amateurish doing it that way. If you want to be respected as a pro, look like one. On the back of each card, put your name, address, phone number, and an ID code number for each idea...