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 Techniques for Writers and Performers, I asked Steve Allen for a testimonial for the jacket. I could have predicted his reply, since he frequently uses reverses:

As an author, myself, of humor techniques, I'm delighted to add Mel Helitzer's book to my library—and someday I may even read it. —Steve Allen


Why are we so often surprised by humor reverses? After all, the ending is logical (realistic) and, unlike a magician's sleight of hand which has us looking in the wrong direction, the comic can only hope that the audience goes off on the wrong train of thought.

Since surprise is one of the basic elements of the THREES Formula (as discussed in Chapter 3) a reverse becomes a basic tool. The technique is to offer a solution which is both logical and diametrically opposite of what is expected.

When I was young, I thought that money was the most important thing in life. Now that I'm old—I know it is. —Oscar Wilde

The language of effective humor is carefully scripted. Very little is left to hope. Each phrase, each idea, each fact is carefully designed to sidetrack our train. That creates surprise.

Take this story by Emo Philips, whose male persona dresses as an emaciated Alice in Weirdoland. We know that doors open in two directions, but throughout the anecdote Philips plants clues to let us assume we are following the ins not the outs of the story. We are wrong!

One day I was playing—I was about seven years old—and I saw the cellar door open just a crack. Now my folks had always warned me, Emo, whatever you do, don't go near the cellar door. But I had to see what was on the other side if it killed me, so I went to the cellar door, pushed it and walked through, and I saw strange, wonderful things—things I had never seen before—like . . . trees, grass, flowers, the sun—that was nice!

Note how the following material helps build up to the surprise reverse:

"I was about seven " It's important for realism that the age be logical, that a child could be confined up to that age. If it weren't for that simple insert, the fallacy of the story—even though we know it's mythical— would suffocate our laugh mechanism.

"I saw the cellar door open just a crack." This sets up the first of the two reverse possibilities by introducing tension.

"My folks had always warned me . . . whatever you do, don't go near the cellar door." This is the impetus for assuming the thrust is going from outside to the inside since we're now sure the comic is talking about entering some mysterious, horror-filled dungeon. Why do we automatically dismiss the reverse possibility? Because we're not professional humor writers, that's why!

' 7 had to see what was on the other side if it killed me." The mystery is being cleverly exaggerated by the "kill" reference.

"I saw strange, wonderful things—things I had never seen before." Now we are sure that the cellar is filled with relics from King Tilt's tomb.

"Like ..." This is a long pause, which completes the tension cycle. Philips is ready to spring the surprise reverse, and the laugh response is assured.

To test this analysis, just read Philip's anecdote and leave out any one of the above statements. The joke will fail.

D. L. Stewart, humor columnist for the Dayton Daily News, is a master of the reverse technique. In his book Fathers Are People, Too!, Stewart tells a story about how he helped chaperone his son's high school choir on a trip to New York:

That evening we drive to the place where the buses are to pick up the choir. The buses arrive, the suitcases are loaded into the luggage compartments and the choir scrambles aboard. Not surprisingly there are a few cases of last-minute changes of heart as a vague future adventure becomes a frightening reality. Some are openly sobbing as they plead with their families to let them stay home. But eventually, the choir director convinces all chaperones to get on the bus.

How are we going to herd fifty kids around Manhattan on that crowded, dirty subway system? And what's going to happen when fifty apple-cheeked young boys from middle America come into contact with the lowlife of New York? The muggers. The junkies. The prostitutes. But it's too late to worry about that now. We're here. The muggers, the junkies, and the prostitutes are going to have to protect themselves as best they can.

There is an unwritten law in humor that only one reverse is permissible in any one story or script. Two is pushing and three or more so conditions the reader to anticipate the reverse that the surprise is telegraphed.

A man finds a chimp in the middle of the street. A police car drives by and he asks, "Hey, what do you think I should do with him?"

"Take him to the zoo," yells one policeman. The next day the police notice the same man with the same chimp.

"I thought I told you to take it to the zoo," said one officer. "I did," said the man, "and we had so much fun, today I'm taking him to Disneyland."

In each of the following examples, the writer wants you to be thinking in terms of the first mentioned point of view. Despite the careful step-by-step analysis above, you may be so accustomed to the logical thought process that many of these reverses will still catch you by surprise.

Boy: Can I take your picture in the nude?

Coed: Absolutely not! You'll have to wear your socks and a tie.

An executive walks into his boss's office. "I'm afraid I'll have to leave early today. I've got a terribly sore neck."

The boss says, "Whenever I get one like that, I go home and my wife makes love to me. She knows how to massage every muscle in my body and when she's finished all the tension is gone. You ought to try that."

The next day the boss walks over to the executive: "Did you try what I told you?"

"Yes, I did," says the executive, "and it worked just fine. By the way, you have a beautiful house, too!"

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