The Anatomy of Humor The Threes Formula

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Six Criteria, Like Ingredients In A Cake Recipe, make up the essentials of humor. And with few exceptions, the absence of any one ingredient so disturbs the formula that the humor is not only less funny, but in danger of complete failure. Whether the humor is a one-liner, a lengthy anecdote, or a three-act theatrical piece, these same six elements consistently appear.







Although there's no absolute prescribed order, in this arrangement, the first letter of each element forms a memorable acronym: THREES.


Our instinctive perception is that humor is fun. It isn't! Humor is criticism, cloaked as entertainment, directed at a specific target. Cartoonist Bill Mauldin once wrote, "Humor is really laughing off a hurt, grinning at misery."

Humor does more than grin at misery. It cuts into the target with a knife so razor sharp that no one sees the incision - just the blood. A string of one-liners is less like a necklace of pearls than a crown of thorns designed to scratch our fears. But humor can be group therapy for performer, writer, and audience. It reduces our anxiety and aggression because we're bonding with others in laughter, and we're thereby reassured that the hostility we feel toward the target is acceptable. This frees us from individual guilt; it also indulges our need to feel superior.

Language was invented because we need to communicate. Humor was invented because we need to complain. We use it when we need to focus on the right target. The target can be almost anything - a person, a place, a thing, or an idea.

People as Targets

You can't target an entire audience anymore than you can shame the whole world. Humor is an attempt to maintain the status quo, so targeting reaffirms one group's ideas, mannerisms, and prejudices. Thus humor is always unfair. Like editorial cartoons, jokes take a biased point of view. There's no room in one joke for a balanced argument or explanation. As H.L. Mencken put it, "My business is diagnosis, not therapeutics."

Concert audiences for Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy are well defined: mostly young, black activists, with a fair percentage of young liberal whites. Thanks to their social lifestyle and political activities, they hold white authority as a common enemy. Pryor uses this bond by targeting police in his humor.

Pick on Somebody Your Own Size

By far the least offensive target is yourself. Self-deprecating humor is used by those most confident, particularly as a warm-up.

How many people heard my first album? (Crowd screams.)

Well, there goes that material.

They ridicule their own obvious shortcomings first: physical characteristics, finances, intelligence, even their success. For instance, when Bob Hope was being honored for twenty-five years with NBC, he commented: "It's been great. In all those years I've been rewarded with money, adulation, respect and encouragement. And to think I owe it all to the morning that I saw Bobby Sarnoff coming out of the Dixie Motel."

Unquestionably Ronald Reagan was expert at this. He almost always began each speech, particularly the less formal ones, with self-deprecating humor. For example, hundreds of school principals and teachers gathered on the South Lawn of the White House to be honored for their part in the Secondary School Recognition Program. The president's gag writer gave him a typical Reagan charmer:

"Y'know, I've been out of school for some time now, but I still get nervous around so many principals."

Reagan's humor during the second of his debates with Walter Mondale in 1984 completely spiked the Democrats' best personal attack, the age issue, which had inspired quite a few fossil gags.

At 76, I'm not afraid that Reagan will push the button. I'm afraid he'll keel over and fall on it. —Aaron Freeman

Reagan knew this concern would come up during the election debates. When it did, his humorous answer—a reverse that will be a textbook classic for generations—completely deflated the press; even Mondale burst out laughing. According to Newsweek, he sealed his election with the following remark:

I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience.

Celebrity Names Are Humor Fodder and Mudder

A second popular target is celebrities, national or local. No doubt it's a cheap shot but, human psychology being what it is, our appetite for a dash of vinegary gossip about our heroes, heroines, or villains is insatiable. Because the public, almost indiscriminately, idolizes the famous and the infamous, the American media love to create new celebrities in entertainment, sports, politics, and letters. Then, paradoxically, no sooner have the idol rich reached the apex of their media hype, than we begin to humble them with gossip and humorous digs.

Humor writers take advantage of this illogical mania. Former Senator S.I. Hayakawa admitted that comedians' frequent references to the fact that he had fallen asleep several times at public gatherings so ridiculed his dignity that he retired rather than run for reelection.

Why can't a girl use sex? Look at Senator Hayakawa. He slept his way to the top. —Maureen Murphy

Places as Targets

Our need for superiority is the spark plug for ridiculing "where you live." Examples are obvious: countries (Russia, China), states (West Virginia, New Jersey, California), cities (New York, Washington, Cleveland, Chicago, Burbank), and local spots in the news (a neighborhood, a street, a bar, lover's lane). Every performer has a favorite dumping ground.

So does every farmer. It's a national psychosis for farmers to target those in a neighboring state for artificial breeding. New Yorkers disparage those who live in New Jersey, who, in turn, tell jokes about Pennsylvania Quakers, who laugh at the Amish in Ohio, who pick on the coal miners of West Virginia, who razz the hillbillies of Kentucky, and so forth westward to Montana "where men are men and the sheep are very nervous."

Things as Targets

There's a veritable Sears catalog of objects that are favorite humor targets. It runs from buildings and automobiles to sports equipment, jewelry, and junk food. The basic rule, again, is that your target be a common bridge between performer and audience. It's easier to start backwards. Don't finalize your position until you've decided it's their position as well.

Tom Brokaw, NBC News anchorman, put his foot in his mouth at an awards luncheon in New Orleans during the height of recruiting controversy. He quipped, "I'm honored you invited me to come, especially when for $10,000 and a new convertible you could have had the top running back prospect at SMU." The laughter was mild; Brokaw didn't realize that the Southern Methodist athletic director and a few of his assistants were in the audience.

Ideas as Targets

Like objects, the list of controversial ideas that can be humor targets is lengthy. It varies depending on audience concern; however, it's the most dangerous target because a person's feelings aren't exposed on the outside like clothes. Targeting homosexuality, for example, is more difficult these days than targeting heterosexual material. Therefore it's easier to be for something than bluntly against it.

Bisexuality immediately doubles your chances for a date on Saturday night. —Woody Allen

As a humor writer you must constantly remember to base your material on an important target shared with your intended audience. If the subject is your cat or dog—who cares?—unless your audience is composed of cat and dog lovers. If it's about cats and dogs who crap up the streets, then you can be sure only if a majority of the audience comes from your neighborhood.


Ridicule should be spelled rid-a-cruel. Most comedy is cruel. The words cruel and ridicule not only appear together frequently but seem to be closely associated.

There's brutal honesty in Richard Pryor's stand-up routines about race, family, sex, and class savagery. Pryor is a good comedian because he knows how to make his punch lines humorous and not confrontational. George Bernard Shaw once wrote, "If you want to tell a person the truth, make him laugh or he'll kill you."

In order to write commercial humor, it's important to accept this concept of the real thrust of humor-to rid-a-cruel, using mental agility to combat that which threatens to defeat us most often. "The human race," said Mark Twain, "has only one effective weapon, and that is laughter."

All of us have hostility toward some person, thing or idea—unless we are St. Francis of Assisi (or, as Robert Benchley once speculated, "Unless I am getting him mixed up with St. Simon Stylites, which might be easy to do because both their first names begin with Saint"). Did you ever hear a joke about two perfect, happy people? But the cartoon of a beer-bellied, blue-collar worker walking in the front door and saying to his battle-ax wife, "Can you spare a few minutes? I need to be taken down a peg"— now, that works as great humor.

Humor is a powerful pesticide intended to help eradicate many of the hostile feelings in our daily life. The most common are (1) sexual frustrations, (2) intrusion of authority into our private lives, (3) financial concerns, (4) family problems, (5) angst and our feelings of powerlessness in the wake of technology, and (6) the largest group of all, our insecurity about our own physical characteristics, which triggers prejudices and taunts against minorities.

Mark Van Doren wrote, "Humorists are serious. They are the only people who are." Writers choose their humor subjects seriously. That's why sex makes up close to 50 percent of all humor. All of us, male and female, young and old, are more concerned with sexual activity than any other single subject and perhaps all other subjects combined. It isn't that we're fascinated by exaggerated acts of sex as much as we're frustrated by exaggerated reports of adequacy.

According to Alexandra Penney in How to Make Love to a Man, men's greatest sexual fears are size, erection, performance, quantity, premature ejaculation, secret homosexuality, and impotency—pronounced in West Virginia as "im-poat-tant-cy—because it's real im-potent to me!" But however you pronounce it, it still means always having to say you're sorry.

Shere Hite in The Hite Report on Male Sexuality reported that while men treasure sexuality, "they also dislike and feel very put upon by it." Her report suggests that men feel trapped by sexual stereotypes. They find themselves unable to speak openly about their sexual angers, anxieties, and desires. Many complain about the escalating pressures to initiate sex, to achieve and maintain frequent erections, to control the timing of ejaculations, and to understand, let alone satisfy, their partner's orgasmic needs.

I finally had an orgasm and my doctor told me it was the wrong kind. —Woody Allen

Research on sexual humor indicates that beginning joke tellers are more likely to select themes with sexist content discriminating against males regardless of the gender of the performer or the audience; also that their dominant subjects are those which belittle body parts and sexual performance. Since they normally can't speak openly in public about these fears without seeming to denigrate their own potency, they substitute hostile sexual humor against male inadequacy. The laughter and applause they receive reassures them of a shared anxiety.

My wife said that her wildest sexual fantasy would be if I got my own apartment. —Rodney Dangerfield

I satisfy my wife every night. We get undressed, take a shower and get into bed completely nude. Then I say, "Darling, I'm very tired and I think I'll go to sleep." And she says, "I'm satisfied." —Larry Wilde

To cover their own fear of homosexuality, many comics use humor based upon deviance from the sexual norm. It's the second most common target.

Women are also intrigued by ribald humor about sexual activity, because they're as sexually insecure as men about size, performance, and satisfaction.

During sex, men confuse me. They suddenly start shouting,

"I'm coming. I'm coming." I don't know whether they want me there as a partner or a witness. —Emily Levine

Sex is a concern regardless of age.

Three young boys were reading magazines in a dentist's office. During a break, the dentist said to one, "I see you're reading Popular Mechanics. I guess you'd like to become an engineer?"

The boy nodded.

He turned to the second, "I see you're reading Country Gentleman. I assume you'd like to be a farmer?"

He turned to the third, who was reading Playboy. "Well, well, well," he said, "and what would you like to become?"

"I don't know for sure," said the boy, "but I can hardly wait to get started."


While hostility against authority is international, it has always been an American heritage. Since Revolutionary days, we've enjoyed spiking the bloated arrogance of authority and watching it bleed. Humor is a great catharsis, it gives the public an opportunity to blow off indignant steam at major and minor authority figures.

"Democracy expresses the notion that power resides with the individual," wrote Joseph Boskin. "And the individual with others has the right to comment and assess issues and render judgments. The result is humor of incredible latitude. No subject has been outside its purview, and no person or group has been blessed with total invisibility."

Artificial hearts are nothing new. Politicians have had them for years. —Mack McCinnis

One proof of this hostility is the fact that invariably we ridicule upward, attacking those we perceive to have superior authority. Freshmen ridicule upperclassmen, but have little interest in writing humor about their younger brothers or sisters. Faculty spend very little effort on humor directed at students, and much more time on material satirizing the administration. In the military echelons of command, noncoms bitch about junior commissioned officers, who gripe about major support staff, who in turn snicker about the general's idiosyncrasies, until—so the story goes—General MacArthur's wife once asked him to convert to a religion in which he no longer believed he was God.

Matty Simmons, who published National Lampoon, credited the anti-establishment climate of Vietnam and Watergate with the birth and success of his magazine. And stand-up comedians today still use nihilistic humor to attack establishment icons. When easily caricatured leaders run for reelection, humorists don't know whether to vote their conscience or their profession. When Art Buchwald was asked when he was going to retire, he said, "Not now, when it's so easy."

A humorist tells himself every morning, "I hope it's going to be a rough day." When things are going well, it's much harder to make the right jokes. —Alan Coren

Here's a story that's double-edged. Some people think it's funny, while others find it tasteless and disrespectful. The question here, however, is which groups—feminists, Republicans, youth, the waiters' union—would find it funny and which would find it distasteful?

Supreme Court Justice Sandra O'Connor went with the other justices to a restaurant for lunch. The waiter asked for her order first. "I'll have a steak sandwich and coffee." "What about the vegetables?" asked the waiter. O'Connor said, "Oh, they'll have the same."

The answer may surprise you. The best group would be a meeting of the Bar Association. Logic? Because lawyers have ambivalent feelings toward judges, this is a case of hostility against authority being released through humor. Next to government, we frequently feel hostility toward successful people. La Rochefoucauld wrote, "It is not enough to have a success, your best friend must fail." This is especially true of comedy writers.

Comedians and comedy writers talk about friendship, but a lot of us would kill each other. There's something bizarre about guys who do comedy ... they hate to see other comedians get laughs. — Johnny Carson

Financial Concerns

"I have a serious investment problem. 1 have no money."

While men admit they think more about sex than any other subject, a recent Money magazine survey indicated that women worry more about fi nances than sex, by a whopping 51 percent to 12 percent margin.

There's little doubt that money is a constant thorn of irritation and hostility. Said Sophie Tucker, "I've been rich and I've been poor. Believe me, rich is better!"

But even if you have an upper-middle-class income, the Helitzer theory of economic tension maintains that financial anxiety compounds in direct proportion to affluence: the more money you have, the more problems. Just buying a new product, for example, multiplies family anxiety four times: (1) debating whether you really need the product; (2) deciding on a brand, which means reading comparison literature, evaluating alternatives, and physically shopping to find it; (3) haggling over price and agonizing over how to finance it; (4) being exasperated by breakdowns and repairs for the life of the product.

The concern about financial matters starts with your first cry to buy nickel candy and continues to your last breath.

"Being of sound mind," it was written in the will, "I spent every cent myself."

This thesis is so well documented that we might be better off concentrating on the methods humorists use to take advantage of this universal hostility. First, since everyone has personal money problems, the best way to involve the audience is to show that you share their problems.

I've got all the money I'll ever need—if I die by four o'clock.

—Henny Youngman

Second, depending on the audience, business practices are a frequent financial target, since they direct hostility against two subjects at the same time—economics and authority. Consider this company bulletin:

As you all know, our accounting department has a little red box on its wall with a sign saying, "In case of emergency, break glass." Inside are two tickets to Brazil.

The opportunities for financial subjects are countless: wages, taxes, investments, gambling, lottery awards, credit cards, to name just a few.

My VISA card was stolen two months ago, but I don't want to report it. The guy who took it is using it less than my wife.

Family Affairs

Hostility against family responsibilities, restrictions and competing interests needs little elaboration. In terms of joke quantity, humor on family conflict runs third only to sex and ethnic humor (which we'll get to in just a minute, under physical characteristics).

I left my wife because she divorced me. I'm not going to live with somebody under those kinds of pressures. But I still love my ex-wife. I called her on the phone today. I said, "Hello, plaintiff. . ." —Skip Stevenson

What's more significant, however, is the growing expansion of targets to include all members of the family, instead of just wives and mothers-in-law. Female humorists, including Erma Bombeck and Lily Tomlin, have come out of the broom closet to use a vacuum cleaner on the bloated male ego.

I wanted to be an actress. I said to my mother I want to cry real tears. I want to show great emotion for someone I don't really care for. She said, "Become a housewife." She always wanted me to be married all in white—and all virginal. But I don't think a woman should be a virgin when she gets married. I think she should have at least one other disappointing experience. One woman friend of mine told me she hated her husband so much that when he died she had him cremated, blended him with marijuana and smoked him. She said, "That's the best he's made me feel in years." —Maureen Murphy

Family targets have always included teenagers and pre-teens. Now the hit list includes even toddlers who are no longer cute but exhibit, according to Bill Cosby, signs of brain damage. Parents are unburdening themselves wittily, even if they can't do it financially.

They once asked my father what he wanted me to do when I grew up, and he said, "Leave home."

And children are reciprocating in this new birth of freedom which means let's give it to our saintly, gray-haired mother and revered father.

My parents had a meaningful relationship and stayed together for forty years. Out of love? No, out of spite. —Woody Allen

Angst and Technology

Angst is an intellectual observation that fairy tales aren't true, it will happen to you—there is an end to every happy beginning. Angst has pointed a devil's finger at anxieties so personal that, in the past, we carefully avoided discussing them even in private: fear of death, coping with deformity, deprivations, or neurotic symptoms such as paranoia, insecurity, narcissism, kinky sexual drives, and a long list of others.

Woody Allen has popularized angst. "I merchandise misery," he wrote. "When I named my movie Love and Death the commercial possibilities were immediately apparent to me: sight gags and slapstick sequences about despair and emptiness, dialogue jokes about anguish and dread; finally, mortality, human suffering, anxiety. In short, the standard ploys of the funnyman. . . . It's not that I'm afraid of death, I just don't want to be there when it happens."

Angst is also the hallmark of Lily Tomlin, who even plays a character named Agnus Angst, who says:

Cod has Alzheimer's disease. He's forgotten we exist.

A philosopher once said: "The best thing that could happen to a person is not to have been born at all. But unfortunately, this happens to very few."

High'Tech Anxiety

Technology can be threatening. Charlie Chaplin exploited frustrations and fears about rapidly growing automation to make people laugh. It's ironic that IBM uses his tramp character as an implied advertising testimonial for computers, because Chaplin was ridiculing machines, not promoting them. The audience vicariously enjoyed his hopeless assembly line dilemmas and mixed-up pursuits with autos that ran in reverse.

The sense of hopelessness that comes from our apparent inability to control the environment is now a universal hostility. Industrial chemicals lead to pollution, drugs lead to suicide, the advertising drum beats for nonsensical fads. The biggies—fear of nuclear war, an invasion of spooks from outer space, and chemical mutation of our bodies and minds—suggest that humor is probably the only rational way of coping.

They asked John Glenn what he thought about just before his first capsule was shot into space, and he said: "I looked around me and suddenly realized that everything had been built by the lowest bidder."

Physical Characteristics

What my comedy is all about is envy, greed, malice, lust, narrowness, and stupidity. —John Cleese

This is one of humor's most controversial subjects because it caters to our most primitive instincts—prejudice and insecurity. We hope to maintain some sense of superiority by ridiculing the characteristics of others, which appear abnormal to our crowd. We're responding to a primitive form of group therapy.

We fear control and intimidation by people of different colors or religions and so, by derision, we attempt to stereotype their physical appearances, ethnic mannerisms, colloquial speech—any unique characteristic we find odd. We feel the same way about people with different social attitudes from us—about drugs, sex, education, professions, even music, literature, and humor. As long as we're in the majority, we don't hesitate to criticize.

Humor employs these sins without conscience. A conscience won't prevent sin, it only prevents us from enjoying it. Ethnic humor is the second most popular category of joke books, and derogatory impersonations are a favorite comedy foil. This is how Cheech and Chong, whose financial successes outstripped that of every other comedy team in film history, described their type of humor:

Our jokes may be fifty years old, but our audience, the youth, ain't seen shit. To them, it's brand new. If you're white you can be afraid of people of different color, religious fanatics, but if you're black or brown, you're afraid of other things, like starvation and not having a place to live. By incorporating the basic humor of drugs and poverty into our appeal, it makes it universal—the underdogs against the world. We know the humor of the rough and ready ... we pander to the worst instincts in people—caricaturing swishy gays, dumb blondes, illiterate Mexicans, greedy Jews. We're shameless panderers. We give our audience hope. Nobody ever put a gun to a guy's head and said, "You gotta go down and see a Cheech and Chong movie, or else." Our fans must have dollars and cents: the sense is inferiority and the dollars are five.

It used to be the blue-collar whites who regurgitated the most hostile ethnic humor. As long as you joked in your own neighborhood, "kick 'em in the ass" humor was commercially profitable. Today, black comedians, sensing both an increasing freedom for public humor and an increasing audience of blacks and whites who'll pay to hear it, are coming into a heyday.

Redd Foxx used to brag about his material being "as outrageous as possible. That's the humor I hear in the ghettos. We don't pull punches, and we don't want to hear about Little Blue Boy and Cinderella—and if they don't like my shit, they can fuck off!"

A popular folk tale, which often reappears as a current event, tells about four doctors' wives from a small Midwestern city who decided to brave a weekend shopping trip in Manhattan. Their husbands were apprehensive about city crime. "If someone wants your pocketbook or jewelry, don't put up a fight. Just do what they say. Promise?"

On their very first morning, as the four were descending in the hotel elevator, a well-dressed black man got on leading a large Doberman pinscher. He looked at the women for a moment, and then commanded the dog, "Sit!" Immediately the four women sat on the floor.

Each writer has his own definition of humor. Shakespeare said, "Brevity is the soul of wit." Somerset Maugham wrote, "Impropriety is the soul of wit." I believe it's hostility. When we all think alike there will be a lot less humor.


"Lateral thinking" is used by business gurus to solve problems and come up with new ideas; it's defined as an interruption in the habitual thought process by leaping sideways out of ingrained patterns. Comedy has been doing this for thousands of years.

That's why humor must include both realism and exaggeration. Since it appears that exaggeration is the logical antithesis of realism, it may seem ludicrous to have both within the framework of one piece of humor. But good humor is a paradox—the unexpected juxtaposition of the reasonable next to the unreasonable—and that creates surprise, another essential in the THREES formula.

"Most good jokes state a bitter truth," says Larry Gelbart. Without some fundamental basis of truth, there's little with which the audience can associate. This technique will be discussed at length in Chapter 10.

The basic two-step in humor is (1) to state some commonly accepta-

ble problem, frequently with a cliché, and (2) in the last word or two change the expected ending to a surprise.

People who lose sleep over the stock market are lucky. I lose money.

Then there's Abe Burrow's famous parody of the first two lines of Irving Berlin's song, "There's No Business Like Show Business."

Yesterday they told you, you would not go far. Last night you opened and—they were right!

Incongruous humor is based on the premise of two or more realistic but contrasting circumstances united into one thought. Stephen Leacock once wrote, "Humor results from the contrast between a thing as it is and ought to be, and a thing smashed out of shape, as it ought not to be." Here's an example by Robert Wohl.

If you think the world is normal, then how come hot dogs come in packages of ten and hot dog buns come in packages of eight?

Dorothy Parker once wrote, "The difference between wit and wisecracking is that wit has truth to it, while wisecracking is simply calisthenics with words." So realism fathers truisms, those witty bits of philosophy based upon self-evident and generally accepted facts of life.

What can you expect from a day that begins with getting up in the morning?

To entertain some people, all you have to do is listen. But there is nothing quite so annoying as having someone go on talking when you're interrupting.

We shouldn't criticize potholes. They're among the few things left on the road that are still being made in the USA.

—Robert Orben

Realism becomes even more evident when you consider the humor of children. Their combination of truth and simplistic naiveté delights grown-ups because it gives us a feeling of benevolent superiority—if, like benevolent dictatorship, there is such a thing.

A five-year-old was fascinated by his grandfather's false teeth. He watched as gramps removed his dentures, washed them and replaced them. He asked to see it done over and over. "Okay," said the grandfather finally, "Anything else?" "Yeah," said the kid. "Now take off your nose."

A mother and her teenage daughter were watching an old Clark Gable-Claudette Colbert movie on TV, which ended with the usual clinch and fade-out. "Gee, mom," said the daughter, "your movies end where ours just begin."

To be most effective, the "facts" of humor should be logical—the relationship between people clear and predictable, the time and the locale of the story familiar, the hostility common to the audience and commensurate to the irritation. Major deviations from reality don't prevent humor, but they may reduce the payoff of uninhibited laughter. In essence, then, it should be as realistic as possible.

When Stalin was head of the Russian government he asked a soldier in Siberia, "How's everything?" The soldier said, "I can't complain." And Stalin answered, "You bet your life you can't."

Exaggerated Expectations

How does realism relate to exaggeration? As we accept poetic license, let's accept a humor license that grants permission to expand on themes with soaring imagination and unabashed metaphors. The public is willing to suspend disbelief and skepticism. They permit humorists to utilize hyperbole, blatant distortion, and overstated figures that signal, since the absurd subject matter can't possibly be true, "Hey, it's only a joke." Therefore, the audience laughs at exaggerated banana peel acrobatics because the clown will certainly get up. That's comedy! If he doesn't get up, that's tragedy!

The only way I'll ever be as trim as Robert Redford is if he swallows a steel-belted radial tire.

Another example of the likely next to the unlikely is the classic photojournalism story about the newspaper that ran two photos: one of a gray-haired matron who'd just been elected president of the local Women's Republican Club and the other of a gorilla who was a new addition to the local zoo—but the captions got switched. That's likely. The second stage of the humor comes from the unlikely: the newspaper got sued for defamation— by the gorilla!


Hostility, over- or understated, is not enough. There must be a buildup of anticipation in the audience. This is really nothing more than the writer's skill in using emotion to produce tension and anxiety. It's a trick.

Think of hostility—the subject—as a balloon. Tension is the emotional inflation of more and more air, building anxiety as to just how and when the balloon will burst. The writer's problem is to see that it bursts with laughter, not hot air!

Each performer has a stage personality, called a persona or shtick. While others can steal material, they can't steal the nuances that make one individual funny and another unable to tell a joke or write one. Larry Wilde believes "there is a melody and cadence to all comedy that is as stringent and disciplined as music."

A great comedic performer must be an actor with boundless energy. Many comedians have become good actors in films and sitcoms, but you rarely hear of a good actor becoming a great comedian. (In the movie The Entertainer, Sir Laurence Olivier played the part of a small-time comic. It was a brilliant, award-winning performance, and when Olivier was asked how he had managed to make the comic look so inept, he replied, "I didn't try to do him badly. I played the role as well as I could.")

Emotion is the ability of the speaker to translate the writer's material into entertainment through voice, enthusiasm, and action. Emotion is also experience: knowing when to pause and for how long, the rhythm of inflection, and sometimes nothing more grandiose than a gesture—called a take, because it takes the right gesture.

Tommy Smothers commented in an interview, "One of the hardest things for a comedy writer is to write in the vague—the spaces, the timing, the attitude. Woody Allen discovered that stand-up is a funny man doing material, not a man doing funny material. The personality, the character, not the joke, is primary."

Emotion is the area most often referred to when critics talk about natural talent—the inexplicable factor that produces stars and champions. It can't be taught, only encouraged. Performers learn from each other by scrutinizing timing, characterization, and structure. What can be taught, however, are five techniques for maximizing emotion. Each is designed to increase audience tension.

Building Emotion

The first and the most common technique is also the simplest—a pause just before the payoff word. It's called a pregnant pause because it promises to deliver. Even in Henny Youngman's classic, "Take my wife— please!" the slight pause, indicated by the dash, is essential to the reading of that line. (Try to read it any other way!) The pregnant pause creates tension, which is relieved by the surprise ending.

I know you want to hear the latest dope from Washington. Well—here I am. —Senator Alan Simpson

Would you be so kind to help a poor, unfortunate fellow out of work, hungry, in fact someone who has nothing in this world— except this gun!

The second technique is asking the audience a question, thereby encouraging them to become involved. This is one of Johnny Carson's favorite devices.

Anybody see this commercial on TV last night? It claims you can send a letter from anywhere in the country to New York for seven dollars and fifty cents and it promises next day delivery. The Post Office calls it Express Mail. I remember when it used to be called the US Mail.

Remember how hot it was yesterday? Well a dog was chasing a cat, and they were both walking.

A common technique used by novice stand-up comics to infuse tension is to ask the audience "How many here have ever ?" It's become its own cliché, and the take-offs are even more fun.

How many here went to grade school?

How many here paid to get in?

How many here know what sex is?

The third and fourth techniques are both builds: triples and a joke on the way to a joke, two or three firecrackers that prepare the audience for one big blast. These will be discussed in more detail in Chapter 7.

The fifth way to build emotional tension is by working the audience, a favorite device of Steve Allen, Howie Mandell, Don Rickles, and his protégé, Pudgy. Each walks out into the audience and throws questions at what appear to be randomly selected members. The audience's tension comes not from their amazement that the comic is able to come up with toppers to every answer, but from the fear that they may be the next victim ridiculed. (Working the audience will be explained in Chapter 19.)

Every playwright builds emotion into a scene. A humor writer does the same thing, but because a joke is the smallest unit of comedy writing, you must be able to infuse tension into a few words. Good humor writers are like professional card cheats. They know how to palm the joker and insert it only when it's needed. When their act is too evident to the audience, they get killed—just like in real life.

Surprise Me

If laughter is the electricity that makes a comedy writer's blood start pumping, then surprise is the power generator. The need for surprise is the one cardinal rule in comedy. It is an absolute must. Without it, clever, pithy remarks may be nothing more than audacious commentary.

"We only laugh because we are surprised," wrote Garson Kanin. Agnes Repplier agrees: "The essence of humor is that it should be unexpected, that is, should embody an element of surprise that should startle us out of that reasonable gravity which, after all, must be our habitual frame of mind."

According to Abe Burrows, the best way to define the construction of surprise is to use baseball terms: a joke is a curve—a fastball that bends at the last instant and fools the batter. "You throw a perfectly straight line at the audience and then, right at the end, you curve it. Good jokes do that." To achieve the unexpected twist of humor language, it's sometimes necessary to sacrifice grammar and even logic for surprise:

He may not be able to sing, but he sure can't dance.

A key word sets up the surprise. It gets the audience to assume they know the ending. Notice how the word half works in these examples:

Mother to young son: "johnny, were you nice to your sister while I was out?" "Yeah, I gave her half my peanuts. I gave her the shells."

My wife and I have many arguments, but she only wins half of them. My mother-in-law wins the other half. —Terryl Bechtol

Charlie Chaplin defined surprise in terms of a film scene where the villain is chasing the heroine down the street. On the sidewalk is a banana peel. The camera cuts swiftly back and forth from the banana peel to the approaching fall guy. At the last second, the heavy sees the banana peel and jumps over it—then falls into an open manhole.

It's easy to tell if your surprise works, because a live audience's instant laughter is the most honest of emotions. You can give a bad speech, a poor theatrical or musical performance and the audience will still politely applaud. If you perform bad humor, the jury's icy silence may be just a preliminary to their unsolicited advice.

No matter how well written, some jokes don't come off in performance because the comedian gets too anxious and telegraphs the surprise. Many performers tip-off the funny line with a lick of their lips or a gleam in their eyes. They hold up their hand and stop the audience from laughing all out ("Hey, you ain't heard nothing yet"), so the audience is primed for a big topper. But then there's no surprise, and no laughter. This can have a domino effect because the performer loses confidence in the material, then starts to press and loses other laughs, because the audience has a sixth sense about "flop sweat"—when a performer is anxious and trying too hard.

"Comedy is mentally pulling the rug out from under each person in your audience," wrote Gene Perret. "But first, you have to get them to stand on it. You have to fool them, because if they see you preparing to tug on the rug, they'll move."

Coming up with a surprise ending takes a good deal of thought, testing and rewriting. Let's try an example of a surprise ending for different audiences. Which ending would you select?

1. He was complimented when the editor called his work soph-omoric because he had flunked out of college in his freshman year.

2. He had flunked out of college in his freshman year, so he was complimented whenever anybody called his work sopho-moric.

It's obvious that the second version works better, because the surprise word

(sophomoric) is held to the last instant. The next time you hear a joke you instinctively laughed at, take a moment to analyze it. Where did the surprise come? Now take one of your favorite funny stories. Can it be rewritten to be even more effective?


Let's see how the entire THREES formula works on a contemporary story. Does it have a target, hostility, realism, exaggeration, emotion, and a surprise ending?

An elderly truck driver was eating lunch at a roadside diner when three shaggy young hoodlums, sporting black leather jackets garishly decorated with swastikas, skulls, and crossbones, parked their motorcycles and came inside. They spotted the truck driver and proceeded to taunt him, taking his food away, pushing him off the seat, and insulting his old age. He said nothing but finally got up from the floor, paid his bill and walked out One of the bikers, unhappy that they hadn't provoked a fight, said to the waitress, "Boy, he sure wasn't much of a man, was he?" "No," said the waitress, looking out the window, "and he's not much of a truck driver either. He just backed his truck over three motorcycles!"

Did the formula of THREES work? Was there:

T - Target: Yes, the hoodlums.

H = Hostility: The story exploits public frustration at the escalating , growth of juvenile crime. R = Realism: There's little doubt that the aggressive actions of the bikers could happen.

E = Exaggeration: Plenty! The motorcyclists, three against one (note the number three again), their crude behavior exemplified not just once but with three incidents of hostile action, and, of course, the truck driver's final action-not a simple thing to do quickly. E = Emotion: Obviously carefully written to squeeze out every drop of audience hostility in the opening: the stereotypical fascist appearance of the bikers, their childish aggression meant just to provoke a fight with an outnumbered, aged opponent, even our disappointment when the truck driver appears-for a moment—to be a coward. 5 = Surprise: The climax of the story is withheld until the last two words.

Now let's put the MAP theory and the THREES formula together and take this quiz.

1. The joke at a speech: "I come from Columbus, which doesn't have a major league baseball team. The reason is that the people in Cleveland keep blackballing Columbus because they say that if Columbus gets a major league team, then Cleveland will have to have a major league team."

Question: Which of the following audiences would best appreciate this joke? (a) a Cleveland audience, (b) a Columbus audience, or (c) a Cincinnati audience?

Answer: The audience must feel superior and have hostility to the target. Therefore, the right answer is (c) the fans of the Cincinnati Reds, a major intrastate rival of the Cleveland Indians, who would not only laugh but applaud like mad. The Columbus group (b) would enjoy the joke but since they really don't have a rivalry with Cleveland, appreciation would be mild. The Cleveland audience (a) would be mad as hell at the speaker, but if he insists on delivering this kind of material to a passionately loyal audience, he should always ask his driver to keep the motor running.

2. The joke at a speech or comedy club. "I was warned never to try jokes in front of a live audience without first trying them in front of a dead one. So I want to thank you all for coming."

Question: Since it is obvious that this material would alienate most audiences, how can it be reworded so this basic pairing style will work?

Answer: Pick on a table in the front with a few oddball characters. Point to them and end the joke with, "So I want to thank everyone at that table for coming." In this way, the bulk of the audience vents their superiority over a group not "smart enough to get the jokes first."

3. The joke before a women's club: "A man came home from work and shouted to his wife, 'I just won five million dollars in the lottery. So start packing!' And the wife said, 'Where are we going? London, Paris, Rome, Hawaii?' And the husband answered, 'I don't care where you go. As long as you're out of here in thirty minutes.'"

Question: Would this be an appropriate joke to tell before a women's club?

Answer: No! You must switch the point-of-view to make the male the target.

"A woman totalled her car and asked the insurance agent when she could expect a check. 'Oh,' said the agent, 'we don't send you a check. We replace what it is you lost.'

" 'Well,' said the woman, 'if that's the way you do business, then cancel the life insurance policy on my husband.'"

Business Insurance Humor

"It's hot, Moses. Very hot. Just change 'adultery' to 'playing around' and the double entendre possibilities are limitless."


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