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 moves. He suddenly swoops down from his enormous height like some primeval, featherless bird; now he dodges, his spine contorts, his feet perform a going-nowhere shuffle; now his knees buckle so that, apelike, his hands are nearly dragging on the ground. So far, so good—in terms of sheer physical funniness, the sketch is virtuosic, it can have you rolling on the floor. But the kicker is the Silly Walker's face. It is expressionless, implacable, smug. The fellow is a self-respecting Briton on his way to his perfectly acceptable job, and never in a zillion years would it occur to him that he's ridiculous."

The following examples contain an equal balance of realism and exaggeration to reinforce the surprise. By carefully examining them you should clearly see the formula: a cliché opening statement and an exaggerated take-off reply. But note that reality is never overwhelmed. You must continually be on guard not to overload both elements:

At my age, sex is sensational. Especially the one in the winter.

—Milton Berle

Prof to class: "Good morning students. And to those of you on speed, good afternoon!"

A waiter, his uniform badly torn, his hands scratched and bleeding, walks up to seated guests: "I hate to inconvenience you, sir, but would you kindly pick out a different lobster from the tank?" —Arnie Levin

Let's take a realistic situation. Many married adults are ambivalent about taking elderly parents into their homes for care. Their guilt, when personal comfort gets in the way of tender loving care, contains all the elements for realistic humor:

Wife: "Well, your father is playing basketball again. He's dribbling all over the house."

Son to aged father: "Hey, pop, we're having company tonight. Do you mind staying out in the garage?"

One of the writing modes that maintains realism when attempting the explosive release of exaggerated humor is the movie or play review. Critics feel compelled to display their own rapier wit when slicing up the bodies of others, and excerpts from reviews are in every comedic library.

When Mr. Wilbur calls his play Halfway to Hell he underestimates the distance. —Brooks Atkinson

In King Lear last night, the lead played the king as though under a momentary apprehension that someone else was about to play the ace. —Eugene Field

In a review of Cecil B. DeMille's movie Samson and Delilah: "Saw the movie. Loved the book." —John Steinbeck

Humor is most often written backwards. Once you have the punch line of the joke, it's easy to write the opening. In this case, we write setups that permit funny answers to common questions, as "What do I do now?" or "Where do I go next?" or "What do I say then?"

Orson Welles was shopping for a sports shirt at Saks but found the largest size they carried was still much too snug. "Where do I go from here?" he asked the clerk. "To the gym," she replied. —San Diego Tribune

The aged father moved from New York to Los Angeles to spend his last months with his son. As his father lay on his deathbed, the son whispered, "Dad, I know you have a Masonic plot in Brooklyn and you know I have a family plot here. Tell me, which one would you like to be buried in?" The old man looked at the son for a second and then said, "Surprise me."

A priest got on the Fifth Avenue bus and asked, "Does this bus go straight up?" The driver said, "Tell you what, Father. I can drop you at St. Patrick's Cathedral and then you're on your own."

"01' Charlie is famous. He was the first discover you don't need two to tango."

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