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 Dangerfield

Caveman to child: "When I was your age, my parents used to rock me to sleep. The rocks were as big as your head."

It appears almost childlike in its comprehension. One of the ways to study it is to think like a child. For example:

Grandma Elden was baby-sitting and every five minutes Adrienne had another request to keep from going to sleep. Exasperated, she said to her four-year-old granddaughter, "Adrienne, if you call Grandma one more time, I'm going to get very angry." Five minutes later she heard Adrienne say quietly, "Mrs. Elden, can I have a glass of water?"

Another way is through a childish riddle, which uses simple truth as its touchstone.

"I bet you I can say the capital of all fifty states in less than a minute."

"Impossible. It's a bet. Ready, set, go!"

"Okay. The capital of all fifty states in less than a minute. I said it. You lose!"

The innocence of children is an example of the simple truth in humor.

Art Linkletter once interviewed a young boy on his "House

Party" program. Linkletter: What did your mother tell you not to say on this program?

Boy: Not to announce that she's pregnant. Linkletter: Being pregnant is a wonderful thing. Why not announce it? Boy: Mainly, because she ain't.

A six-year-old asked his mother: "Ma. Tell me the truth. Where did I come from?" The flustered mother thought, "Must 1 really start explaining the details of sexual reproduction already?" So she asked, "Tell me, Hubert, why do you want to know?" And Hubert said, " 'Cause the kid next door said he came from Detroit. I wanna know where I come from."

As we mature comedically, the simple truth techniques permit a whole se ries of formula jokes.

Teacher to student: "When's your birthday?" "October 17th." "What year?" "Every year!"

Coed to prof: What kind of husband should I get? Prof: Get a single man and leave the husbands alone.

I spilled spot remover on my dog—and now he's gone.

—Steven Wright

Thanks for sending me a copy of your book. I shall waste no time reading it. —Benjamin Disraeli

A bum said to me, "I haven't eaten in three days." I said, "Force yourself." —Henny Youngman

How the Simple Truth Works

On the surface, the mechanics of the simple truth seem easy to understand and structure, and therein lies the danger. Despite the word "simple," we must train ourselves to re-examine every major word in the cliché, reject its most common connotation and go back to basic English. This is not a simple task.

Reporter: "Mr. President: What is the government doing for our progeny?"

President: "Why should we be concerned about our progeny. What have they ever done for us?"

In addition, because the simple truth is so juvenile it's frequently denigrated as a "smart-ass" remark (which used to be called "smart-alec" until they discovered Alec had nothing to do with it).

"What would you say to a martini?" "Depends on what the martini said to me first!"

Let's take a peek under the comedy tent to see how the simple truth works. We're looking for the surprise opportunity in the following cliché: "I like a girl with a head on her shoulders."

Although you know what we're looking for, even now your natural inclination may be to say, "What's funny about that idea?" But we aren't concerned with the logic of ideas; we aren't philosophers. "We are linguistic specialists concerned with the logic of words. So we must first visualize a girl with a round head on her shoulders. What's missing is her neck.

That's 20 percent of the humor equation. The other 80 percent is finding a second line that holds the surprise until the last word, so the audience can feel superior. Different lines work with different audiences. Steve Martin's punch line"... because I hate necks," would be acceptable to just about everybody, whereas "because... when I was eighteen I gave up necks and went for the whole thing," might offend those with delicate sensibilities.

Let's join in with another example. And that's the word: join. It's not only a double entendre, it has four definitions: (1) to unite, to bring two pieces together; (2) to accompany, to get together or meet; (3) to cooperate, to become a member, to enlist; and (4) to argue, to quarrel, to engage in battle. In humor writing the choice is up to us.

When a friend asks you, "Will you join me?" the obvious understanding is that he's using the second definition, "to get together"— whether it's to sit down at his table or go with him to an event. But if your answer is based on the first definition, uniting, touching, or bringing two distinct parts together, your reply catches your friend by surprise: "Why, are you coming apart?"

If, on the other hand, he asks you to "Please join me in a cup of coffee," the incongruity of the third definition allows you to respond: "Of course, if you think there's enough room."

Such elementary humor will get you a physical reaction: a laugh or, more likely, a kick in the pants. In any case, remember that one of the rewards of humor is attention, and people will admire your courage.

In pictorials, a literal interpretation of a word or phrase often results in humorous physical action. In several Mel Brooks movies the hero and his cohorts ask the heroine, "How do we get there?" And the woman says, "Walk this way." Then she proceeds to swish and sway away from camera and the men imitate her feminine walk.

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