The Storyteller

There's a lot of characterization in this shtick. The story line is not a potpourri of one-gag anecdotes, but is confined to one unique theme, with heavy use of strong critical comment strung out for as much as ten minutes. Eventually it has a point. These jokesters don't flip from gag to gag as much as they share a universal experience and irritation. Like actors, they carefully rehearse and dramatize their stories. As a result, their material tends to stay away from topical current events and concentrate on standbys like family, business, and social situations.

Before broadcast humor, tellers of tall folk tales were the staples of frontier humor. They went with the territory—a world of yokels and rustics where everything was tall. They had joke telling contests, story-telling contests, and even awards for the biggest liars. Imagination was encouraged and humor opportunities were limited only by the boundaries of the individual's mind. The antecedents of these Western homespun fables were George Ades and Mark Twain at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Among those who fit into this category today are Danny Thomas, Buddy Hackett, and Alan King. Currently, the two most popular storytellers are Garrison Keillor and Bill Cosby.

Keillor's radio program The Prairie Home Companion used myth and exaggeration as its only story line; it emanated from fictional Lake Wobegon, "a small town that time forgot," located in a state of mind. It was a love poem to America's small towns, a universal birthplace for those who once lived west of the Hudson and like to go home for a few hours each week. The audience warmed to Keillor's mythical folk humor about overstocked hardware stores, soda fountains that serve giant sundaes, and schools where all the children are above average.

Bill Cosby started with "one of the boys" routines on neighborhood characters (Fat Albert, Weird Harold, Dumb Donald, etc.). Now, he's so confident in his own material that he breaks the first commandment of comedy—"push for a first, big laugh." He's a stand-up comic who prefers being a sit-down storyteller, almost chatting with his audience about a common problem, a facsimile of his family life. He calls it building a rapport. He creates a stock situation first, then follows with exaggerations. He builds animated cartoons with words, not jokes. In story telling the big benefit is that if the audience doesn't laugh at what was supposed to be a funny line, it doesn't seem to matter unless it's the last line.

It's unfortunate that this delightful form of oral humor is a dying art. One reason may be that the seemingly extemporaneous style of story telling requires a talented actor with exquisite timing and accent that can only be accomplished by years of careful character honing. Many young performers don't want to practice that hard. Another reason may be that in our frenzied tempo of communication, we just don't take the time to listen to long stories. It's a product of our credit card mentality, where every hour today must be devoted to paying for the excesses of yesterday. Humor, like decisions in commercials, is judged in thirty seconds.

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