Three Prerequisites

There are three strict prerequisites for a reformed cliché to be funny.

1. The take-off cannot be obvious—it must be a surprise.

2. It must be, at least, mildly outrageous (it's all in good pun).

3. The original cliché or title must be immediately familiar to the audience.

The Rite of Spring exercise, for example, would earn few laughs from the non-musical or even those who know Stravinsky's symphony as Le Sacre du Printemps.

A time-honored rule in comedy is to never do more than three jokes on one topic, and some comedy writers will argue that two is plenty. Yet here's an example of a radio commercial for City National Bank of Los Angeles which uses the malaprop technique seven times and holds the audience for a cute twist at the end.

(phone rings)

Daughter (a child): Smith residence. Father: Hi ya, sport. Let me talk to Mom. Daughter: Hey Mom. It's Dad.

Mother: Ask him what he wants, hon. I've got my hands in dishwater.

Daughter: What do you want, Dad? Mom's got her hands in fish water.

Father: Just tell her I've been to City National.

Daughter: He's been pretty bashful, Mom.

Mother: What about?

Daughter: What about?

Father: About the trust.

Daughter: About the truss.

Mother: Truss? What truss?

Daughter: Which one?

Father: The life-insurance trust, kiddo. The one from City National.

Daughter: The lighting shirt's truss, Mom. Mother: The lighting shirt's truss?

Father: The one that keeps the tax man from being one of my beneficiaries.

Daughter: The one that keeps the Pac-Man from eating bony fishes. Mother: Ask him what in the world he's talking about, honey. Daughter: What in the world are you talking about, Dad? Announcer: Come in and talk to a City National trust officer. We'll show you how a truss can protect your lighting shirts. Daughter: That's "life insurance."

Again, by ridiculing the speaker's confusion with English, we feel superior, so we laugh.


I said to my wife "All things considered I'd like to die in bed," and she said, "What,, again?" —Rodney Dangerfield

The take-off is the most traditional of all humor techniques. It not only features the double entendre, it compounds the element of "audacious realism" by completing the cliché with a bizarre reference.

The idea behind the take-off is that the cliché is implicit—it implies something more than what's explicitly stated. It's the opposite, therefore, of the simple truth, which accepts the literal meaning of a key word in the cliché. With the take-off, the cliché can either start the joke or be the punch line. The most common choice is as an introduction; then a surprise takeoff is the big payoff.

My father never liked me. For Christmas he gave me a bat. The first time I trjed to play ball with it, it flew away.

—Rodney Dangerfield

When the Cliché Comes First

Here are a few examples with the cliché first, then the take-off.

Let a smile be your umbrella—and your hair will be a big mess.

If an infinite number of monkeys sat typing at an infinite number of typewriters—the smell would be unbearable.

Clichés are often the formula for humorous aphorisms, like the Peter Principles of Laurence J. Peter.

If you can fool all the people some of the time—that's enough!

To examine this technique more closely, let's start with the aphorism that has more variations than any other in comedie literature: If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.

Don't think of it as a failure. Think of it as time-release success. —Robert Orben

The full line sparks a take-off in either direction.

If at first you don't succeed, try, try again—she expects you

If at first you don't succeed, then quit. There's no sense being

The shortened version is the most popular springboard for a take-off. The procedure for writing a take-off is to add a clever and surprising ending to the cliché opening. As in these examples, it isn't necessary to use the full cliché. Frequently, just the introduction or suggestion of the appropriate cliché is enough.

If at first you don't succeed —you're fired! —you're not related. —get out of bed and go home. —you'll get plenty of advice.

And an opera singer would be given this advice:

Here's an example of another abbreviated cliché:

A fool and his money were lucky to get together in the first place. —Harry Anderson

The best way to learn is to practice. Write a better ending for each of the following examples:

Every once in a while they send an innocent man to Congress.

He was a self-made man who owed his lack of success to nobody. —Joseph Heller

Comedy is in my blood. Frankly, I wish it were in my act!

—Guido Stempel a fool about it.

—Rodney Dangerfield

I wouldn't hurt a fly, unless it was open.

Sign on hot chestnut stand: I don't want to set the world on fire, I just want to keep my nuts warm.

Sign at 19th Hole: If you drink, don't drive. Don't even putt!

Whatever goes up must come down, but don't expect it to come down where you can find it. —Lily Tomlin

The race isn't always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that's the way to bet! —Damon Runyon

Blessed are the young, for they shall inherit the national debt. —Herbert Hoover

Nobody knows the trouble I've seen, but I keep trying to tell them. —Mignon McLaughlin

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