I’ve written material for many legendary comics and I can safely say that it’s easier to write for well-known, well established comics than it is to do gags for a beginner. The reason is that the recognized comics have already developed their stage character. Phyllis Diller was the wacky, unattractive housewife and mother. Jack Benny was the cheapskate. Bob Hope was the braggart who always seemed to wind up being self-deprecating despite his boasts. With all the well-known comics, the audience knew what to expect from each of them. The writers simply amplified a personality that had been developed over many years on stage.
Characters are usually well defined in sitcoms, also. If you had a script for “Big Bang Theory” that had no names attached, you could probably tell as you read through it which characters should deliver which speeches. The same would be true of “Cheers,” “Golden Girls” and even older shows like “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” or “The Dick Van Dyke Show.” The characters well so well-defined that we almost knew what they would say and how they would say it.
Even in the ventriloquism, character development is required. In the work of legendary vent Edgar Bergen, the lines that came from Charlie McCarthy were very different from the gags that Mortimer Snerd would utter. They were very different characters.
Good comedy benefits from that sort of strong persona. The characters have such strong identifiers that the lines they speak seem perfect for them. The jokes they tell are what the audience expects from them. In many cases the gags seem to write themselves.
I mentioned earlier that it was easier to write for established stars than it would be to write for beginners in comedy. The recognized stars knew who they were and the audiences knew what to expect from them. The beginners haven’t yet discovered their persona.
As a ventriloquist, you have to create a stage persona for yourself and for each of the characters that you work with. But how do you go about developing these individual characteristics that you will use for comedy?
In one sense, it’s a trial and error effort. You may introduce a certain characteristic to your dummy and do some lines based on that premise. If the audience buys into, you develop it further. If they don’t, you search for a new angle. It’s usually true in comedy that the audience will tell you when you’re on the right track or not.
Let’s back track a bit and review two vent figures that we mentioned before – Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd. Charlie was a sharp, hip, witty, irreverent character. His lines were usually observant and incisive. If Charlie McCarthy ever acted as dumb as Mortimer Snerd, the audience would not have accepted it. Also, if Mortimer Snerd ever seemed as sophisticated and savvy as Charlie McCarthy, the audience would be more confused than amused.
You can look for different attitudes that suit your figure. Some may be grouchy like Jeff Dunham’s Walter. Others may be potheads like Terry Fator’s Duggie. You may want your character to be pugnacious, insulting, overly agreeable, downright stupid, or any other idea that you can imagine. Try out whatever ideas you can and if it works, as they say in show biz, “Keep it in the act.” Notice the variations in “Big Bang Theory.” Sheldon is a self-centered egotist with no social graces. Leonard is insecure and deals with “mother” issues. Howard is a sex-driven character who fashions himself a stud who is God’s gift to women. Rajeesh feels that he is always ignored, not only by the opposite sex, but also by his own companions. Each one has different angles to hang jokes from. In creating your act, you should look for those unique characteristics in the figure you’re working with.
One way to establish the personality and idiosyncracies of your characters is to do a back-story on each one. Take the time to write a history of your characters. Make it an exhaustive biography because you never know which ideas may develop into something worthwhile comedically. Write out how old they are. Do they have brothers and sisters? Do they get along with them? What was their family life like? How did they do in school? What do they want to accomplish in life? What other interests do they have? Magic? Music? Sports? Are they outgoing or reclusive? You get the idea. Give as complete a history as you can. Something in there may pop out when you least expected and actually create your character’s stage persona.
In a vent act, the ventriloquist is usually the straight man. However, we know from watching past teams like Abbott & Costello, and Martin & Lewis that the straight man is an important factor in the comedy. Therefore you have to define your own background and inclinations. Writing a complete historical biography as you did with each of the characters in your act, should help establish the persona of the ventriloquist, the straight man in the act.
Once you establish these values in your own mind, it will help in transferring them into the minds of your audience. It should help to make you act more believable . . . and funnier.
Learn more from Gene Perret with his books, classes, and newsletter. Information available at www.comedywritersroom.com/store. Gene also has a free joke service, Perret's Humor Files, featuring original lines. Take a look at www.jokecrafters.com. You can email Gene at RTComedy@cwo.com.
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