SURPRISE! – THAT’S COMEDY: by Gene Perret
Comedy has many facets, many styles, and many variations. Brilliant, funny performers will come along tomorrow and do things that we never even dreamed of. Innovations are necessary because for humor to be effective, it has to be fresh. Nevertheless, there is one aspect of comedy that is essential. It’s so essential, in fact, that I would say if you don’t have it, you don’t have comedy. That is SURPRISE.
When I was a youngster, we’d play a nasty trick on our friends. You might have done it, too. One of us would get on our hands and knees behind someone who was talking to another friend. Suddenly, with just a slight push, that acquaintance would go tumbling over. We’d all laugh, and he’d get angry. That was our sinister version of playing a trick on a “friend.”
I bring it up here to illustrate how timing is important to the element of surprise. That prank has to be timed correctly to be effective. If the victim sees you getting on your hands and knees behind him, he’s going to move. Also, if you push him before anyone is kneeling behind him, he won’t tumble over. All the moves must be coordinated and timed exactly.
Timing is important in comedy, also. You must set the audience up, deliver the punch at the precise moment, and allow the audience time to appreciate it and enjoy it. That’s why you often hear that the punch line should be as close to the ending of the gag as possible. It springs the surprise more effectively that way.
For instance, Phyllis Diller used to show how dumb her husband Fang was with this line: “I told Fang there was a dead bird. He looked up.” The word “up” is the surprise and it’s the very last word in the gag. Notice how ineffective the joke becomes if Phyllis would have said, “Fang is so dumb he looked up when I told him I saw a dead bird.” Hardly a joke at all.
There are several ways to effect this surprise. One is to lead the audience along, like the Pied Piper, and then suddenly change direction on them. Steven Wright has a wonderful line that reads, “I just installed a sky light in my living room. The people in the apartment above me are furious.” He purposely leads us to believe the sky light opens to the outdoors. It doesn’t. We’ve been duped.
The late comic Henny Youngman said, “I haven’t talked to my wife in three weeks. I didn’t want to interrupt.” Again, we listeners assumed it was an argument. It wasn’t. She just wouldn’t be quiet for that long. Again, we’ve been fooled, surprised.
Another way of surprising an audience is by pointing out something that is ironic. Something they should have noticed before but didn’t. It’s the brilliance of the humorist that points out the surprise. Jerry Seinfeld used that device when he said, “If airline seats are such wonderful floatation devices why don’t you ever see people taking one to the beach?” George Carlin noted, “Why do people park in driveways and drive on parkways.” We laugh at those lines because we’re surprised that we never noticed those things.
Shock is another way of surprising an audience. Some comics, Don Rickles for example, shock by saying things to people that we don’t normally expect. He might say to a fellow guest on a talk show, “I’ve known you many years and I can safely say . . . I’ve never liked you.” This device works especially well for vents because many of our stage partners are quite brash and free from inhibitions.
Another simple device for surprising an audience is with a sudden change of volume, pitch, or enthusiasm. Even a simple change of expression can be surprising and amusing. Jack Benny used to get a separate laugh after someone delivered a line aimed at him, by simply making a face of bewilderment to the audience. Again, this is effective with vents because clever manipulation of your stage partners can produce hilarious takes or expressions.
Another valuable way of furnishing surprise is to phrase your punch lines in such a way as to allow the listeners to complete the idea for you. In other words, you don’t come out and say the joke, you imply it. The audience gets a kick out of figuring it out for themselves.
As an example, a guest on a Bob Hope show suggested that swimming would be good exercise for him. Hope said, “Oh, I go for a swim two or three times a day.” The guest said, “Really?” Hope said, “Yes, it’s either that or buy a new golf ball.”
Notice, he never mentioned that he hit the ball in the water often or that he was so cheap that he would dive in after it. The audience figured all of that out on their own and laughed at their own cleverness.
Some comic once said, “Here’s one thing you’ll never hear on an airplane: ‘Excuse me, stewardess, can I get the recipe for this meal?’” It doesn’t demean airline food directly, but the audience is hip enough to get the implication . . . and they applaud themselves for being that sharp.
You and your stage partner may create more innovative, bizarre ways of surprising your audience. Go with it. Just remember, if you want laughs, you better crank some surprise into your gags.
Have fun doing it.
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,Perrets’ Humor Files, featuring original lines. Take a look at www.jokecrafters.com. You can email Gene at RTComedy@cwo.com.
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