Traditionally, actors with an established rep as serious performers can go into comedy, but not the other way ‘round. That’s been smashed lately by The Daily Show and Stephen Colbert, among many others who riff off of CNN and let the jokes write themselves. It’s revolutionary comedy, yet deeply indebted to the topical humor of Richard Pryor and George Carlin in the 70s.
What’s more important than how it will change comedy is how it might change how we talk about current events. One central element of comedy is timing, and a sense of timing is working its way into the patter of political talk. But how do you render that in writing?
That’s the secret. It’s what I work on all the time. Let me explain …
As I’ve discussed before, comedy is a mixture of setting up the expected “a joke is coming” and the unexpected twist. Between the two is what is called a “beat”, or a short pause. My favorite example of this is just about everything Bob Newhart ever did. Here is a short YouTube piece from the “Smothers Brothers”, another early example of topical humor:
What we can learn from this is that people looked really goofy around 1970. That and the importance of a beat between the “get ready to laugh” setup and the punchline. String it together so that every punchline sets up the next and you have a classic Newhart “phone” routine.
This may seem to have nothing to do with politics or discussing serious issues on the face of it, but it does. We live in a time when just about everything is as messed up as it can be. The federal government is a few weeks away from catastrophic default and the House leadership is using it as a bargaining tool.
Whatever doesn’t make sense is just the setup for a punchline.
I realize it’s much easier to get mad about this stuff. It’s reasonable to be upset when your nation is about to go swirling down the toilet bowl and people as grossly incompetent as Eric Cantor have actual power. But what can you do about it? Angry is what got that clown into a position of power in the first place. Indifference will probably only keep him there. But pausing a beat and then saying, “But at least they are having a debate on saving incandescent bulbs” allows the natural punchline to work its way in.
OK, it’s not exactly funny. But it sinks the message in.
To do this in writing takes an awareness of the distance between two thoughts and a sense of the rhythm of the language. It’s not easy, but my several “News Poems” are my way of practicing some of the skills. The other element is pure comedy.
If you’re saying, “But this piece isn’t funny!” you are correct. It wasn’t meant to be. But it is about a way of bringing up difficult issues in a way that gets around boring-serious, avoids angry-whiny and goes straight for something that I think allows us to talk about how ridiculous everything is. The last alternative would be to ignore what’s going on and … well, that doesn’t seem to work all that well, either.
So what do you say about timing – in comedy writing as well as serious writing?