Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Essay: How to Build a Joke (No joking, I’m serious.)

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How to Build a Joke (No joking, I’m serious.)

From the book: Chum for Thought: Throwing Ideas into Dangerous Waters by David Satterlee

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#Comedy #Humor 

Chum For Thought:
Throwing Ideas into Dangerous Waters

How to Build a Joke (No joking, I’m serious.)

For most people, a good joke is like pornography or the Tao—they cannot give you a good definition, but they know it when they see it.

Building good jokes requires attention to context, discrimination, structure, and activation of a special set of neural responses. So, the first thing I need to do is explain how a joke works. After all, how are you going to create an original version of something if you do not have a grasp of the fundamental internal mechanisms, the secret ingredients in the special sauce?

There is something wrong with a good joke. A good joke produces immediate, obvious, and alarming symptoms of acute pathology. The victim’s face contorts and begins involuntary convulsions that may spread to the entire body. Respiration becomes disrupted and spastic. Blood pressure and heart rate go up suddenly. Food may be aspirated and beverages may be expelled from the nose. If you were not aware of the stimulus, the physiological reaction might lead you to assume overt acute pathology.

As it happens, strokes and certain other brain lesions have been known to trigger what is known in medical literature as “pathological laughter and crying” (PLC). Oddly, the same small brain area is responsible for both laughing and crying. This is consistent; we have all known, and possibly been offended by, someone who laughed suddenly when
something tragic happened. Or, perhaps, you have found yourself saying, “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.” Victims of PLC, however, experience “mechanical” outbursts without the emotional involvement of joy or grief which normally triggers such a reaction.

A different part of the brain (a two centimeter area of the left superior frontal gyrus, which is part of its circuitry for motor functions) can be stimulated electrically to produce laughter and crying that is associated with emotions. Some have observed that only humans laugh, and only humans use complex language. They conclude that laughter must be associated with our sophisticated use of language. However, they seem to overlook the comic effect of slapstick pratfalls or the fact that most jokes are crude and not very sophisticated at all.

The key trigger to this part of the brain seems to be a type of cognitive dissonance that accompanies novelty, surprise, shock, or sudden conflict between two ideas. This type of cognitive dissonance is a distant tangent to the esteemed work of Stanford’s Leon Festinger. Nonetheless, Dr. Festinger showed that recognition of conflicts between beliefs could trigger sudden strong emotional responses.

As I write, my grown son has just called. He was still cackling with delight and had to share a story with me. Wes is visiting in New Orleans and had just gone to the front desk of his hotel and asked them to recommend a place in the French Quarter to find good Cajun food. As they looked at him with startled disbelief, he flashed to a memory of being with me in Boston when I asked at the front desk about where I could find good clam chowder. My startled clerk had stammered in disbelief, “You in Boston!” In the shocking rush of memory, it occurred to Wes that, “I just now did the same thing as my dad. I’m my father’s son.” It was a wonderful joke on us both, and we howled together in the sudden rush of emotion.

Wes is a long-time fan of Monty Python. I usually responded to Monty Python with impatient amusement; it all just seemed silly. To Wes, I took life too seriously and just could not enjoy the sight of very intelligent, intellectually sophisticated men being unabashedly silly. I can see now that I was blind to the evident genius that made their silliness so cognitively dissonant.

As a first step in building your jokes, consider what fields you can cultivate and what private claims you can mine for humor. You can look anywhere around you for inspiration. Successful comedians usually find a vein of experience or a characteristic point of view to identify their brand.  Life is rich and full of absurdity in our personal flaws and our external experience. It all makes for good comedy.

Woody Allen regularly takes us on a tour of his take on a stereotypical introspective, neurotic New York Jew. Phyllis Diller commented on the tribulations of lower-middle-class life and the faults of her husband “Fang.” George Carlin, once the master of the wry observation, often settled for shocking vulgarity. All of it triggers that critical element of surprise that keeps people laughing and coming back for more.

The next step is to collect material for your jokes. You can grab the low-hanging fruit for a quick gag or sift carefully for a real gem. It helps to simply pay attention to everything happening around you; be an avid observer. Most of us seem to simply float through life, reacting to winds of chance. If you want to make good jokes, watch everything; take nothing for granted.

Be alert for the contradictions in our expectations. The cardinal rule is “Write it down.” Bob Hope wrote his own material, but he also employed over one hundred writers. He kept his jokes, totaling over 85,000 pages, filed and catalogued in a secure walk-in vault.

A good joke requires a solid structure. The “set-up” expresses a sincere, honest truth. This is where you find common ground with your audience. The set-up builds the framework and context for what comes next. It can be as simple as “Have you ever seen a woman walking a really ugly dog?” or “A funny thing happened on the way to the forum,” depending on whether you’re talking to a contemporary suburban crowd or a crowd waiting for the gladiators to enter the field.

You can’t just walk on stage and say “…then the frog said, ‘you do and you’ll clean it up.’” That could be hilarious, but not without the set-up. The set-up should not be a very long story (unless you are Garrison Keillor). People, especially sots in a comedy club, have a short attention span, so keep it to the point. For instance, “My wife just ran off with my favorite dog. Boy, do I miss that bitch.”
The punch line usually comes next. The punch line is what makes people laugh, or throw fruit, or throw rocks, or throw up.  For those of you who are taking things for granted and not being alert, that was the perfect quick gag (pun intended). It was a quick set-up with a total of three punch lines.

Remember Phyllis Diller? If you don’t, you are probably too young.  If you do, you have my most sincere condolences. [Phyllis died, at the age of 95 the day before I edited this. She liked that kind of insult-slam; I’m going to leave it in as kind of a tribute. No offense was intended, ever.] Anyway, Phyllis Diller used a structure that she called topper, topper, topper, bang. She used a series of punch lines, each one giving you whip-lash in a different direction, saving the best (or worst), depending on your point of view) for last, and compounding the cognitive dissonance that she created. Toppers are hard to do without good timing, but Diller had it. Without good timing, it is called “stepping on your laughs.”

The callback is a powerful technique that re-uses an earlier punch line. It compounds the cognitive dissonance by being both humorous in its own right, and an unexpected return to a different context. A callback is especially effective as part of a recurring theme in a story.

With good planning, each joke leads to the next, repeatedly picking up your audience and dropping them on their heads until they are separated from their common world and common sense — willingly, even rapturously, caught up in your rhythm and flow of emotion and enthusiasm.

Finally, you need to collect similar jokes into an integrated routine because good jokes, like good friends, should not be random acts of oddness; they should have enough in common that you can invite them all to the same party.

Good routines, like good parties, should have a good conclusion. I do not think I could give you a good definition of a good conclusion, but I hope to recognize it when I see it.