S2_E32 – The Cardinal Rule of Comedy is Surprise.
In this current series on Writing Funny, Zena has been breaking down Melvin Helitzer’s acronym THREES from his book, Comedy Writing Secrets, which identifies the six key ingredients of humor and comedy. In this episode, Zena addresses the most important component of all: the cardinal rule of comedy is the element of surprise.
The best way to define the construction of surprise is to use baseball terms. A joke is a curve. It's a fastball that bends at the last instant and fools the batter. You throw a perfectly straight line at the audience and then right at the end, you curve it by delivering something unexpected instead.
Good jokes start by taking us somewhere predictable, but then change the outcome so that we are surprised. This is essential to comedy since the number one reason why people laugh is because they’re surprised. Surprise automatically creates interest and delight and laughter. And the quickest way to get there is to set up a cliché – something your audience already understands and therefore anticipates the predictable outcome – and then at the last moment, you change it.
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THE STORYTELLER’S MISSION WITH ZENA DELL LOWE
S2 E32. The Cardinal Rule of Comedy is Surprise
Published April 7, 2022
INTRO: Hello, and welcome to The Storyteller's Mission with Zena Dell Lowe, a podcast for artists and storytellers about changing the world for the better through story.
TOPIC INTRODUCTION: So we're in a series on how to write comedy. And last week, we talked about three potential techniques that you could use to help build anticipation and emotion in the audience, so that you can basically deliver a good joke. It's basically setups and payoffs. And how do you do that, and I gave three techniques.
Today, I want to talk about something that is probably the most important component of comedy. This piece right here is really everything. It all comes down to this. In fact, I would say, no matter what you do, if you can do this, you can write comedy. Here's the truth. In my experience, a lot of times when we break stuff down like this, and then we try to construct it, we don't do a very good job. It's sort of like demystifying the process. It's sort of like having to learn a golf swing. You have to get worse before you get better. You might have had some good instincts, and then you found out that you did some things wrong. And then to relearn that skill, like breaking it down, you think, "Oh, my gosh, I'm terrible at it." Because now you're trying so hard to incorporate all of the elements that you've learned or all of the little nuances and tidbits. And that's true. When you come back to looking through all the notes or whatever I've given you, you might find that you're actually worse at it than you were before you learned all this stuff. That's just the way it works when you're learning a new skill. Nevertheless, this is the thing, this one, right here, that you can always come back to. And ultimately, even if you never think of that other stuff again, this one is the one that it's all hinging upon.
It is the cardinal rule of comedy. It is an absolute must. And it is the element of surprise.
PRESENTATION: Now again, remember, I'm using the acronym THREES. So, this is the last letter in that acronym. And we were given this by Melvin Helitzer, who wrote Comedy Writing Secrets. And in that book, he talks about a guy named Abe Burrows. And Abe Burrows says that the best way to define the construction of surprise is to use baseball terms. So this might be helpful for some of you. He basically says a joke is a curve. It's a fastball that bends at the last instant and fools the batter. You throw a perfectly straight line at the audience. And then right at the end, you change it up, you curve it. And that's what good jokes do.
Okay, so let's look at some examples. Charlie Chaplin was a master of this. There's a great scene where he is being chased, the hero is being chased by the villain. And what happens is, he's running down the street, he's being chased by the villain, we cut to a banana peel. Now, that sets up the cliche right there, that sets up the expectation. We know that our hero is approaching the banana peel. And we're worried about him, right? We're worried about him. We're building anticipation, excitement, all these things. And now we cut to the guy, he gets to the place, we expect one thing -- we've been set up in a straight line, so we expect him to slip on that banana peel, because that's what you do on banana peels, right? But instead, our guy sees the peel. And he jumps over it... into an open manhole. And it's a brilliant, brilliant twist at the end because it's so surprising. He's still foiled. And yet it didn't happen the way we expected it. And therefore we are surprised.
Now you may not know this or realize this, but the number one reason why we laugh at anything is because we're surprised. But it's actually because we're embarrassed. See, that's what's so interesting about humor. This comes back to the psychology of it or the theology of humor. Because, psychologically speaking, we're laughing because we're embarrassed. We've been tricked. It's something that happens to our humanity. We've been fooled. And so we laugh to cover our embarrassment over the fact that we've been fooled, even though we want to be fooled. Isn't that interesting? That's why I find humor so fascinating. Because it's something that belongs only in the realm of broken or frail humanity. It's a mortal's game.
The idea is that we're exposed in our humanity, in our frailty, in our insufficiency. We've been exposed. Because when we're tricked in that joke, it just shows we didn't get it or whatever. And so we laugh. Most of the time, the reason we laugh is to cover our feelings of embarrassment. And this again, speaks to our human condition. Either we have done or said something foolish, or we have been tricked. A joke is a trick. And the surprise ending is almost always its finale. We have to be surprised.
So anything that you can do to set up an expectation and then change it, is what will make people laugh. That's what makes us laugh. So I have a lot of examples of this.
But one of the things I want to say first is that notice, then, how important cliche becomes in this process. And the reason is because cliche sets up something that we already expect. And by the way, there's all sorts of different types of cliche, right? This is the reality type stuff. We know what to expect, for example, in real life when we go through a grocery store checkout line. That's the reality. That's the, if you will, the cliche, it's the standard. Anything that you are devising where you have standard expectations, where the audience already knows what that should look like, they have those expectations, and they naturally are lead there. That's good.
So there are things like the first date; we have expectations of how that should go. Or the courtroom drama, or the courtroom situation, how those things unfold. And then anything that you do to undermine that or change that can be comedic. This is why Monty Python has that whole courtroom scenario that's hilarious because they take everything that we expect from a courtroom in a sketch, and then they undermine it, right? They just completely undermine it, they completely change it. And it's funny at every level, because it defies our expectations at every turn. But in order for that to work, the audience already has to know or have an idea of how it's supposed to go. And their mind has to naturally go there so that you can switch it up and surprise them. And anytime you can do that, it works. That's why we laugh, because we're surprised.
And by the way, let's just again, look at human nature, psychology, because I think this is fascinating. What happens to us as kids, what do we love to do? When we're playing with our dad, or in my case, my stepdad, we would play a game called Boogeyman. And what did he do? He would find us, right, we'd play hide and seek and he'd find us and then he'd scare us. And it was surprising, we delight and we shriek, "Aaaahhhh!!" And we knew what was gonna happen, we knew what was gonna happen. And yet, we were still surprised. And it's that delight, that excitement -- that is the standard way that brings laughter to children. When children get surprised, and they get turned around in a circle and thrown up in the air, and they get to use you as a human jungle gym. All of those things, it brings delight and joy. And we also, in our primary state, we like to be surprised, we like to be scared. We like those things. It's usually only people with a significant amount of trauma, in my experience, who end up not liking things like being surprised in a way that makes you scared. But one of my jokes that I like to tell kids is, I'll say to them, "Hey, can you feel my jaw? It's really hurting me today. It's called My dog jaw. Have you ever heard of that? Yeah, it's a dog jaw. Just feel it right here." And then they'll reach to feel it. And I'll go, "Bark bark bark!" And they'll go, "GAhhhhh!!!" And then they'll laugh. And that's how we are. We like to be surprised. It delights us.
This is why the kiss of death in story is to deliver exactly what people think. This is why the kiss of death in story, whether it's a comedy, or whether it's a drama, is to have it go exactly the way that we expect it should go. Anything that's predictable. We hate predictability. We watch movies, we see stories, because they're unpredictable, because we don't know. And if we could have predicted it, then we're mad. It's a waste of our time, because it just ended exactly like we expected it to. We want those twists. Now it might end in a way that we expect it, but the way we got there was different and that's delightful. We want to be surprised. The whole purpose of story is to surprise. And there are all sorts of ways to do it. But right now, we're talking about specifically comedy.
Just know that this rule of surprise is not just fundamental for comedy, it's fundamental for storytelling. But in comedy, it is the kiss of death if they're not surprised. Surprise is an absolute must. And, as I said, one of the best ways that we can get there is to use cliches, because cliches already have a built in expectation that we can subvert.
One of the things that he says in this book is that we can't wait for funny things to happen to us. We have to create funny things, and we do that by rephrasing old material that people already expect and then creating something new with it.
So for example, I love Jack Handey. Does anybody remember Jack Handey, from Saturday Night Live? One of the things he says is, "I can picture in my mind a world without war, a world without hate. And I can picture us attacking that world because they'd never expect it." That's funny because of the twist. Right? The expectation. You think he's going on this, you know, "Imagine all the people living in harmony", right? And instead, he's like, "And I can picture us attacking that world because they'd never expect it, those dummies." Right? Here's another Jack Handey one. He says, "Maybe in order to understand mankind, we have to look at the word itself. Basically, it's made up of two separate words, mank and ind. What do these two words mean? It's a mystery. And that's why so is mankind. Now that's funny, because it's an expectation, we think, "Oh, let's look at the word itself. It's basically made up of two words, man, and kind. But instead, he does mank and ind. I mean, it's a twist. It's a twist.
Okay, here's one. Today I gave it my some. Silly, but effective, because typically we think, "Today I gave it my all." Today I gave it my some. Okay, that works. I'm trying to think of a couple more here. I have more. "I hate it when couples argue in public. And I missed the beginning and don't know whose side I'm on." Okay, so most of us, that would be a cliche, the idea that we hate it when people argue in public because it makes us feel uncomfortable. But here, the person is saying, and I missed the beginning, and I don't know whose side I'm on. What's another one...? Okay, I saw this on Twitter. "When I see initials carved into a tree with a heart, I think it's so romantic. Two lovers on a date. One of them carrying a knife for some reason." Okay, I mean, that's kind of funny, right? Because it is taking that cliche of the carving of the tree and then putting the twist on it or changing it up so that it seems kind of icky. Kind of seems a little icky, right? Let's see.... I know I have more. I mean, here's a simple one. You've heard the cliche, be careful what you do, because God is watching us. God is watching you. You know, that's a cliche now. So somebody wrote, "If God is watching us, the least we can do is be interesting." Right? Don't be boring today.
Anyway, the point is that a cliche is an opportunity to change something up, it's an opportunity to undermine what the expectation is. It's a wonderful, wonderful tool, and almost all jokes have at their core, something like that. The value is that the ending is predictable, which means it's the easiest vehicle that you can use to achieve surprise. It takes the audience on a ride in a predictable direction, and then it changes it at the last minute.
So in the movie, What About Bob, there's this great line where he says, "Roses are red, violets are blue. I'm a schizophrenic. And so am I." Now that does a double thing, right? It's a double thing, because for one, it violates the rule of poetry because it's not rhyming. But two, it's also just funny in itself, because it actually emphasizes the literal truth of that statement. I'm a schizophrenic. And so am I. Right? It's kind of funny. It's funny on two levels. All right.
So there are actually more techniques that you can use in terms of how to use cliches and one of them is the double entendre. We're familiar with that where you take the familiar meaning but you put a twist on it. For example, the word "it" becomes really popular in terms of a double entendre. "Lawyers do it in their briefs," right? Things like that. The word "it" becomes a double entendre. I love it when I see these vans that service people, like plumbers and that sort of thing. The Illinois radiation repair company, a good place to take a leak, or camel toe towing, we'll get you out of a tight spot. That one's pretty, "Ah," I've seen that. That's a real thing. I saw that. Whoa, I don't know if I should say that one. There are so many of them. And I can't think of them off the top of my head. But double entendres are often associated with sex, of course. And we've seen those and they're funny. So it's the cliche, it's a double entendre. We've all done that.
The key is predictability and then surprise. The key is whatever you're using, whatever you're using as the tool, you set up something predictable that the audience is naturally going to expect. And then you subvert it at the last minute. You surprise them. If there's no surprise, there's no laughter.
So these are just a couple of ideas, just a couple of ways that you can take these cliches and do a twist with them. You can do a twist. And by the way, you can construct this in sequences, too. It doesn't have to be just jokes. It doesn't have to be one liners.
For example, in the film, Lethal Weapon, there's a great scene where they go to the shooting range, and they're basically, you know, having a pissing contest to see who's the better cop. And we have the cliche of the target that's being shot at. And Danny Glover does the realism thing. He sets up the reality, rolls his neck, shoots his gun, proves that he's a good cop. And then Mel Gibson's character comes and hits the button and it goes back, back, back, back, back, back back all the way. Danny Glover's character had gotten a bullseye right in the middle of the target. And that proves that even though he's older, he's an old timer, and he's got an older gun or whatever, he's still a good cop. Mel Gibson puts the target all the way back, all the way back. And then he's kind of humming, "la la la la," and then he just goes, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. And then he makes the target come back up. And as it swings in front of our faces, once it gets close enough, we see that he's put a smiley face around the bullseye, which turns out to now be the nose. And he says to Danny Glover, "Have a nice day," and he walks off. So that even is the cliche with a twist, right? We never expected him to be able to put a smiley face in the target. We're expecting a grouping really tight, right? But instead, he's so good, he puts the smiley face. And then on top of that, he's able to say, "Have a nice day," which is double ironic or double funny, because certainly we wouldn't expect that with the gun range. So there are all sorts of ways to do this. We're just scratching the surface. We're going to go over more examples next week.
So in the meantime, practice, practice, practice, practice, I'm telling you, you will not regret practicing these even if you don't see yourself as a comedy writer.
CALL TO ACTION: So I want to encourage you to come up with a list of five cliches that you can think of. They can even be cliches that have already been created from movies, like, "Go ahead, make my day." And then come up with a twist. Try to subvert it. Try to give it a twist, a surprise ending of some kind, like, "Give me liberty or give me death. No, not death. A death ray maybe, but certainly not death." Anything like that. Anything that you can come up with. And post it on social media. And of course, tag us and you're going to tag us with the tag that we came up with STM jokes, hashtag STM jokes, tag the storytellers mission on Instagram or Facebook or Twitter. We'd love love to hear from you. And then we'd love to share those with the rest of the world.
OUTRO: So anyway, thank you so much for joining me on this episode of The Storyteller's Mission with Zena Dell Lowe. May you go forth inspired to change the world for the better through story.