Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Comedy-Off: Colbert

The Comedy-Off

After posting the last entry about humorous writing and timing, one Nir Yaniv asked me why I didn’t use excerpts from more popular sources, like Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat. I said that I wanted to quote from things that the readers are less likely to have read, something that will feel new. But, I added, why don’t you do it on your blog? As the conversation continued, we decided to have a comedy-off. Here’s his first salvo.

So far there are only three rules:

1. Entries must be in English, so that both our readers can enjoy them.

2. There must be at least 4-5 excerpts. Anything less is cheating.

3. The loser’s name starts with ‘N’.

More rules may crop up as the game continues.


What Jerome K. Jerome did in the excerpts Nir brought is build a comic situation, which certainly requires great timing. The point in the last entry in Storytellers, though, was about a different sort of timing.

We’re going to get to it in a roundabout way.

Laughter, like humor, is a sure-fire way to weed the more intelligent from the less intelligent. This is how laughter does it: Laughter almost always starts off with a powerful ‘ha’, in which our diaphragm (read: stomach) hits the bottom of our lungs. Laughter clearly marks the milli-second you got the joke. There is never a doubt about who laughed first, who laughed second, and who laughed last if at all. Laughter shows us how fast someone understood something.

In the Jack Vance and Dorothy Parker excerpts I’ve quoted in the last post, everyone who does laugh (not everyone will laugh) laughs at the same time at the same word. To do that, the author needs to set up one set of expectations in a very clear way and then offset it in a surgically-precise manner to produce the same result in everyone’s brain with one word. Try reading those excerpts again, and see how you’re always surprised at the same spot and want to laugh at the same spot. Check out if you can see how we were set up one way then taken another.

In the Jerome K. Jerome excerpts, meanwhile, it’s the situation that’s comical. The comic situation builds and builds and becomes more and more absurd, and therefore more and more funny. People who listen to or read it will start laughing at different spots and their laughter will keep on rolling as the situation grows more comical.

“We’re at war, sir. How can you ask us to make sacrifices?”

Speaking of having one set of expectations, then being taken another way, there’s a subset of that category, in which the writer already knows what we think, so he doesn’t bother building up the premise, he just knocks it down. That is one neat trick, and one man and his writers do it time and time again on television.

Stephen Colbert

Colbert, in his program, The Colbert Report, makes it a point to again and again appear to say one thing but actually say another. He never tells you he doesn’t believe what he’s saying. He never tells you that what he’s saying is absurd. He is relying on the audience’s set of presumptions to already realize that he couldn’t possibly mean what he’s saying.

Here are a few examples:

“Folks, everywhere you look these days, there are signs our great American traditions are disappearing. Look at this,” he shows a newspaper headline, “ ‘The great American swing set is teetering’. The wear-a-helmet-first Gestapo would have you believing that playgrounds are dangerous. And they are. That’s exactly why we need them. To thin the herd.”

As before, explaining why something funny works really takes the punch of it. See if you can tell how he assumes you’re thinking one thing and preys upon it.

Here he continues his rant:

“Sadly enough, even the weather page is in a state of moral decay.” Colbert pulls out a colorful weather map from USA Today, filled with red zones, orange zones and red zones. “What’s wrong with red, white, and blue, USA Today? This rainbow weather map is just another example of the homo-meteorological agenda. Folks, I don’t care what their forecast is, I will not turn partly gay with a chance of a reach-around.”

Another time, he took on the policy of ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’, by suggesting the Pentagon adopt an even stricter policy: “ ‘Don’t know, don’t think’. Under the new policy, it will be against regulations for a soldier to know what homosexuality is. If a fellow soldier tells you he’s gay, it’s your duty to assume he’s filled with joy. If you see two naked guys oiled up and rolling around, just assume they’re wrestling. And if someone starts soaping you up in the shower, say thank you and salute. Because the only way we can have a cohesive fighting force is if there is never a question about a comrade’s sexual orientation. And we can no longer count on gay soldiers refusing to answer the question we’re too afraid to ask.”

Colbert on competition:

“Competition improves everything. After Home Depot opened down the block, service at my local hardware store got a lot better!” He pauses a second, then feels a need to add, “Until it closed.”

Colbert takes on education:

“Oprah Winfrey recently spent over 40 million dollars to start a school in South Africa. She said Third World kids were more desperate to learn than our kids. Yes, Oprah, that’s exactly why we have to hold the Third World kids back!”

Later on, he adds:

“And, hey, don’t the liberals always say, ‘who are we to judge these people’? Maybe dysentery and guinea worms are part of their culture? I don’t know.”

Here Colbert takes a stand on capital punishment:

“Most disappointingly, my own Catholic Church is against capital punishment. Well, that’s pretty hypocritical considering they wouldn’t even have a religion if it weren’t for capital punishment.”

The danger, of course, in phrasing things like this is that some people will take you at your word. President Bush's people, for example, who invited Colbert to the Press Corps Dinner. Then again, maybe they were fooled by the red, white, and blue colors that pervade the show.

In a recent ‘meet the author’ that can be found somewhere in podcast-land, Colbert says that some of the people he grew up with tell him, Now we agree with what you’re saying.

On the other hand, of course, if you add ‘... Not’ at the end of every sentence, you won’t be as funny.

Over to you, Nir.

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