from eight years ago, when we were post-graduate English students at the University of Toronto—sitting in the reference library looking worried.
We go home, spread out our notes and start working for gags. We pace the floor, chew our nails, teeter, peer out windows, frown, shake our heads and sometimes get stymied and just sit there for hours on end looking at one another without saying a word.
Sometimes we carry the blank stare into overtime. We stare at our families and friends, still thinking of the unfinished script. Our wives are used to it. When they see the expression, they say, “Leave him alone, he’s writing.”
We get about one page of finished script to every eight pages of copy. We work at each joke till it’s right; pruning it, reworking it, shifting the emphasis, reading it back and forth till we get the right ride to it. A joke has to scan properly. It’s like Virgil. Not that it has to break down into iambic pentameter, but—well, take that joke that has become a test pattern for comedians: “ ‘Pardon me, do you have twenty cents for a cup of coffee?’ You say, ‘Coffee’s only a dime.’ And he says, ‘I know—won’t you join me.’ ”
That has cadence and rhythm. Suppose he said, “I know. I would like you to join me.” It isn’t funny. Maybe you don’t think the first one was funny either; but the point is it’s funnier than the second, purely because of the sound, the impact it has on your ear.
There’s an old story among comedians about this technique. It’s about a group of professional comedians sitting around knocking one another out by just mentioning jokes by number. “Seventeen,” someone says. Everybody laughs. “Forty-four,” another one says. They fall off their chairs. Then a new member of the group tries it. “Thirty-six,” he says. Nobody laughs. When he asks afterward what happened, they explain: “It’s not the joke, it’s the way you tell it.” A comedian develops a sense of pace and timing that’s an important factor in humor. We use the audience to help it along. We don’t wait for laughs as most people think. We use laughs as punctuation—we think of them as colons and semicolons. We can time them and control them to build up a good pace.
Every time we go in to our tailor, he says, “Man! I’ve got a real suit for you. Something really sharp. Long jacket, green-and-yellow check. Wear it with a red shirt and a blue bow tie and you’ll stop people like a traffic light.”
He wants to dress us like show people. Good advertising, he says. We tell him that isn’t what we want. He looks baffled and asks what we do want. We tell him we want to dress like gentlemen and he bursts out laughing and says, “That’s a wonderful gag,” and starts hauling out suits with baggy pants.
Writing a half-hour of humor to a weekly deadline, hot or cold, whether you feel good or have a toothache, isn’t done with long jackets and red shirts. Our show goes into about a million and a half homes. Our audience is made up of people of every age, type and taste in humor. We have to try to make them all laugh. We work for a kind of humor that’s based on simple familiar things. An example would be the bit we worked into one program when we announced that we were expecting a very special guest, the
manager of a drive-in theatre. The announcement was followed by the sound of a car roaring up the aisle and squealing to a stop. That sounds easy: the sort of thing you’d think
up in a minute. It isn’t.
In that particular case we had to figure out what to do with the imaginary car and its passenger once the gag was over. Not that anyone would really think there was a car in the studio, but humor has to produce a certain illusion of reality or it falls flat. Leaving that fictitious car there without doing anything about it would have spoiled the feeling. Nothing else would have made sense. It would have been just as if a mystery-story writer had built up an important character then, without explanation, dropped him halfway through the book. The thing had to be solved—with a laugh.
We kept coming back to that one all day, without getting anywhere. We had another go at it after supper. We tried one idea after another but they didn’t jell. We tried having the manager come up on stage, with Herb May taking the part, but it upset the rest of the program. We didn’t want the theatre manager in the script; we just wanted him out of the studio. We worked till three in the morning without getting the right gimmick. We finally gave up and went to bed.
Next morning, driving downtown, we got the answer. It was simple. We saw a guy get stuck at the corner of Avenue Road and St. Clair, blocking the path of a turning streetcar. He backed up his car. We had the answer. We’d just tell a bad joke and have the manager of the drive-in slap his car into reverse and shoot out of the studio.
Transforming everything into show material becomes a subconscious process. It goes on all the time, when we’re in restaurants, talking to friends, having lunch, sitting at a ball game, walking down the street, or sitting in a show.
Is Chicken Pox Hilarious?
In our search for gags we have to keep clear of those that will offend someone. Jokes based on any form of affliction are taboo; the only people we make fun of are ourselves. We can’t even use jokes like the wartime favorite about the short-sighted doctor who, when the expectant father said, “What is it, doc?” answered, “A baby.” There are too many short-sighted people in the world.
Even then you never know when you’re going to make somebody mad. One time we did a show about a dentist’s office. The patient was nearly murdered. We had a lot of fun. So did the studio audience. Right after that we got a letter from a dental organization. It said: “So far, we’ve
spent one million five hundred thousand dollars trying to convince the public that the dentist doesn’t hurt. You’ve offset all our work in one night. Thank you. Yours very truly . . .”
It’s problems like that which make it hard sometimes for us to keep from laughing when people get that look: “Watch out! Here come Wayne and Shuster! Watch for the batteries under their hats!”
Some people don’t even wait for the gag. They start laughing anyway. If one of us says, “Both my kids have chicken pox,” somebody says “Jeez! that’s funny.”
Mechanics hand us bills for a hundred and seventy-five dollars for gaskets, gears, fuel lines, fittings, bolts, nuts and top lube and stand there chuckling while they wait for us to look funny. When we just look sick, like anybody else, they figure we’re having an off day.
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