BLOG: 1st December 2019
Cliche and Joke Structure
Relevant workshop section: STRUCTURE.
Following the workshop session on Cliche and Joke Structure and the various conversations I have had with people, here’s an updated excerpt on the subject from my book Attitude - Wanna Make Something Of It?
Cliche and Joke Structure
STRUCTURE - Giving it form
An anecdote, opinion or even a snippet of information, told in conversation and then honed, heightened and embellished in the re-telling can almost structure itself without any deliberate design. Fragments lifted from a performer's personal conversational cannon are often, with minimal tweaking, ready-made material for the stage act. Material improvised on the spot can also, surprisingly, be elegantly structured. But beyond such quirks of serendipity, structuring potentially funny ideas into a form where they actually get laughs is a matter of personal discovery and of trial and error. The best guide is to express yourself in the language and manner that comes easiest and feels most enjoyable - make the whole thing a pleasure to do. Know who you are. Know what you've got to say and get on with it.
For those who share my penchant for nerdy deconstruction the following may offer more about joke structure.
Word play - Puns and Wit
There is a qualitative difference between the word play of a raw pun and the word play of sophisticated wit. It is a spectrum rather than two distinct categories. At one end is the meaningless pun that unites two ideas or concepts that have nothing in common other than the fact that they are known by or have been allocated the same or a similar sounding word.
A joke that points that out is no big deal.
Why are there no aspirins in the jungle? The parrots-eat-em-all. (Paracetamol)
The word play of a Witticism however, unites two ideas or concepts and often adds to the understanding of one or even both.
Concise title for a performance ensemble or workshop
Attitude! Wanna make something of it?
Grabby title for a book about Stand-up comedy. Enough said.
I've got an aversion to puns. I'm a pun snob. They are the joke form of the intellectually arrested; of those who are still struggling to understand the basics of language. I shun them. Den Levett (Wobbie Wobbit) says I'm victimising an innocent and valid joke form. She's quite happy to deal with them - She has a song of unrequited love that is full of puns and calculated to make the audience cringe:
If I were baker, I'd look at you with doughy eyes
If I were a cobbler, I'd give you my soul
If I were a soldier, I'd wrap my arms around you
If I were a roofer, I'd tell you how I felt
Once she's got them cringing, she gets them laughing at the witty way she plays with the puns. It concludes
If I were a telephone operator
I'd give you a ring - and we'd be engaged
I can see the method in it and the final wit gets me laughing; but I still don't like puns. It has doubtless got something to do with my inferiority complex about the quality of my education - I am self-taught.
Children's comics like the Dandy and the Beano rely solely on puns and eschew wit because it's too complex for their readership, who are still learning the language. Similarly the comedy of Chico Marx's screen persona, (an immigrant to the US coping with learning a second language) depends almost entirely on puns. If you or your friends have proffered a pun around 'Hat he chewed' on the title of this book, then we are talking about you. No stigma, but puns alone do not make good comedy.
It's only with careful structuring or the re-interpreting of a tired cliché do puns begin to appear funny. We laugh at the trickery.
Friend of mine has called his puppy "life". Cos life's a bitch.
In jokes with a victim, a pun is often a mistake made by someone who is either stupid, innocent or unsophisticated.
Did you hear about the Irish blonde…?
No, let's not even go down there. You can only laugh wholeheartedly at those jokes, if you accept that the Irish or blondes or whatever are congenitally stupid. Dyslexic jokes work better. At least the dyslexic pun joke describes dyslexia; consequently there is an onus on conjuring up a funny image rather than any old slack.
Did you hear about the dyslexic devil worshipper who sold his soul to Santa?
I laughed. It passed the time, but it would have passed anyway. Pun jokes about (or repeated by) children can be the exception and are often delightful.
Why did the biscuit cry? Because his mother had been a wafer so long.
And a visual pun loved by kids:
What did the 0 say to the 8? “Nice belt.”
On hearing a weak pun a sophisticated audience will recognise, not the butt of the joke as stupid, but rather the joke-teller as stupid, the familiar groan response usually comes when they recognise that the joke is actually on them for having listened in the first place.
I've also got a theory about groaners which involves the rule of three, Even a relatively low-brow audience will groan when there is no surprise or spin on hearing the third particularly bland pun-joke in a row.
Rule of three - Establish, reinforce, Surprise!
The rule of three pervades joke structure and also advertising slogans - there's probably marketing seminars dedicated to it. Avoid four; always go for three. When you stray into four or five it’s best to get silly or surreal.
A laugh, a joke, a can of worms.
A laugh, a song, a demonic possession. - Aggie Elsdon’s Bill Matter.
My hobbies are smoking, drinking and Keep fit. - Wobbie Wobbit
You thought it was over. You thought it was safe. You thought wrong - Blah for Speilberg’s Movie - Lost World
He gave me chocolates, flowers and multiple bruising. - Advertising campaign for a women's refuge.
French cooking is not only frogs' legs and snails. They eat insects as well
I'll give you three seconds to come out - one, two, two n half. I overheard a kid say this in the back garden.
I was on the tube recently and a student of language started to explain to me that all jokes could be deconstructed in terms of major premise, minor premise and conclusion. Or thesis, anti-thesis and synthesis. Or... I never got the last bit because I didn't want to miss my stop.
The currency of most joke structure involves re-organising cliché. By cliché I mean any received ideas or popular myths expressed as a well-known phrase or saying - Song titles, graffiti, advertising slogans, news headlines, quotations. In fact many clichés are already interpretations of previous clichés.
As well as stating familiar ideas and long-standing truths, clichés also degrade and corrupt with time. Every day we wake up in a world informed by yesterday; our language and ideas encapsulated in cliché, reinforce the habitual thinking of yesterday. Fashions pass, the tenets of science are subject to re-appraisal; even what were understood to be universal truths are periodically over-turned and pass into history.
On a simplistic level you could sit down and write ten current clichés change the wording slightly to mean something different for each one and then work backwards and create a set of jokes. Listening to some comedians, it's what I assume they must do… and it shows. The subject matter is arbitrary and while it can often be funny, the joke structure is obvious and eventually monotonous. Given a space cadet attitude with timing to match - it's an act. But it's joke writing by numbers.
Comedy that accepts the dubious cliché as a given, must be bunged in the recyc. The racism, the sexism, the dumb blonde and the thick paddy are all obvious examples of yesterday's slack, but every other sentence we utter, may contain clichés that reinforce lies and stereotypes that can translate into potential pain for some of us. The job of the artist and of the comedian is to challenge, confront and expose the redundant clichés of yesterday not to go projecting our own defensive stuff on to others.
Therapy has taken the place of religion. Once you would go and talk to the priest. Now you go and talk to the therapist… About the priest. Sinead O'Connor.
Some jokes are simple statements of truth - new clichés.
Sex. If I'd known it was going to be the last time I'd have paid more attention.
And this beautiful observation on ageing by George Burns.
At my age when I bend down to tie up my shoelaces, I always ask myself "Is there anything else I could be doing while I'm down here?"
A good heading in a comedian's notebook* is 'I've never seen that before" It's a way of identifying fresh subject matter and new clichés. In October 2001, Rory Motion and I walked out of a pub in the Balls Pond Road and fell about laughing when we read the blah on a hoarding, advertising the flats in a new luxury block. It finished on the legend - "…plus Armani suited concierge." We'd never seen that before.
A comedian's approach to cliché can often say a lot about their attitude.
"When men make love they can fantasise about being with somebody else. Huh! When women make love they can fantasise about being with anybody else!"
Jo Brand - one-upping men in the war of the sexes
I was at a party the other night and watching a young woman dancing… I I found myself mentally… dressing her. Rory Motion.
I was at an impressionable age, when I overheard one woman say to another woman "A good man is hard to find.” So I hid.
Matt Harvey - compliant and self-deprecating
Justice must not only be done. It must be seen to be believed
Peter Cook's mix of two clichés - clever, manipulative and insightful.
Self-deprecation - drawing attention to your own faults, admitting to your own bullshit and presenting a gentle (or not so gentle) parody of self - is a refreshing trait in anybody, especially a comedian and it can lead to the creation of highly original comedy. Getting into the habit of confronting clichés and stating awkward little local truths can also lead to the discovery of bigger unstated truths.
Thou hypocrite, first remove the log from thine own eye; and then thou shalt see clearly to remove the spec from thy neighbour's eye. Matthew 7. 3-5
Whenever anybody tells me there are no taboos left. I ask them how they know. Surely taboos are never talked about; not even acknowledged - they're taboo. In a liberal society to suggest there are still taboos is almost a taboo. Put it this way. Think of something about your personal life, that you would never admit to anybody. Now if you can't think of anything, then you probably can't even admit it to yourself. But don't worry, you're not alone. We all have them. It doesn't stop you being a nice person. Those hidden thoughts can, of course, become a problem when we all, as a society, share the same taboo. Be vigilant.