Monday, August 4, 2008

It's a trick!

I recently finished a pretty fun book called "Service Included" by Phoebe Damrosch.

I'm going to be taking a story from the book, which may be illegal I'm not really sure what the rules are. So anyway, I figure it only fair to relax my own rules about linking and recommend you pick it up.

Amazon Page for Service Included

In the book she tells a story of a little encounter between her and a couple that are regulars at the restaurant. I'm not quoting, I'm paraphrasing, but here's the story.

The couple were having dessert, and the server heard the man say to his wife, "This is better than pot." The server thought this was very bold and open of the man, so she asked him, "Oh, do you indulge?"

The couple smiled to themselves and answered, somewhat conspiratorially, "Yes, a few times a week."

The server thought this was great; here was a couple that looked like your average suburban dwellers, she keeping house, he commuting to an anonymous job in the city, and they are smoking a big fatty while they relax at home. The server told them how impressed she was at their relevation, how she was brought up by hippies in Vermont, about how she didn't think pot was anything people should be afraid or ashamed of...

That's when, with a confused look on his face, the man interrupted her and said, "No, I said it was better than pie."

Now, I happen to like this story quite a bit, but what interests me about it is that it is a very sophisticated story that needs to be told just right to hit your laugh line.

Look back at the story again. At a certain key point in the telling, you almost have to lie to your listener. A more factual way to tell the story would be to say, "she thought she heard him say, "Better than pot." But, of course, then you're telegraphing the joke. But to say it in a way that's more definite, "He said," then you're risking creating confusion when you hit the punchline.

It requires a verbal slight of hand. It's like a magic trick. By taking on her point of view and saying, "She heard" you're creating an ambiguity that gets paid off.

This story is kind of a perfect example of good structure. You're got a beginning, a middle and a end. You've got a conflict - the idea of these suburban middle of the road people doing something we identify as counter culture.

And it also fits in with me steadily developing theory of comedy. When we laugh, it is an instictuve sound of belonging. Laughing means, "I agree." Humour is something we as a species have grafted on top. While a joke can be funny for many, many different reasons, in the end I strongly believe that are two parts to a joke.

One is the expectation that something funny is about to happen. Two is the pay off, which is best if it satisfies the expectation in a totally unexpected way.

In this story, we are primed for the punch line through the verbal slight of hand, the ambiguity of "she heard." As well as the titillation of talking about drug use. And the pay off is, of course, that we're not really talking about drug use at all.

A lot of people think that humour is in the pay off, the punch line. The punch line has to be funny. And sure, it does, but the set up is often much more important than the actual joke. That's the difference between someone who can tell a joke and someone who can't.