The Etymology of Eliciting Laughter
by William Alan Rieser
I believe it was Edmund Titwallow, the great English actor, who, when asked about travails on his deathbed replied, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” For writers, no greater truism reigns so succinctly. Working at humor is a thankless task for the simple reason that testing lines and phrases is comparable to navigating a dense morass replete with stinging barbs (or rebukes if you insist on being literary.) Everyone has a personal idea of what is funny and it is hardly static or even measurable. It migrates like a bat through an oscillating fan and seriously depends on irrelevancies like paper cuts, stubbing one’s toe or losing one’s change through a hole in the pocket. Yet we must test our witticisms or fall into the delusional pit of false brilliance where we truly believe that all of our conceptions are hilarious. The problem is that intentional humor is thousands of times more difficult to achieve than speaking clever puns spontaneously. People like Monty Python, Robin Williams and George Carlin, though admittedly rare, have a much easier time making their audiences burst with guffaws in comparison to a writer because of the dynamics of laughter. Witticisms, you see, do not lend themselves well to author scrutiny because they require a massive scope to observe their effect on the multitude.
The stand up comedian can test his repertoire and actually mold his delivery upon whether he is bombing abysmally or beaming out funny bone material. Script writers, even those who craft one-liners or apropos comments for short performances, enjoy the benefits of brevity, forgetfulness and a whole host of rapidly disappearing trends such as erudition. Not so the novelist who is imprisoned forever by that keystone demon of the inscribed concept, longevity. Haven’t you wondered why the Pharoahs of Egypt never had their artisans craft a single glyph for the purpose of cracking a smile? It’s because they were clever enough to perceive potential failures. Or, if intellectually challenged, they surrounded themselves with seers, prophets and magicians to ward off errant speech and bad press, a practice surviving today in American Presidential politics. We strikingly unwealthy denizens of the keyboard are unable to duplicate such magnificent preparation nor can we have those unheralded phrases boldly erased or chiseled off every tablet or stele at whim.
When a writer wishes to promulgate the humor of a situation, he must take extraordinary precautions by resurrecting his memory so that every conceivable life experience stands ready for deliberate mutilation.
“The vocalist, a previously demonstrated untalented lass, bowed deeply to the audience, whereupon she lost her balance and fell into the orchestra pit.”
Not too bad, but neither is it likely to inspire remembrance or even guarantee a chuckle. This is where the writer, upon furious self-critical analysis, looks for expansive means of expressive description.
“The Wagnerian Brunhilde, of tonic infamy, curtsied with ungainly gravity, whereupon her subsequent plunge compromised not only the grand piano but the violin section as well, as the domino effect of the concussion did indeed elicit major approval from the hitherto mildly responsive audience.”
This is better, for it brings clutziness and unanticipated natural disaster home to the reader, who will certainly recognize the author’s depiction. But, our intrepid novelist is looking for howls, not smirks. Now he commences to hone and refine his sculpture.
“The overly buxom songstress, though failing diatonic mastery with aplomb, was loudly cheered by a male in the front row, whereupon she ungracefully acknowledged his applause by plummeting forcefully into the pit’s piano, cleaving it, the pianist and the violin section with a hitherto unexpected play of sound that finally drew audience approval.”
Clearly superior, if wordy, but that is what it takes nowadays to get modern readers to pay attention. Notice, please, my use of the term ‘readers.’ There is no guarantee of this and that is the ultimate dilemma. You can’t expect people to both read and simultaneously comprehend words. If it isn’t level with talking woodpeckers, roadrunners and other incredulous personifications, you haven’t got a chance. Ramses would get more play today with comic book relief rather than bas. Remember, your words have to stand the test of time. They must be immortal and easily conjure up images that refuse to dissipate.
Which phrase is more vivid to you? “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!” Or is it: “Here I come to save the day!” You see what I mean? Have we connected? Or is it possible that the British Isles have not been infused with supernatural, flying, mighty mice decked out in carmine capes? In any case, my illustration should wreak googles of inspiration.
© 2001 William Alan Rieser
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