In my far-off youth and for as long as I can remember, lurked inside me the heart of a comedy writer. I wanted nothing more than to be writing funny quips for people, like Woody Allen did for Sid Caesar on Your Show of Shows, back in the fifties. I wasn’t around then, but I’ve seen most of the kinescopes interviews with Allen and Caesar and was mesmerized. Just to make it clear, I wasn’t nearly as impressed by Allen’s foré into his own comedy shows, record albums, movies and even less impressed with his romantic encounters. What got me where I lived was him writing words for performers that made an audience laugh. I couldn’t imagine a greater existence.
One of my very first jobs as a writer in New York City was for No Soap Radio. As the name implies, we wrote funny ads and commercials for radio, had a ball and got paid a weekly salary! Does it get any better than that? Of course, the weekly stipend was so little I often had to decide if I would pay my rent or the phone bill, but by golly, I was a comedy writer. It was a short-lived chapter of my life, maybe a little more than a year, but the things I learned from that group of comedy writers have held fast for the rest of my writing life.
The art of comedy is serious business and you’d better know your business. You’d better know timing, delivery, and what the funny words are. By funny words – and most people don’t think about this – these are words that automatically cause people to smile or chortle. For instance:
Orange? Not so funny. Kumquat. Funny.
Move? Not so funny. Jiggle. Funnier.
Glasses? Not so funny. Spectacles. Funny. Or maybe more funny. Testicles? Whoa. Never mind. But in comedy, expect the unexpected. It often gets a laugh.
But back to words, if you don’t have the words in the right order, with the right rhythm and cadence, it’s probably not going to work. I’ve known comics to work on a one-line joke for weeks until they get it right.
Speaking of comics, have you noticed they often talk in violent or military terms? “I slaughtered ‘em last night” “Man, that audience was murder” “Go out and kill ‘em, pal,” phrases like that. There’s a reason for it. If you don’t get that laugh, you might as well be dead. Comics are very serious about their laughs.
Same with authors who write a funny mystery series. That corpse better be laughing when he hits the ground. Otherwise, I don’t sleep so good at night.