by Jim Foreman
CREATING HUMOR FROM SCRATCH
"No one can teach talent, but the practical skills of the professional writer's craft can certainly be taught." These aren't my words but those of Dwight V. Swain, Oklahoma University's professor emeritus in professional writing. Neither Dr. Swain nor I can teach the basic sense of humor which is required in order to write humor but for those who are lucky enough to have had that particular trait passed along to them via their genes, this book can be a roadmap for them to follow. It will teach the reader how to set up a situation, raise the interest of the reader and then spring the punchline. It will also teach how to develop the cadence and timing necessary to make it work.
Writing humor from scratch is much the same as making biscuits from scratch. Before you can mix up anything, you have to have the necessary basic ingredients in hand. Otherwise, it might turn out like the preacher who was attempting to get his congregation excited about building a new church. After ranting and raving at great length about how great it would be to have a new building and how the people could show their dedication to God by constructing a proper and fitting church, he ended it by saying, "All that is needed to build a new church is for one man to nail up one board."
As he stopped to gather his breath for a new onslaught, one of the men toward the back of the church, who was obviously more attuned with carpentry than symbolic rhetoric, spoke up in a loud voice, "What is he going to nail that board to, preacher?"
In creating humor, just as in constructing a building, one must have something already in place to which he can nail that first board. It is nearly impossible to produce a humorous situation without something solid to build on. Even famous one- liners such as, "Take my wife, please!" has to have a primary foundation for the humor to play against. There had to be a lead-up to the story, previous jokes about people or something similar in order for it to work. That is one of the reasons why most comedians have what is called a warm-up act to get the audience in the right frame of mind before they comes on stage. If the comic simply walked out on the stage and said the line, it wouldn't have been the least bit funny.
The best route to successful comedy is to begin with an interesting and believable story of some sort as a basis to build the humor around. Little pieces of humor can be sprinkled in the basic story like a spice, to let the reader know that more will follow. To illustrate this point, here is the original draft of the story which I sold to a national recreational vehicle and travel magazine. Its basis of the story is about breaking the television addiction for three months while touring Baja.
As you can see in the very first paragraph, I created the story line about television addiction, set up a conflict between the two people let the reader know that it was going to be a funny story. Once that this was accomplished, I could progress more fully into the humorous interplay between the situation and the punch lines.
By: Jim Foreman
I'm not sure when the Baja bug chomped down on me, but I suspect that it happened during a commercial in which a pickup truck was leaping from one sand mogul to the next across the Vizcaino Desert while an off-camera announcer raved on about how this rice-rocket had tamed Baja. During the next six minutes, while good old JR Ewing swindled a dozen of his best friends, went to bed with five different women and had Sue Ellen committed to the Betty Ford Center, I plotted how to break the news to the little woman who had promised to love, honor and adjust my vertical hold that I also wanted to tame Baja.
During the next commercial break, which involved a man who was offending everyone in his area code with under-arm odor until his girlfriend slipped him a stick of Industrial Strength Arrid, I made my move. "Darling," I said. "How would you feel about getting away from the cold weather this winter by spending three months in a place where we can lay on the beaches all day, soak up lots of sunshine and eat great food?"
"Where's that?" she asked, peeking over the edge of her TV Guide.
"I'll give you a hint. It's off the west coast of Mexico."
"Hawaii!" she shouted with such excitement that she dropped her remote control. "I've always wanted to spend a winter in Hawaii and live the lifestyle of the rich and famous."
"Well, the place that I have in mind isn't quite that far west. It's more like a couple hundred rather than a couple thousand miles. I thought that we'd load up the motorhome and spend the winter in Baja."
"Baja! That's another world. There's nothing down there except snakes, scorpions and Parnelli Jones," she fretted. "Besides, I hear that they don't even have HBO."
"Parnelli Jones only goes there to race in the Baja 1000, but Farrah Fawcett and Ryan O'Neal live there all the time," I countered.
"And Desi Arnaz died down there, probably from boredom."
It was obvious that I would have to exercise the diplomatic abilities of Henry Kissinger if I was going to convince my better half that she should trade her TV for an RV. "We are becoming couch potatoes, sitting here in front of the tube all the time. In Baja, we can read good books, walk along the beaches at sunset and have time to really talk to one another. It would be great for our marriage, sort of like a second honeymoon."
"Are you saying that there is something wrong with our marriage?" she asked, acidly.
OOPS! I'd just made the Queen Mother of all mistakes! Never, never even hint that there is something wrong with your marriage or you will instantly find yourself in marital quicksand up to your armpits. "Just think, no TV means no world series or college football," I continued as I tried to dance around the land mine of that foolish remark about our marriage.
"But we aren't young and restless any more," she protested. "We are now classed among the bald and beautiful."
"And no NBA playoffs to watch," I pressed for an advantage.
"But, in all the days of our lives, we have never done anything so irrational as to go off to some foreign country for three whole months as the world turns. What would our relatives think?"
"Going someplace without checking to see what our relatives think isn't irrational. We deserve to do a few things just for ourselves."
"But you'll miss seeing the Super Bowl."
"Who cares about the Super Bowl this year," I replied. "It's probably going to be either the Jets or the Cardinals who win this year and I hate both of them."
"We don't speak a word of Spanish."
"Most of the people in Baja speak English; and we wouldn't have to watch while every celebrity from Andy Williams to Rin Tin Tin drags their kids in front of the camera for a Christmas Special."
"What about all our children? What will they do if we are off down in this Baja place and not at home during Christmas so they can come to visit?"
"We'll send them a postcard," I answered with the greatest confidence, knowing that when she mentioned the kids, she was firing her last shot of opposition.
We realized that one cannot simply go cold turkey and walk away from a 40 year TV addiction like ours, so we began a withdrawal process. First, I cancelled our subscription to Cablevision and then I brought the little 9 inch black and white TV, which had once been used to watch the Jack Paar show in our bedroom, down from the attic and set it atop our mute 45 inch super screen. When I turned on the tiny set, it hummed a little, made a couple funny noises and belched out a cloud of smoke and dead spiders before flickering to life. By pulling out the rabbit ears and adjusting them to just the right angle, I think that we could actually hear Uncle Milty's voice behind Vanna as she turned the letters.
We found ourselves watching the little TV less and less as we packed, unpacked and changed our minds about what we should take with us to Baja. I had to put my foot down when she wanted to bring along her collection of TV Guides for the past 25 years, but did relent enough to allow her to bring the remote control so she could put it under her pillow as a sort of Linus Blanket to give her a feeling of security as she went to sleep.
We turned off the water, stopped delivery of the newspaper, had our mail sent to one of the kids to hold for us and gave a key to the neighbors so they could keep an eye on the house. It was time to go.
"Bienvenidos," shouted the guard as we crossed the border in the highest of spirits. It was the beginning of an adventure; an escape from dreary days, snow shovels and studded tires. We were bound for the land of sunny beaches and warm nights, of good food and low prices; also where there were no ringing phones and no TV.
NO TV! The full impact of this fact finally came upon us. With every mile that we traveled southward, we could feel the TV signals fading in the air around us; fading away to nothingness. It was almost as if our very lives were also fading away. We had failed to complete the withdrawal process from the tube; we simply had to have one more TV fix if we hoped to survive until sunset.
"COLOR TV! COLOR TV! COLOR TV!" flashed the neon sign of a motel as we entered Ensenada. Almost as if our rig had a mind of its own, tires squealed and it whipped into the parking lot. I grabbed a key from the desk and we sprinted to our room. Without even hitting the bathroom; we switched on the set, flopped down on the bed and waited for the life-giving transfusion of TV. First came the sound, then faint images materialized on the screen. It was a re-run of the GONG SHOW with a guy dressed in a Santa Claus suit, playing Jingle Bells on his armpit. Like two inmates strapped to tables in the shock ward of a hospital for the criminally insane, we were rudely jolted back to reality.
We crawled from the bed, switched off the TV set and staggered back to our rig. Perspiration rolled down our faces as we started the engine and pulled from the parking lot. No longer did the tires hum the theme from Gilligan's Island as they rolled along the highway. Now the slap, slap, slap of the expansion joints carried the sounds of La Cucaracha, people smiled and waved, and the air was as fresh as a frosty Margarita. We were finally free of that TV monkey on our backs.
Three months later when we crossed the border on our way home; we were lean, tanned and speaking Spanish like a tourist. We had boxes of sea shells, rolls of exposed film and hundreds of stories to tell our friends. Green buds were poking their heads from winter-ravaged soil, robins were gathering twigs for their nests and a fresh, clean smell wafted through the air. There was something else in the air that I couldn't quite identify. An invisible force seemed to be tugging at us; dragging us northward.
"Wonder if Victor and Nikki ever got a divorce?" asked the love of my life.
"Was that the couple that we met in Cabo Pulmo who were always yelling at one another over who had to clean the fish or were they the ones who got into a fight because she was laughing while she pulled the stickers out of his backside after he got drunk and fell into a cactus?"
"You know who Victor and Nikki are, they are the ones who have the little girl named Victoria."
"You mean that strange family in the Winnebago at Cabo San Lucas. I thought that their kid was a boy named Chuckie or Bucky or something like that," I replied.
"Don't be silly, those people had a dog named Lucky. Victor and Nikki were going to get a divorce so he started sleeping with Ashley and got her pregnant. Victor didn't know that Ashley was pregnant and he left her when he found out that Nikki was dying, but then she got well again and in the meantime, Ashley had an abortion, went crazy and fell in love with her psychiatrist."
A cold realization finally hit me. That TV monkey which had been on our backs all those years was still there, lurking in the ozone, just waiting to leap on us again as soon as we returned. TV isn't really an addiction; all those electronic signals flowing through the air do something to the mind.
See how the basic storyline of TV addiction is carried all the way through the story to the very end. It is used much like a clothes line with the various conflicts and situations which support the humor are hung onto it from time to time. There are actually three different conflicts going on in the story, each of which could stand alone as a shorter story. Each of these internal stories has its own introduction, main body and end.
The first story concerns the conflict between the two people about giving up television for three months. The humor in that story is based entirely on that conflict. The story can be milked for just so long and comes to a natural end when the conflict ceases. At this point, it is time to begin the second story.
The second story is based on the conflict between the people and their addiction, which opens up a whole new field on which to play with humor. The middle story is always a good place for the writer to explore a silly sort of humor and what could be sillier than a man in a Santa Claus suit, playing Jingle Bells on his armpit.
The introduction to the final story gives the reader a chance to catch his breath before plunging back into that last burst of humor. It also ties the reader back to the original thought of the storyline about television addiction while allowing the story to come to a graceful and logical end.