The Zen Comedian, upon hearing reference to the cliché; “timing is everything,” responded with the use of another cliché from the immortal Vince Lombardi: “timing isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” With this lesson, the Zen Comedian meant that timing is not only the most important aspect of each and every joke, but is in fact the true substance of all comedy. I learned this lesson very powerfully when I was around ten years old, from comedy’s greatest master of timing, Jack Benny.
When I was a child, I collected cassettes of classic radio comedy, and though I had many favorites (The Bickerson’s, Fred Allen, Abbot & Costello) Jack Benny, who will be referred to as Zen Master Jack from here on, was my favorite. Zen Master Jack’s most dominant character trait was his stinginess, and likely eighty percent of the jokes on his radio show revolved around this aspect of his character. He even had an underground safe in which he kept his massive fortune, like Scrooge McDuck. On one of his trips to this safe, he was accosted by an assailant who held a gun to his face and demanded: “Your money or your life!”
At this Zen Master Jack said nothing for a very long time. I remember listening to the audience bristle, ready to erupt as the pause went on and on. I could envision the burglar’s frustrated expression as I listened to the sounds of laughter from the live audience grow louder and louder. Eventually the burglar had enough waiting and yelled “Well! Your money or your life!” to which Zen Master Jack responded almost immediately “I’m thinking it over!” The crowd roared with laughter, not at the joke itself, because it was even then a simple and predictable gag, but simply because of the way it was timed.
Though the live audience at the recording of this classic bit had the advantage of watching Zen Master Jack’s vaguely effeminate annoyed expression, most of the crowd and all listeners at home laughed simply at their own imaginations. Many listeners at the time I’m sure didn’t even know what the face attached to this voice on the radio even looked like, but they laughed at the anticipation of a response. The Zen Comedian tells us that if the audience is offered an effective set-up, even if it is extremely simple, they can fuel their laughter with their own anticipation. Searching my own comedy for the places I most make use of this lesson, I recall the punchline to my “Burger King Confessional” joke.
The concept of this joke is that to expedite the penance process, Burger King has merged with St. Ignatius (a Chicago Catholic church) and created the worlds first Drive-Thru/Confessional. The punchline to this joke comes after the fast food patron confesses to molesting his nephew. The Priest/drive-thru operator begins by repeating the order, “Large Fry, Medium Dr. Pepper, Whopper Jr. and,” and then pauses for a good length of time. After I’ve allowed the audience to anticipate what they well know will be a joke, perhaps even to the point of laughing in expectation, I drop it on them. “Hey who hasn’t?” I’ve learnt (or believe I have) from Zen Master Jack that the greatest laughter comes from anticipation, even if it is anticipation of the laughter to come.