Zen Comedy 7: Timing

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.

Zen Comedy 7: Timing

Zen Comedy 14: Endless Possibilities

The Zen Comedian offers no specific advice to aid in joke writing, because he says that every comedian’s jokes must find their genesis in his or her own soul, without outside input.  However, he does offer sage counsel to any victims of writers block: “The comic mind is an infinite palette, combine colors to create infinite potential.”  A palette, for those who don’t know, is that thing with a thumbhole and all the different colors of paint on it that artists used to mix colors, and I think that this is an excellent metaphor for the writing and the performance of jokes.  Two Zen Comedy masters that make excellent use of all colors on their personal palettes are both very different and almost seemingly interchangeable, Emo Phillips and Steven Wright.

Both of these comics use unexpected and weird punchline-oriented comedy, which could become tiresome in fairly short order, but their performance styles are each unaccountably compelling when combined with the substance of the jokes they tell.  Steven Wright delivers his jokes in a flat monotone, moving very little and leaving a worn expression on his face as if he is very tired.  This aspect works extremely well in combination with short bits like “I bought some powdered water but I don’t know what to add,” because his palpable lack of enthusiasm blends well with a skewered take on reality and the English language.  Emo Phillips is almost the opposite, with his ludicrously high-pitched voice and habit of constantly moving his body, he seems like a ball of nervous energy.  In one of my personal favorite bits, he describes slapping someone whom he mistook for an old classmate on the back before he realized that “if that’s really Jimmy Peterson, he would have grown up too.”  These are each brilliantly weird bits, and when combined with unconventional performance style’s as they are, they make the routines they are part of engrossing and hysterical.

I am not proposing that these offbeat performance styles are necessarily beneficial, only that they demonstrate the value of the Zen Comedian’s wisdom.  Zen master’s Phillips and Wright simply perform in the ways most beneficial to the jokes they’ve written.  Wright’s jokes are deadpan absurdist observations, and Phillips’ jokes are the inner monologue of a madman, so each of their styles complement these qualities perfectly.  So translating the Zen Comedian’s wisdom into practical advice, I’ll say that when working on a new bit, a comedian should experiment with different ways to tell their jokes, as well as constantly altering the substance of all material.

In my own stand-up, I’ve for years been using a bit wherein I share what I feel is great wisdom I’ve learnt from my car accident and subsequent time in the hospital, boiling it down to three simple truths.  These truths are: 1. love will not save you, 2. happiness is temporary, and 3. you will die before you are ready.  I realize that this does not read as comedic, but this type of blunt cynicism can be very funny, as long as I perform it correctly.  I believe I’ve learnt that the most effective way of delivering this joke is to be flippant, as though I think that these facts should be plainly obvious to everyone, but I don’t fully understand why this is the best way to tell the joke.  I will therefore continue to experiment with this joke, uncovering more of what the Zen Comedian calls “infinite possibilities,” and just maybe, someday I’ll find one I can be satisfied with.

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Zen Comedy 14: Endless Possibilities

Zen Comedy 25: Jokes with Heart

The Zen comedian says: “The joke teller must always be smiling in his heart.”  Personally, I find this to be extremely practical and valuable advice.  Taken most simply, this counsel could mean that every joke one writes must first make him or herself laugh, but that is only one possible meaning.  The Zen Comedian’s advice is not so simple, and is open to a myriad of interpretations.

First of all, I find it important that The Zen Comedian’s advice, in this case, is directed to the “Joke teller,” and not the comedian.  Not every comedian tells jokes per se, as there are many comedians that tell stories, rather than crafting jokes.  For the comedian that tells a story, especially a story that would normally be considered sad, an inner smile is not necessary, and may not even be helpful.  When the Zen Comedian speaks of the “Joke teller,” I believe he is referencing a certain type of comedian, most clearly typified by the likes Mitch Hedburg, Emo Phillips, and the man who showed us what standup comedy could be in the hands of a performance artist, Steve Martin.

Steve Martin had a joke that he did at least near the beginning of countless performances.  In this bit, Mr. Martin would simply step to the microphone and say “here’s something you don’t often see,” after which he’d pull his lips apart with his fingers and yell while jumping up and down at least three times.  It is such a simple joke that it may elicit more eye rolling than laughter, but when he was fully energized, his spirit was infectious.

The standup comedy of Steve Martin gets right to the center of what the above lesson teaches us.  What is most evident in Steve Martin’s standup, and what made his unconventional style loved by the largest crowds that any standup act had ever seen at the time, was the joy he took in each piece of it.  The joy you feel telling jokes that make you laugh will spread to your audience, and they will join you.

Addendum: The Zen comedian does not encourage laughing out loud on stage at your own material.  He gave me no specific lesson on this, as he felt it obvious.

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Zen Comedy 25: Jokes with Heart