Monday, April 4, 2011
Today’s Comedy Motif- The element of surprise in a punch line.
There is a saying in stand-up comedy that you can’t have a joke without a surprise. While this is generally true, any attempts to quantify humor into predictable formulas, renders the joke stale and predictable. That is what makes humor so fascinating to me. Humor like pornography is hard to define yet easy to recognize. This reminds me of the famous quote by US Supreme Court Justice, Potter Stewart , who said of pornography, “I know it when I see it.” One technique that stand up comedians use to create humor is the “punch line”
Have you ever really asked what a punch line is? It’s the yang to the ying of joke formation. It’s the Robin to Batman. The punch line is the partner to the premise. The premise of the joke sets the expectation but is usually not the “funny part”. The funny part is reserved for the punch line. At its core the punch line creates a surprise and it is this surprise that the audience finds funny. If you examine the punch line carefully, it does several things, it offers a “twist” and the twist allows for a re-interpretation of the event aka the joke. Greg Dean, in his book, Step by Step Stand Up Comedy explains this clearly. The punch line explains what happens. The audience member gets the “aha” or “Eureka moment” and after the enlightenment, humor is found.
Emo Phillips is the master of this type of punch line. Notice how at the end of the punch line, he offers a reinterpretation to the story/joke. If you can get over his weird voice and you just study the way he constructs the joke, you will see that he is a comedic architect that was far ahead of his time. It is not surprising that he is revered and is a great influence on today’s comedians. Rather than trying to decipher my mumbled thoughts, it’s best if you can see an example in motion. I bring you Emo Phillips.