Tuesday, March 06, 2012

How to get the most out of life

photo by H. Hoffman
I was driving on the 405 Freeway recently, coming home from the airport, when I happened to glance at a billboard. It was for Wells Fargo Bank. In big letters it said:

THE PATH TO RETIREMENT STARTS HERE

I laughed out loud.

Right behind the billboard was Hillside Cemetery. Could the billboard have been placed in a worse location?

But the juxtaposition was hilarious to me.

As I drove on I wondered how many thousands of people saw that billboard each day and of those, how many recognized the absurdity of the scene? My guess is very few.

But I bet if you had fifty comedy writers all drive by that billboard at least half would spot the humor. It’s not that comedy writers are more perceptive or have better powers of observation – it’s just that we’re wired to spot comic situations.

Can this skill be learned?  To a degree I suspect it can. You just have to keep your radar up. I’ve received some nice compliments about my travelogues (ebook still only $2.99… order one for godsakes!) from people who say I spot the funniest things. Well you can, too. I get lost on the same streets and take the same tours that you do. It’s primarily a matter of being on the lookout for comedy. And trust me, it’s there. Everywhere. As an exercise, for your next trip, prepare your own travelogue. Whether you actually write it or not, I’m guessing you’ll see things you never saw before – things that were right under your nose all along. Try it.

Another exercise I recommend is listening carefully to bits of conversations as people pass by. Park yourself at a table in a mall food court and just make note of what you hear around you. You’ll be amazed at the snippets of delicious dialogue you pick up.

And here’s the best part – it’s all FREE ENTERTAINMENT. Goofy headlines, embarrassing auto-corrected text messages, ridiculous wardrobes, surreal niblets of conversations – yours for the laughing. Sometimes you can get ideas and stories and jokes from what you observe, but even if you don’t – what a gift it is to be able to go through life and find amusement in the world!

THE PATH TO COMIC APPRECIATION BEGINS HERE.

45 comments:

sephim said...

Years ago, around Christmas time, the St Vincent De Paul Society had put up bus stop signs for child abuse awareness. As it was the 'season', their slogan was, for me, hilariously ironic.

"For some kids, every day is Boxing Day."

I guess somebody had keyed them in as to why that may not get the message across as I have never seen the signs since then.

RockGolf said...

Sorry, sephim, I don't see the hilarious irony. I think they got their point across exactly as intended. As a double meaning: Boxing Day being the day after Xmas (in Canada and the UK, but not so much in the States) when post-Xmas sales begin, and day when you get beaten by fists.
Is there some third meaning I'm unaware of?

Pat Reeder said...

Couldn't agree more. Writing topical one-liners for a living, I read news stories all day long and the hilarity leaps off the page at me, but I wonder how many other people read through it stone-faced, thinking it's just the "news" rather than the comedic goldmine that it is.

In his book, "Funny People," Steve Allen noted that comedy writers' minds are wired differently from other people's. He said that 500 people might walk past an intersection every day and not see that the names of the cross streets create a hilarious juxtaposition, but to the comedy writer, it's the thing he notices first. Allen noted that while this sometimes irritates people around the funny person, who wish he'd "turn off" his sense of humor, he can no more do that than someone who's color blind could switch it off and see in color.

My divorce from my first wife is proof of that. Second time I wised up and married a fellow comedy writer, and we've never had an argument in 20 years. At least, not a serious one.

Sebastian said...

C'mon Ken, now you're basically asking for "My friends tell me I'm actually pretty funny" emails ^^;

I've had more than one person tell me I should do stand-up.

But I won't because I've also had people tell me I'm a good driver.

Liars.

RS Gray said...

That's always been the tragic irony of Jay Leno to me. The only consistently funny part of his show are the headlines people send to him. Why would I watch a show whose viewers are are funnier than its host?

RockGolf said...

@Pat Reeder: I know exactly what you're talking about. Back in my high school days, our debate team were walking to a local school. At one corner, I burst out laughing uncontrollably. One of the other students asked why. I said "we're at the corner of Gerard and Main."

The name of the student who didn't understand why I was hysterical: Gerard Mayne.

Brian Phillips said...

Ah, yes! Like the fellow I saw two days ago with two confederate flag bumper stickers on the back of his Nissan pick-up truck?

Janet T said...

We moved to a property that had a cemetery at the end of the road. Our relatives had lived on that road for several years. The first time we turned on the road and saw the “Dead End” sign, we laughed ourselves silly. They who already lived there, had never made the connection. I’m glad my husband and I are of the few who see the absurdities and laugh.

Tom Quigley said...

In one session of the six-session comedy writing class I took from the late Danny Simon, he asked for unsigned written questions from the class participants, probably to save the person who wrote the following the obvious embarrassment in front of the rest of us knowing who that person was (although we all had a pretty goood idea): "How do you be funny?"

Mind you, this was the fifth session of the six. Danny's response was "Oh lord, I can't teach you how to be funny. If you don't know by now, I'll never be able to help you!"

Like Ken (and any good comedy writer), Danny was aware that you had to have a sense for comedy -- he called it the ability to "smell" the comedy in a situation, and was always coming up with examples off the top of his head to demonstrate. One of the best ones I remember was "When you found out you only had six months to live, who was it who cared enough to buy you a calendar?"

To this day, I feel sorry for the person in that class, in that he or she, 20 years later, is still probably searching for a sense of humor, what is funny and what is not... And the meaning of life...

iain said...

Speaking of great bits of overheard conversation, Lewis Black got s wonderful rant out of, "If it wasn't for my horse, I wouldn't have spent that year in college."

Little Miss Smoke and Mirrors said...

My cousin is married to a television writer, and he sits there at large family gatherings with his laptop open on his lap, listening and taking notes.

jbryant said...

Once I was reading National Lampoon's "Newsweek" parody on a slow day at work. When I finished, I gave it to one of my co-workers, who read it cover to cover without cracking a smile. Afterward, I told her I thought it was pretty funny. She said, "Oh, it's not a real issue? Gee, I thought something was a little off."

Charles H. Bryan said...

Saw a sign once here in Michigan that said "Go Blue! Beat Ohio State!" It was on a message board in front of a church.

It was nice to see that I was not alone in believing that Bo Schembechler was Jesus.

RCP said...

There was that story last year about the people of Fort Wayne, Indiana, who had voted to name a building after longtime mayor Harry Baals. The city passed.

Hopefully it counts as humor (and not something much darker) that I can't watch a scene of say, a little old lady waving gaily from her bicycle without imagining her running into a fence. Or some guy relaxing on a raft until the tentacled arm of a giant octopus pulls him under.

I particularly liked the last paragraph of today's post.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Umbriago said...

Here's one of my billboard favorites (a picture I took myself):

I darn near drove off the road when I saw that, and then I went back and took a picture (Kansas City, Mo.)

Mike said...

THE PATH TO COMIC APPRECIATION BEGINS HERE.


Based on the scene you described at the beginning of your post, it seems like you're suggesting your blog is where comedy goes to die. I think you're being too hard on yourself.

Anonymous said...

Right now, on the corner of Woodman and Riverside in The Valley, is a billboard for the show, GCB. Right across the street and facing Notre Dame High School.

Mark Bennett

Breadbaker said...

Down by Mt. Rainier there are two signs pointing in the same direction: Volcano Evacuation Route and Dead End.

Warren Z said...

I took this one in a suburb outside Pittsburgh. Definitely not as subtle as everybody else's though!

Dan Tedson said...

It's in my nature to find things funny. If there's nothing there, I'll just make it up. I pass a SLOW DEAF CHILD sign I say, "Slow, deaf child. You can't outrun deaf." I see a taxidermist's sign I wonder if they double stuff. It's a disorder I'm sure. Probably be included in the DSM5.

benson said...

I think as I get older, I'm more aware of the absurdity of things, but still, either you're funny or your not. But also, it's one thing to recognize funny or absurd things, it's another to articulate it.

D. McEwan said...

Love observed hilarity. I observed some hilarity this week, that lovely "nice" person Patricia Heaton's tweets!

ACTUAL Patricia Heaton Tweet: "If every Tweaton sent Georgetown Gal one condom, her parents wouldn't have to cancel basic cable, & she would never reproduce -- sound good?"

ACTUAL Patricia Heaton Tweet: "Hey GTown Gal: How about only having sex on Wednesday? (Hump day!)"

ACTUAL Patricia Heaton Tweet: "Hey G-Town Gal: turn your underwear inside out! Then u only have to do laundry every 2 weeks—saves on detergent & trips to Laundromat!"

ACTUAL Patricia Heaton Tweet: "If your parents have to pay for your birth control, maybe they should get a say in who u sleep with. Instant birth control."

Yes, Patricia Heaton is fine, sweet person, if you consider Rush Limbaugh to be a charmer.

Ken Levine said...

I must say it's hard to defend Patty when she makes idiotic statements like that.

Dennis Hartin said...

I can do you one better. There's a hospice in my town (East Northport, New York) directly across the street from a cemetary- their DRIVEWAYS are directly across from each other.

HogsAteMySister said...

The ability to spot funny things seems to be like playing chess. Humor writers automatically take things to the nth move, or step, just to see checkmate or a train wreck. This same talent was well used in PR doing issues management over the years. But that shit will make you old. It's way better to be funny. Just wish it paid as well as worrying for a living.

Kirk said...

There used to be a chain of stores in my area called: CARPET AND TILE LIQUIDATORS. One day while driving past one of these stores, I saw a sign outside that read: GOING OUT OF BUSINESS SALE.

It was a liquidation liquidation.

Johnny Walker said...

I guess part of the trick is not to take the small stuff so damn seriously. Thanks for a great post.

jbryant said...

Dan Tedson: You just reminded me that I once saw a taxidermist's shop that was right next door to a sausage factory.

Stephen Thomas said...

http://i.imgur.com/bAuhW.jpg

One of my all-time favorites, which I use in my show. Thanks again for The Sitcom Room, Ken; my script writing projects have jumped three levels in quality since taking the seminar. (Of course, my scripts were three levels below mediocre before the seminar, so it's all relative.)

chuckcd said...

Apparently we know where "The path to retirement" ends...

Tom Quigley said...

Sounds like Patricia Heaton just succeeded in killing her career. And as for Mr. Limbaugh, anyone who makes the remarks he did against a private citizen shouldn't talk, considering he himself sits there mentally masturbating for three hours a day, five days a week.

One more thought about the Wells Fargo billboard pic. It would have been even funnier if someone had come along and scrawled the words "AND ENDS THERE" on it, with an arrow pointing to the cemetery.

Dan O'Day said...

Years ago in L.A. (Lincoln Blvd, in the Marina. Okay?)

Big sign on storefront:

"Going Out Of Business. 10% Off Everything!"

It was a "99 Cents Only" store.

Apparently they figured, "Sure, we can't sell this stuff for 99 cents. But for 89.1 cents, we'll make a fortune!"

cshel said...

Speaking of funny, it's such a funny coincidence that you posted on this topic today, Ken. I was just sitting at a stoplight in my car earlier today and happened to notice a mini-mall that had a weight loss center right next door to a donut shop and thought that was pretty funny.

pete grossman said...

It's uncanny, but often in a card store (if you can still find one) the wedding cards are right next to the sympathy cards. Wha?

pete grossman said...

Recently took a picture of two very classy looking signs stacked on top of one another - we're talking molded metal with silver and blue. Expensive. Top sign says "Shake Shack" a giant fave on the east coast (always an hour wait at Citi Field) that sells very succulant shakes, burgers, fries and other artery clogging goodies. Right under it: Pinnacle Health & Fitness, LLC. Go figure.

Alex S. said...

I was working in a marketing related department at WaMu when this boardboard photo started going around the internet.

It was fun watching them scramble to get that thing down fast.

http://www.doctorhousingbubble.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/wamu.jpg

Alex S. said...

I was working in a marketing related department at WaMu when this boardboard photo started going around the internet.

It was fun watching them scramble to get that thing down fast.

http://www.doctorhousingbubble.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/wamu.jpg

Alex S. said...

I was working in a marketing related department at WaMu when this boardboard photo started going around the internet.

It was fun watching them scramble to get that thing down fast.

http://www.doctorhousingbubble.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/wamu.jpg

Alex S. said...

I was working in a marketing related department at WaMu when this boardboard photo started going around the internet.

It was fun watching them scramble to get that thing down fast.

http://www.doctorhousingbubble.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/wamu.jpg

Alex S. said...

Sorry about that. Didn't realize it was actually posting. The "type these two words you can't actually read thing" was giving me an error and I couldn't see that the posts were actually going through.

Pete Grossman said...

True story:

A few years back was in a Chicago department store checking out Jerry Garcia ties beautifully laid out on a large round table. At the time they were the rage and selling briskly. A middle-aged heavy set man dressed in a too tight polo shirt and non-matching shorts approaches the table and lights up. It's clear he loves the ties. Then his wife sidles up next to him. She's dressed worse then he is sporting some hideous flower print and clashing shorts.

He: Look honey! Garcia ties!
She: You can't wear those! You'll look like a Democrat!

Dan Tedson said...

"jbryant said...

Dan Tedson: You just reminded me that I once saw a taxidermist's shop that was right next door to a sausage factory.
"

We should Dumbo drop Biggest Loser contestants and see which they make for first.

Chris said...

Friday question: why is it that even on horrible shows, the audience still laughs at the jokes? Shouldn't the fact that you're making a bunch of diverse people in the audience laugh be a good sign?

Charles H. Bryan said...

This is horrible, but true -- a city I once lived in had an emergency veterinary clinic next door to a Chinese restaurant.