Tuesday, July 10, 2012
Number two – it keeps me humble. Everyone who has been in the business for any length of time has an AfterMASH or two (or six). Ever see 1941? Or LIFE WITH LUCY?
Number three is that a flop is good fodder for humor. The truth is I had a decent time on that show. Got to work and learn from the great Larry Gelbart. And the hours allowed me to be home every night to give my newborn son a bath. And the final product wasn’t end of the world bad, just global crisis bad.
But I’ll let you in on a little secret. I stole the bit.
Using a past flop as a running gag was not an original idea of mine. I lifted it from Jack Benny.
Benny was the master of running gags. He was (or should I say his character was?) notoriously cheap. The famous line (written by Milt Josephsberg): Benny is held up at gunpoint. The robber says, “Your money or your life.” There’s a long long pause. The robber says, “Well?” and Benny says, “I’m thinking!” His character supposedly drove an old beat up Maxwell car, kept his money in an underground vault guarded by alligators, and saw himself as a virtuoso violinist although he was terrible (again, in real life he was quite good).
He was once in a movie called THE HORN BLOWS AT MIDNIGHT. It did not do well at the boxoffice. And for years Benny or someone in his cast would bring up THE HORN BLOWS AT MIDNIGHT and what a flop it was. This always produced big laughs. To say I “stole” the bit is not completely accurate. I didn’t use any of the specific jokes, I just adopted the form.
But my point is this: I consider myself a student of comedy. Most, if not all of the comedy we see today is merely a variation on what has come before. The trick is to make yourself aware of it. Do your homework. How?
You want to be a stand-up comedian? Get albums or watch YouTube videos of Woody Allen, Bob Newhart, Shelley Berman, Danny Thomas, Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx, Elayne Boosler, and many more. Yes, there were funny people before Chris Rock.
Want to be a comic playwright? Read Neil Simon. Read Kaufman & Hart. Read Herb Gardner. Read Alan Ayckbourn. Read Paul Rudnick. Read Woody Allen. Read Hecht & MacArthur. Read Larry Gelbart.
For comic timing in movies study the silents. Laurel & Hardy, Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd.
There are some dazzling comic screenplay writers from the distant past. Preston Sturgess, Billy Wilder & I.A.L. Diamond, Morrie Ryskind, and Joseph Mankiewicz to name but a few. Judd Apatow did not invent comedy.
You get the idea. These people have much to teach you. And as a bonus, they’ll also throw in a ton of belly laughs along the way.
Tomorrow I talk more about the study of comedy. Dan O’Shannon, one of the Executive Producers of MODERN FAMILY and formerly with CHEERS and FRASIER just wrote a book called WHAT ARE YOU LAUGHING AT? It’s the most complete analysis of comedy ever written (certainly ever attempted). Tomorrow I’ll interview him.
There's no need to re-invent the wheel. These conventions are out there and yours for the updating. Go find them. Or read about them. See you tomorrow.
By Ken Levine at 6:00 AM