Wednesday, February 25, 2015

There was comedy before 2005

As some of you know, I am in Andy Goldberg’s Improv Workshop on Wednesday nights. It’s always a blast. I did a scene a few weeks back with a fine improver (if there is such a word), John Content. It was a “Man on the Street” scene. You’ve seen those. Jimmy Kimmel does them frequently – an interview snags passersby and asks them various questions.

I was the interviewer and John was the “man on the street.” We got the preliminaries out of the way. I asked him his name and where he was from (New Orleans). The objective of this exercise is to force you to really create a “character.”

At that point John launched into a hilarious ridiculous story involving UFO abductions, space cows, God knows what. He got big laughs. But what made it funnier was that he delivered it all very matter-of-fact. As he was unspooling this absurd raft of bullshit a thought hit me. When he finally took a breath I interjected, “You’ve said some very interesting things. I don’t want to just slide over them, so let’s back up a bit. What part of New Orleans?”

This too got a big laugh.

John answered my question then launched into more outrageous nonsense, much to the delight of the audience.

I finally broke in with “What side of the street in New Orleans?” Again, a big yuck.

The bit worked for several reasons. First, John figured out immediately what I was doing and played along. And secondly, the construct was very funny. We all know interviewers who don’t listen.

But here’s the dirty little secret: I was essentially doing a Bob & Ray routine. Bob & Ray were a radio comedy team back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Their sketches were uproarious. Always dry, always underplayed, but their premises were always absurd and their timing was impeccable. Although they did not do this exact bit, they did a lot of similar interviewer-guest sketches. Once John launched into his crazy UFO scenario I thought to myself, “This feels like a Bob & Ray sketch. What would Bob & Ray do?”

So two points I want to make: The first: seek out Bob & Ray radio shows. They’re hilarious. And two: comedy evolves. Current comedy has been influenced by what has gone before. I wouldn’t be surprised if Bob & Ray didn’t borrow some of their routines from old Vaudeville comedy teams of the early 1900’s.  Comedy wasn't invented in 2005. 

Just being a “funny” person isn’t enough. You need to do your homework. You need to study forms of comedy in the same way that musicians analyze the greats that have gone before them.

If you want to be a sitcom writer watch great sitcoms like THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, CHEERS, and twenty other classics. If you want to be a stand-up comedian watch borscht belt comics like Alan King, great storytellers like Bob Newhart, edgy comics like Lenny Bruce, edgier comics like Richard Pryor. Louis C.K. is fucking awesome, but he didn’t invent stand-up.

If the theater is your goal -- read plays by Noel Coward, Kaufman & Hart, Herb Gardner, and Neil Simon. Screenwriters -- watch Preston Sturges screwball comedies, and Billy Wilder comedies, and Mel Brooks parodies. Long before there was SNL there was Sid Caesar’s YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS. Yes, some of the routines are dated. But watch how they construct sketches. How they get in them and out of them. How they create characters.

Ask yourself the question: why is this funny? You don’t have to deconstruct every line, but figure out the game plan. Recognize and appreciate templates that work. And then make them your own.

Often you’ll find it’s a lot easier to get laughs by creating a funny comic premise than just coming up with “jokes.” I got laughs with “Where in New Orleans?” “What side of the street?” It was all about context. Do your homework. The good news is it’ll be the most enjoyable homework you’ve ever done.

33 comments:

RockGolf said...

For those of you under 50, Chris Elliott is the son of Bob Elliott of Bob and Ray.

For those of you under 30, Abby Elliott is the daughter of Chris Elliott and the granddaughter of Bob Elliott of Bob and Ray.

Jim S said...

Love Bob & Ray. I read, read mind you, a transcript of one of their routines – a parody of old-fashioned radio soap operas, and when they talked about one of the characters fighting for the heavyweight championship of Connecticut, I laughed out loud. How often does just reading something make you burst out into laughter? Their House of Toast commercials? Brillant. Sadly Ray Gould died 25 years ago, almost to the month. Comedy took one in the shorts that day.

Doug McIntyre said...

Bob and Ray were my first bosses.

George said...

In high school French Class we had to perform a dialog in French for the teacher. I'm bad in French, my friend was really good at it, so I interviewed him in a variation of Bob and Ray's Kimodo Dragon routine. He would say something, then I, not really listening, would re-phrase what he just said as a question. The teacher laughed, we both got an "A". Win-win all around.

RockGolf, again said...

Slow Talkers of America is still tears-running-down-the-face-gasping-for-air funny.

Oat Willie said...

Anyone remember the Bob & Ray TV special they did with the original SNL cast? There was a version of "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy?" that KILLED. But because it was from earlier than 2005, it's been removed from Television by The Corporation.

Anonymous said...

As funny as Newhart is, his greatest strength isn't storytelling, it's the one person dialogue phone bit where the audience or listener imagines the other half of the conversation. Shelly Berman did it also.
Buy the premise, buy the bit.
For my money the two best storytellers by far were two guys you don't hear very much about but were as funny as anyone mentioned here: Myron Cohen and Buddy Hackett. You Tube them and you'll see.

Jim said...

"the one person dialogue bit ..."

Or for an example from the other side of the Atlantic, try listening to a bit of Joyce Grenfell. Start with probably her best known sketch, where she plays a nursery school (kindergarden) teacher gradually losing control of her class.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZXhHFgDRNBQ

Anonymous said...
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Eric J said...

I'm "in the biz." I work the other side of the camera, you know, the audience. I'm the guy who pays everyone's salary one way or the other. If I'm not happy, nobody eats.

Oat Willie said...

Don't you talk about my mother's basement!

John Hammes said...

Jack Benny's "modus operandi" was "... I always play UP to my audience." The more ridiculous the situation (Jack imagines himself as a "ladies man" with beautiful guest stars i.e. Marilyn Monroe, Jack constantly crashes movie filming with Basil Rathbone/ Vincent Price/ Jimmy Stewart, Frank Nelson showing up EVERYWHERE, the list is almost endless), the more matter of fact the reaction. Everyone stays in character and plays it "straight".

Well, that is until the guest stars finally lose patience with the Benny character, and of course the eventual "Now cut that out!" or Benny look. Still, the writing and timing mostly keep such obvious outbursts toward the end of various scenes or sketches, allowing for the maximum comedic mileage.

Certainly better mileage than the Maxwell could do!

And yes, there were some exceptions... Jack struggled mightily to keep a straight face with Mel Blanc, sometimes even succeeding.

RyderDA said...

So I was taught in my improv classes that what you did is a "cheat". I was once in a scene and it reminded me of an old shaggy dog joke. So I morphed my part into the shaggy dog story, and because it's improv, everyone followed. Got to the punchline, huge laugh, but then nothing could go next and the scene then died.

I love the idea of your questions, and the idea that interviewers don't listen. Brilliant. And dragging him back to the start wasn't blocking, but a cool bit of advancing. The "cheat" is bringing it in because you know someone else did it and it worked. Improv is about originality, and letting "you" come out, not Bob & Ray (still, if you have to have someone come out, Bob & Ray is a good pick).

Victor Velasco said...

Anyone here seen a Komodo dragon?

Rich said...

Bob and Ray were comedy gods. My fave Bob and Ray bit was Wally Ballou (Bob) interviewing the owner of a paper clip factory. Much to his amazement, Wally discovers that the workers in Ray's factory make every paper clip by hand. How is this practical? Ray pays ever worker six cents a day because he signed a 99 year 'sweetheart deal' with the union. The humor, of course, comes from the fact that Wally Ballou expected an off the shelf interview, and he's boggled the insane greed of the owner. Wally then asks him, "How do your employees live on six cents a day?" Ray answers, "We don't pry into the private lives of our workers. (HUGE LAUGH) "I understand many of them live in caves at the ends of town." Total deadpan delivery. Beauty

Oat Willie said...

Found the B & R thing. I forgot it was only the SNL ladies involved:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YyPY3D25o7Y

Johnny Walker said...

There was a point where I was analysing everything I watched. I'd really gotten into a habit of deconstructing stories as they unfolded to guess what was pitched in the writers room... but then I stopped.

It's fascinating homework, but eventually you do just want to watch a TV show again :)

If you want to really understand what makes something funny, you can't get much better than Dan O'Shannon's book: What Are You Laughing At?

Johnny Walker said...

Also, love Bob and Ray. I wish I could find more of their stuff.

Mike said...

Referencing the Anonymous post I have a Friday question about your idiot commenters...:
I see Johnny Walker has gone to the dark side.

Anonymous said...
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Johnny Walker said...

Hmm! Looks like I missed something?

Doug Thompson said...

There are tons and tons of Bob & Ray out there in the ozone. I have 5 double CD's with oodles of Bob & Ray skits on them. One of my all time favorite bits is when Ray brings a tour through the studio while Bob is on the air.

Mayhem ensues.

My second favorite is when Bob & Ray 'reunite' a long lost brother and sister who haven't been in communication with each other in many decades. After the two are introduced, there's a long pause, and the sister says "Well, what d'ya want?"

404 said...

I fully agree with the "premise vs. jokes" statement at the end. I think I mentioned this before, but one of my absolute favorite SNL sketches was a bit where a drill instructor was yelling at his recruits, and it turns out he was having marital difficulties. So the squad starts trying to help him out and give him advice--all while staying in the drill instructor/recruit characters of screaming at each other. A terrible explanation, but it was hilarious--and I doubt you'd find a single, actual "joke" in the whole bit. But the premise was funny, the situation itself was funny, and because of that they could have said just about anything and gotten a laugh.

Johnny Walker said...

Ugh. Now this is bugging me. It's probably because I've got a stinking cold, and I've been sat at this computer since 10am working (it's now 12am), and I'm waiting to see if this website is going to function like I hope it will... Mike: An implication that I look down on my follow commenters? Hmm. Not at all. The only disdain I have for anyone here are the anonymous cowards who occasionally troll this place. The rest of the time the comments are super enlightening and entertaining, sometimes as much as Ken's posts. Anything else is done the spirit of debate, and I don't think I've ever stooped to insults. (I hope now. Apologies if I have an I've forgotten.)

Sorry if I've given another impression.

Here's a classic Bob & Ray routine: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ktYwuw9Mnjo

Buttermilk Sky said...

I had the privilege of watching Bob & Ray tape one of their late-career shows for NPR. There was no wasted effort or fuss, just two men seated side by side delivering, with perfect timing, a half-hour of humor. After so many years they could anticipate each other like jazz musicians.

Victor Velasco, you need to see "The Freshman," with Matthew Broderick and Marlon Brando. Not only will you see a Komodo dragon, you will hear Bert Parks's immortal version of "Maggie's Farm." Good movie.

Pat Reeder said...

Bob and Ray are in my top 10 list of comedy gods. They left behind mountains of material. I have cassettes dubbed off of dozens of reel-to-reel shows my record collector writing partner, George Gimarc, rescued from WFAA Radio in Dallas, and a huge collection of MP3 sketches on DVDs.

You can find material here: http://bobandray.com (They offer a thumb drive with a massive amount of material for $200). You can also get tons of MP3 sketches on CD here: http://www.otrcat.com/bob-and-ray-p-1116.html

Funniest thing I've ever heard: "Matt Neffer, Boy Spotwelding King of the Universe." "SNL" writers should listen to that and learn how to make pointlessness hilarious.

Breadbaker said...

Nearly entirely off topic, but since you may not be where you can see it, Grantland's love letter to the Parks and Recreation finale is here.

http://grantland.com/hollywood-prospectus/knope-springs-eternal-parks-and-rec-ends-its-brilliant-satisfying-seven-season-run/

Dodgerdawg said...

A few years ago a Komodo Dragon famously bit the toe of Sharon Stone's husband (now ex-) during a private moment in the Los Angeles Zoo.

gottacook said...

My introduction to Bob & Ray was "Between Time and Timbuktu," a 90-minute salad of Kurt Vonnegut's writings broadcast on pre-PBS public TV; you can see a review of it in Life magazine, March 17, 1972 (google the name of Bob's character, "ex astronaut bud williams jr", and click the fourth entry). Never knew about their radio work until decades later.

VP81955 said...

Bob & Ray are magnificent, but here's another comedy duo that, on their best days, were nearly as good -- Ed Walker and Willard Scott (yes, that Willard Scott), known as the "Joy Boys" on WRC radio in Washington. They were very clever, and I think some of their bits are still extant.

Oh, and some of you may know Ed Walker from his many years of hosting "The Big Broadcast" on WAMU-FM in D.C., where each Sunday night (4 to 8 PT), he plays classic old-time radio -- "Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar," "Dragnet," "Gunsmoke" and more.

Jon88 said...

"a fine improver (if there is such a word)" Well, there's improviser.

Paul Gottlieb said...

"Slow Talkers of America" That's all you need to know. Those guys were geniuses

Ken K in NJ said...

Much of Bob & Ray's radio material is available for a very low price via mp3 CDs from several of the Old Time Radio websites.

I wouldn't want to recommend one site over another, but if you search on Bob and Ray Old Tine Radio you should get a few hits.