Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Handing a monkey a gun

A couple of weeks ago during Friday Questions I wrote:

Giving some actors Twitter accounts is like giving a monkey a gun.

I also, in that post, talked about how I constantly try to beat jokes (i.e. come up with better ones).

One of the joys of this blog is the comments section and the contributions that you guys make every day. On this one day a reader, in the spirit of fun, tried to beat my monkey joke, suggesting it might be funnier if I used ferret or penguin.

Others wrote in saying ferrets and penguins don’t have hands. How would they hold a gun? That’s why I used monkey they speculated.

I try not to get in the middle of these discussions. I’d rather hear what you all have to say.

But let me weigh in here because I can use it as a lesson in comedy.

First, let me thank the original reader for his suggestion. Both ferret and penguin are funny animals. And in other circumstances they probably would work better than monkey.

But I did use monkey because a monkey has hands. For a joke to work, the image has to be instantly clear. If it suggests an ambiguous image then you’re in trouble. You can picture a monkey holding a gun instantly. But penguins and ferrets have no hands. What would that look like? If you have to squeeze an image into an unnatural pose you lose that immediate identification. And if your first reaction is “Huh?” Or if you have to take ten seconds to try to create the image – the moment is gone and you’ve lost the laugh.

And in that particular joke it’s not just the monkey that has to be right. What if I said this?

Giving some actors Twitter accounts is like giving a monkey a knife.

With a gun it’s crystal clear what he could do with it. He could shoot it. With a knife the monkey could stab someone. But he could also use it to cut bananas off a tree, or chop something, or cut off his other hand. Too many options. If he had a grenade he could throw it (which would make the joke work), but he could also hold it and blow himself up – and both of those possibilities only arise if he’s smart enough to pull the pin first. That’s a lot of steps.

Now you could say specificity is key in comedy. Why just use a gun? Why not a derringer? Or an AK-47? The question becomes, what do those add to the joke? In this case, any gun will do. Specifying a Baretta causes the listener to go “Why a Baretta? What is so special about that gun? Why did he pick that gun over another type?”

Most times specificity does add to the joke, but there are times it might cloud it.

It’s all about the set-up; in this case a visual one. The set up prepares the audience to think one very clear image, and then gives it a twist.

These kinds of questions go into every joke I write. On the one hand, I don’t try analyze every joke to death, but I’m always going “This is what I want the audience to think, have I prepared them properly? Is there a better word or image that would achieve that? Does it require too much effort on the audience’s part? Am I providing too much information?  Might there be other unwanted interpretations that send them in the wrong direction?”

So often when I say I try to beat a joke, I’m not just changing the punchline, I’m changing the set up.

And that’s class for today. Remember, your term papers are due next Wednesday.


E. Yarber said...

The thing that's pretty much impossible to explain to aspiring writers is that when you do this stuff and do this stuff and do this stuff you begin thinking in terms of not just funny ideas but the entire framework around them.

James said...

A monkey with a gun (spoiler: nobody seems to get hurt): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GhxqIITtTtU

I'm sure in the current political climate that someone may claim it's racist. I contend that I would have reacted the same way as if it had happened with white rednecks in Saskatchewan.

Mike Martin said...

Those who can't picture a penguin holding a gun have obviously never watched Wallace and Gromit in "The Wrong Trousers"!

Pat Reeder said...

Really enjoyed this post, just as I did the original discussion, as this kind of stuff is my meat - not "sirloin" or "pork" or "flounder" (even though it's a funnier word), just "meat." It shows the importance of the "final polish." I have a former writing partner in syndicated radio who used to bring me samples of topical radio humor services that competed with ours, and he and I always had the same reactions while reading through the jokes: "Ehh, I see what they're going for...That's a pretty good line...Totally baffling...Okay idea, but needs to be half as long...Good joke, but they have it structured backwards...Might be funny if the language were less generic..." etc. What you described here is a perfect example of the kind of mental debates that went into every line we sent out. I think that's why clients told me that they would use maybe 30% of other services, but 90% of ours.

Mibbitmaker said...

Of course a ferret with a gun wouldn't work. Ah, but a ferret FACE with a gun - we've definitely seen that before. And it was funny, Frankly.

Michael said...

For some reason, I am reminded of the old line, which I know George Steinbrenner used to insult one of his players, that his handling of a baseball looked like "a monkey trying to **** a football."

But this reminds me of a great discussion in one of Dick Cavett's books where he explained why the number twelve might work in one joke and the number fifteen might work in another. Similarly, he took a line about a woman naked on Fifth Avenue and then how different comedians would talk about it.

As Pepe Le Pew said of love, comedy is a many splintered thing.

Alaskaray said...

Ken said: If he had a grenade he could throw it (which would make the joke work), but he could also hold it and blow himself up – and both of those possibilities only arise if he’s smart enough to pull the pin first. That’s a lot of steps.

I think hand grenades work just fine here, sine I’ve seen celebs suffer both outcomes on Twitter.


Tommy Raiko said...

Then again, if you subscribe to the comedy notion that "k" sounds are funny, might it have also worked as "kangaroo with a gun"? I mean, kangaroo sorta have forearms sufficient to visualize pistol-packing, with the bonus imagery of its pouch as a convenient holster :)

ODJennings said...

As long as the monkey is wearing a suit and smoking a cigarette you already have comedy gold.

Now, make the gun a lighter, a squirt gun, or one of those ones where the flag that says "BANG" pops out, and you might as well start working on your Emmy acceptance speech.

Mike Bloodworth said...

Where do I begin?!
First of all that's a chimpanzee NOT a monkey. Nothing kills a joke faster than an incorrect zoological classification. Plus, chimps don't have the opposable thumbs necessary to pull a trigger. Now an octopus is capable of holding and firing multiple weapons. And "octopus" has a hard 'C' sound which is equivalent to the 'K' sound which comedy theory says is always funny. Therefore, "...giving a duck a gun" should be, in theory, the funniest of all. Although in reality, we all know that geese and swans are much more likely to go on a killing spree than a duck.
If this was the 50's you could say "it's like giving my wife a credit card." But thankfully in this day and age we're past that. (?)(!!)

If the smug playwrights from yesterday's blog realized how much goes into writing comedy they'd be singing a different tune. Hey! How's that for the title of a lavish, Broadway musical-comedy? "Singing a Different Tune" starring a gay guy. Unless there's already a show by that name.
Bottom line: comedy is just too complicated. I'm just going to give up laughing. I think I'll start by watching some unfunny shows. Maybe I can find "Kevin Can Wait" on YouTube.

Anon said...

Giving a monkey a rocket launcher?

Jahn Ghalt said...

Ferrett is funny? I'll go with "ferret face" - but without Frank Burns, not so much.

Baretta isn't close enough to banana to make a good pun - which suggests a question:

Are puns totally off the table in a good sitcom? Do you know of any exceptions?

Cowboy Surfer said...

I know a monkey stripper, he works at Chimpendales...It's platonic.

Jeff Weimer said...

Thank you for coming to Ken's TED Talk.

Kevin said...

Thursday is a funnier day to turn in term papers.

Anne said...

This morning I clicked on my Twitter feed and thought, 'OK, who's gonna be today's Gun Monkey?' And I loved today's class at Ken Levine's Kollege of Joke-Writing Knowledge.

Great discussion, too. This stuff really brightens my day. Thanks for the endorphins, everybody!

Anonymous said...

A "drone"- though it lacks the hard "g"

Peter said...

Back when The Simpsons was still funny, they often did jokes that were paradoxical or nonsensical in structure and payoff and yet were absolutely hilarious. One of my favourites was in the episode where a Hollywood studio decides to make a Radioactive Man movie. At the studio meeting, an executives says "I think we should bring back Dirk Richter. Kids will want to see the original Radioactive Man." The producer replies "I keep telling you, he is 73 years old and he's dead." 

Obviously someone can't be 73 and dead, but to this day it still cracks me up. I think it works because it has a twist, which is key, but in a way that is brilliantly absurdist.

Talking of funny, former Grey's Anatomy actor Isaiah Washington, a big Trump supporter, said in one of his recent tweets that he looks forward to Trump serving three terms in office.

I'm not making this up.

Looks like Trump Derangement Syndrome works both ways.

Anonymous said...

Cowboy Surfer said..".I know a monkey stripper, he works at Chimpendales...It's platonic."

Let's see if I get the hang of this:
"I know a baboon doctor; she works at Red Swollen Bottom Hospital."

Mike T. said...

Unrelated to monkeys with guns: I thought you'd like this exchange from an interview with Jon Provost, Lassie's pal Timmy:

Fox News: After “Lassie,” you filmed “This Property Is Condemned” with Natalie Wood. What was that like?

Provost: I was almost 15 years old and I’ll tell ya, Natalie Wood was probably the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. She was great.

Stephen Robinson said...

PETER: Back when The Simpsons was still funny, they often did jokes that were paradoxical or nonsensical in structure and payoff and yet were absolutely hilarious. One of my favourites was in the episode where a Hollywood studio decides to make a Radioactive Man movie. At the studio meeting, an executives says "I think we should bring back Dirk Richter. Kids will want to see the original Radioactive Man." The producer replies "I keep telling you, he is 73 years old and he's dead."

SER: I think I've quoted this line since it first aired!

It pained me when some of my favorite SIMPSONS lines would get cut from syndication bc they weren't key to the plot. I remember that on CHEERS, the syndicated episodes cut the classic "Hello in there, Cliff. What's the color of the sky in your world?" line

Sean said...

Listen, all joking aside, you really shouldn't give a monkey a gun if he hasn't had a training course first. Responsible monkey-gun ownership people. That's what I'm saying.

Brian said...

Caption for that picture - "Go ahead, make my banana"

I think Monkey works better because like Ken said, you can see it. Penguin would be funny too, because of the fact that they don't have hands. Ferret - no way.

Todd Everett said...

Also: "monkey" has a "k" in it. "Ferret" doesn't. Comedy 101.

YEKIMI said...

I can remember two actors with Twitter accounts that basically shot themselves in the foot [one I believe I mentioned before, David Krumholtz.] The other one was in a show that was on the bubble, where for the first time, he was in the starring role. A fan was speculating on his Twitter feed that she heard the show was about to be cancelled and she didn't want to invest time and get interested in it just to have it yanked out from under her [two weeks later, it was]. The actor, who I'm a fan of, had an absolute meltdown typing in all caps [which in the internet world is considered screaming] at her, just berating her up one side and down the other about her comment and this went on for several comments from him, since he couldn't get it all in in one Twitter outburst. Talk about histrionics! Yeah, like that's gonna make me want to watch ANYTHING that you may be in somewhere later down the TV road. Don't they realize that she can re-tweet that response to her friends and her friends can re-tweet that to others? So what they think may be one little meltdown can be spread to thousands in an instant and they may have lost viewers for anything else they might be in.

Unknown said...

you didn't explain which monkee, Davey, Mike? Not Peter of course....

Lemuel said...

"It was the best of times, it was the blurst of times."

Peter said...

Ken, if it's funny enough for Laurel and Hardy, then it's funny enough for the rest of us. The Chimp ends with a Gorilla and a Gun. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZaU4F-qOpwg

Loosehead said...

Raccoon has that humorous 'k' sound, but whoever heard of a raccoon holding a gun... Actually, raccoon with a rocket launcher trips off the tongue.

Anonymous said...

Rueful members of the ASPCA may recall the "machine gun"-operating simian in Buster Keaton's The Cameraman

Sean MacDonald said...

Also in regard to "Baretta" or "AK-47" vs "gun", the listener has to immediately identify what is being mentioned. If you say "Baretta" to me, my first instinct is to think of the 1970s TV show and wonder how you can hand that character to a monkey. So, obviously, sometimes specificity can lead to confusion if the listener doesn't know exactly what is being referenced. As a further commentary, while I would immediately understand a reference to an AK-47, I'm not sure that I could immediately picture what one looks like, while I could easily form a mental picture of a monkey with a generic gun. So, in this instance, I would say that the more generic "gun" works better for this joke. However, if you know the audience consists of military personnel, then, sure, go for the more specific word.

Armando De Avila said...

Hi Ken (and everyone who read the original post in particular but everyone in general),

I was the commenter who originally had asked this question. I'll be honest, I was looking for exactly this kind of post/reaction. Ken, I read your post yesterday - I read every day (even Sunday, wink wink) - and thought about commenting then but I'm glad I waited a day. I'm absolutely in your corner when it comes to the idea regarding how difficult comedy is, to create, to write down (because those are different things, coming up with the idea and then executing it), to direct, to act, et al. These kinds of discussions are why I fantasize about being on a sitcom staff. I bet these kinds of discussions go on all the time, within reason of course. Gotta break the story.

I knew you would hit the nail on the head, Ken. The right animal is one thing, the weapon/tool is another treasure trove of possibilities. The reason I love comedy (not just sitcoms but in particular the sitcom) is because there's so much that goes into it. And I really love pulling apart moments, analyzing why something is funny. The audience shouldn't have to work too hard but the creators work their asses off looking for the right image, the right phrasing, the right word. I've seen documentaries during which comedians reference the music of language. Sometimes there's no real reason/logic to it on the surface. It just sounds right. Monkey and a gun didn't 'sound right' to me, so I commented - what the hell. I got it but it didn't quite sing. But who the hell am I? What do I know? I might vote for chimp and a gun, though.

Kinda tickled that it resulted in this post, though. Thanks, Ken (hope this doesn't sound patronizing). This was great.

Cap'n Bob said...

Who says chimps don't have opposable thumbs? They not only have them on their hands, they have them on their feet.

Anonymous said...

A simian shoots a machine gun in Keaton's The Cameraman

Pat Reeder said...

To Loosehead:

I believe that Marvel has an entire movie franchise built around a raccoon with a rocket launcher. I think his name is even "Rocket Raccoon."

FYI, I put out dry dog food every night for all the raccoons and possums who come around to my back yard. I've noticed that while the possums eat face down in the plate like dogs or cats, the raccoons sit back on their fat haunches and shovel food into their mouths with both front paws, using them like hands. I don't think they would be able to hold and fire a gun, but they do manage a remarkable impersonation of fat guys at Golden Corral.

blogward said...

Phonologically, 'mun" and "gun", too. Instinctively, you want to continue the rhyme. Especially if the gun was oily, dirty and smelly.

PolyWogg said...

I keep waiting and waiting, and no one has said, "Guns don't kill jokes. Penguins do" Or some variation in there.

Going back to your setup, I agree with your explanation, makes sense, so I was asking myself why I was one of the ones who preferred a penguin. I think monkey is more accessible, and totally works because he's going to shoot it off. As you said, an instant image with no detraction. I think I liked penguin better though because it shows the ridiculous juxtaposition better. Kind of like a "penguin with a typewriter", can't work it, doesn't know what it's doing, likely to produce gibberish, etc. Except then it's a different joke then the one you were writing -- the first is irresponsible and dangerous, the second more idiotic. But then irresponsible and dangerous isn't funny to me, but idiotic is, so I "read in" a funny line you didn't intend. Weird. Never noticed myself doing that before. Normally I "read out" something, not "add in". I think.

On the other hand, the Penguins of Madagascar had no such limitations, and they were plenty funny and cute.


STarsky said...

Baretta , are you saying a monkey killed his wife, that is bannanas

Mike Bloodworth said...

PW, YES! Why didn't I think of that?