photo by Andrew Eldridge
The Jokes Are On Me…..
Three of my favourite ‘gags’ come from classic British sitcoms, and if you don’t already know them, I’m going to spoil them for you. Two are from Only Fools and Horses, and the third from the film version of One Foot In The Grave. All three are what would be called visual gags, but two of them have a verbal preparation, which makes me wonder if they could be replicated, or paralleled in writing.
From One Foot in the Grave it is the scene where Victor Meldrew and his wife are asked to identify the corpse of an acquaintance, which has been recovered from the sea. As the mortuary drawer is slid open they are warned that ‘a shark bit off her foot’. Cut to the foot, alone, in the drawer.
From Only Fools and Horses, it is the scene where Del Boy and his crew offer to take down and clean a chandelier in a stately home. Through the build up we see them prepare for the job. One goes up into the attic, while the other two remain below, to catch the falling chandelier in a sheet. Cutting between the attic and the hall, we see and hear them checking that the chandelier has been found, and is being loosened. Then, in long shot, as they give the word to let go, we see another chandelier, not the one they are standing beneath, descend with a crash to the floor.
These two gags are visual. When we see what happens it takes us by surprise, and makes us laugh; but it does so because we have been verbally misled. In the first case the phrasing makes us think that the foot, rather than the body will be missing. In the second we take on face value the exchanges between the two parties, confirming that the chandelier has been found and is being loosened.
In both cases the characters are misled too.
My third gag is purely visual. Del Boy, leaning on a bar turns away, and the barman passes through by lifting the flap on which, we now see, Del Boy was leaning. He leaves the flap up, and Del, only half turning back, leans unsuspectingly into the space and vanishes out of sight. It is a classic pratfall, beautifully executed.
My guess is that of the three, the first two could more easily be replicated in text, because it was what was said, and the ambiguity of its meaning, that set up the gag, but in the case of the third, the whole thing would have to be done with description. Description has the reputation of bringing narratives to a halt. It is where we insert a ‘still’ into the moving picture. There’s also the fact that visual punchlines, perhaps especially so when they are falls, take place very quickly, and are very simple, single movements. To match that speed and visual economy demands great clarity and conciseness in language.
Of course, some visual punchlines may be extended. The cartoon situation where a character hauls something up on a pulley, is pulled up after it, lets go of the rope, falls, and then is fallen on by whatever he was raising, is a classic example. It can be made much more complicated too, by having multiple ropes, counterweights and so forth, without losing its essential credibility. A variation of it is used in the Lord of the Rings. A scene in the mines of Moria shows the skull of a skeleton sitting on the rim of a well. When the skull is knocked off the rim by Merry it falls into the well, pulling the skeleton, then a length of chain, and finally a bucket, down after it: a long, strung out series of punchlines.
In the novel, Tolkien describes a similar event in which a stone, dropped into a well, goes noisily ricocheting on for ages, but unlike the scene in the film it is not a gag and has no comic element.
Comic scenes, even where the humour is verbal, are I think largely dependent on timing for their effects. I have recently published a series of comic monolgogues, which I must confess, I was not sure would work ‘on the page’. Some readers, I’m glad to say, have reassured me that they do. The problem is that although you can take a reader to text, you can’t make him get that comic timing right. In performance, using the text as a score, it is the audience that is taken by surprise, not the reader. Perhaps this is one of the defining differences between the solitary, silent reading of, and listening to stories. Something which I’ve come to think is that when reading aloud for the benefit of an audience, the comic punchline demands – where the audience know what is coming next – the withholding of information, and – where they do not – the rapid provision of it! Hit them with surprises. Make them wait for what they anticipate. The question is, how do you build into the writing, the instructions to a first time, solitary, silent reader to do just that? You’ll not be surprised, I suspect, to find that I don’t, at present, have the answer to that!
A useful writing exercise might be to take one of the above gags, or another of your own preference, and to try to write it as part of a piece of comic fiction. Better still, take two, one where the visual gag is supported by dialogue, as are my first two examples, and one where it is not.