The comedy we most admire is often associated with a rush of insight. The art of developing a moment like that described above consists in assembling the required elements, making each in turn appear to have a real purpose either in advancing the story or being funny in their own right, until you are ready to unleash the insight. Unlike the techniques described under Saw-It-Coming, a successful Oh-I-See moment absolutely depends upon the audience not getting ahead of you.
Another sophisticated example from a recent American sit-com and then we will look at some more common and trivial (but no less useful) examples of this technique. The 100th episode of Scrubs, “My Way Home”, as is usual for this show, presents four major plot lines. JD, who was relaxing in the bath listening to Toto on his iPod is summoned into work and is desperate to avoid anyone who might give him more to do, so he can get home. Turk is eager to persuade the father of a terminally ill patient to donate the boy’s heart in order that he, Turk, can assist in the operation. Carla is wrestling with her feelings of parenthood and worries that she doesn’t have the courage to be a good mother. Elliot fears that she lacks the intelligence to lead the Q&A session on endocrinology she is suddenly faced with. All four plot lines develop smoothly, until as all four characters are marching down the yellow stripe the Janitor has painted on the hospital floor, JD’s voice-over sums up the situation. Elliot wants a brain, Carla wants courage, Turk wants a heart and he wants to go home. In a sudden rush of insight, half-way through the episode, we realise this is an homage to The Wizard of Oz.
This technique is all about “clever” comedy, of which Seinfeld is the apotheosis. The Scrubs episode is exceptional because it combines character development, feeling, and social issues with a brilliantly constructed Oh-I-See moment without allowing any element to swamp the others. However, Oh-I-See also drives what is often referred to as the lowest form of humour too – puns. Here’s college professor Groucho trying to guess the password required to gain admittance to a speakeasy, with Chico on the door.
GROUCHO: Let me see: Is it “sturgeon”?
CHICO: Hey, you crazy. Sturgeon, he’s a doctor cuts you open when-a you sick. Now I give you one more chance.
GROUCHO: I got it. “Haddock.”
CHICO: That’s-a funny. I gotta haddock, too.
GROUCHO: What do you take for a haddock?
CHICO: Well-a, sometimes I take-a aspirin, sometimes I take-a Calamel.
GROUCHO: Say, I’d walk a mile for a Calamel.1
CHICO: You mean chocolate calamel. I like-a that too, but you no guess it.
In a good pun (if such a thing exists), we experience a rush of insight into the two different meanings that the same or very similar-sounding words can have. Sometimes, we see the connection instantly, other times it’s a slow burn. “Sturgeon” above, generally elicits groans since sturgeon-surgeon is at once too clumsy and too obvious to be a really good pun. “Haddock” typically takes two or three repetitions before the audience re-analyses it as “headache”. Some people don’t get it until “aspirin”. Part of the Marxes’ appeal, of course, was in the sheer rate of punning. They get you laughing at the good jokes, so you still giggle madly through the duff ones, until they hit you with another belter. The good jokes are funnier because they are surrounded by weaker jokes. Compare this with the effect discussed under All-Laugh-Together.
Not all verbal comedy is, strictly speaking, punning. When Groucho, at the end of a bizarre ramble tells Margaret Dumont “You know, you haven’t stopped talking since I got here. You must have been vaccinated with a phonograph needle,” we appreciate the status juxtaposition and the surrealism of a record needle used for vaccination to create verbosity, as well as the double-meaning of the word “needle”. And for The Goon Show by way of James Joyce, here are Vivian Stanshall’s astonishing opening lines from Sir Henry at Rawlinson End.
English as tuppence, changing yet changeless as canal water, nestling in green nowhere, armoured and effete, bold flag-bearer, lotus-fed Miss Havishambling opsimath and eremite, feudal still reactionary Rawlinson End. The story so far…
The body of Doris Hazard’s Pekinese, unwittingly asphyxiated beneath her husband’s bottom during a wine and middle-aged spread do at the great house, after the ritual fortnight in the Rawlinson fridge, has been given over to Old Scrotum, the wrinkled retainer, for indecent burial under Sir Henry’s giant marrow. This monstrous jade zebra veg is the master’s puffed pride, and by his stern instruction, the greedy gourd is daily drip-fed with a powerful laxative. Thus “should some rascal half-inch the blessed thing and eat it, it’ll give him the liquorice for weeks!”
Now think on’t. Dot dot dot…
But these kind of linguistic pyrotechnics are not needed for a verbal insight. What about a simple joke?
Q: According to Freud, what comes between fear and sex?
The mention of Freud here is brilliant misdirection, surreptitiously setting up the idea of German-speaking in order to unleash the insight that fear (vier) and sex (sechs) are also numbers in the German language.
Sketch comedy “quickies” often exploit this principle. A situation is set up, often sustained for some time and then, for the punchline, is revealed as something rather different than we were led to believe. Whether this makes us groan, gasp in admiration or laugh out loud depends on how “cheated” we feel (does the false set-up really match the revealed situation?), and whether the joke is also a vehicle for another kind of humour: satire for example.
In a Smith and Jones sketch, Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones are seen parked outside a house, watching through binoculars and sipping coffee from a thermos. Tension rises, they complain about the waiting. Griff wants to make a break for it, but Mel restrains him. They have to wait it out. Finally the moment comes, their target leaves the house and they slip outside the car. We cut to inside the house and see a card fall through the letter box. It reads “We called to read your meter, but unfortunately you were out”.
This combines a second kind of insight, that beloved of many stand-up comedians, the insight of recognition. And provides a surreal explanation to account for the observed behaviour. Hence in its construction, the sketch uses one version of Oh-I-See in order to deliver a second kind of Oh-I-See. It is also a bathetic ending, using Just-A-Flesh-Wound to substitute the high-stakes stake-out with the low-stakes meter-reading, which in turn is a surreal juxtaposition. Less successful “quickies” generally just depend on the cheap surprise of the Oh-I-See moment for their effect. Some radio comedy is particularly prone to this: “But Captain, why have you given the briefing entirely naked?” That kind of thing.
The dialogue in farces is often designed to sustain two different beliefs simultaneously. Done clumsily, this can strain credulity, but done elegantly, and combined with appropriate juxtapositions and status transactions, the results can be spellbinding – as in the classic Frasier episode “The Matchmaker”, wherein Frasier tries to set Daphne up with a date, Tom, who is actually interested in Frasier himself. All of the dialogue between the two of them enables Tom to believe that Frasier is gay and trying to seduce him, while Frasier believes that Tom is straight and interested in Daphne, with a moment of insight for the audience each time. Finally, the penny drops and each character experiences a rush of insight which deeply affects them.
Also under the umbrella of Oh-I-See is the mechanism of the spoof. Sometimes, the intent will be clear from the outset, as in films like Scary Movie or Robin Hood: Men in Tights. Other times, the spoof will creep up as in the Scrubs example above. The laugh of recognition is useful and important, but once again works best with an element of satire included. It is not enough to include an element borrowed from another work, it is also necessary to comment on it in some way. It is also interesting to note that allowing the audience to reach their own conclusions is funnier than spelling it out for them. This “protects” the moment of insight. This joke, attributed to Spike Milligan, topped an Internet poll to find the world’s funniest joke.
A couple of New Jersey hunters are out in the woods when one of them falls to the ground. He doesn’t seem to be breathing; his eyes are rolled back in his head. The other guy whips out his cell phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps to the operator: “My friend is dead! What can I do?” The operator, in a calm soothing voice says: “Just take it easy. I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.” There is a silence, and then a shot is heard. The guy’s voice comes back on the line. He says: “OK, now what?”
Two further variations on this theme need to be addressed. The first has as much to do with storytelling as comedy: reincorporation. Elements from earlier in the story reappear towards the end to provide structure.2 However, the reappearance of an earlier element creates a similar moment of insight and can provide a comic highpoint. This is not quite the same as catchphrases and repeated patterns, which are dealt with under Saw-It-Coming. John Cleese stresses the importance of not letting the audience catch you setting up the elements you are going to depend on later, and explains that he and Connie Booth would cover their tracks by putting all their best jokes into the set-up scene.
In the Fawlty Towers episode “A Communications Problem”, an entirely superfluous scene sees Basil reminding Manuel that his visit to the betting shop on Basil’s behalf is a secret. The scene contains not a scrap of new plot information but is stuffed with brilliant one-liners to ensure not just that we remember it, but that we also don’t realise why we have to remember it.
BASIL: You know nothing about the horse.
MANUEL: Which horse? Which horse I know nothing?
BASIL: My horse, nitwit.
MANUEL: Your horse “nitwit”.
BASIL: No, no, “Dragonfly”.
MANUEL: It won!
BASIL: Yes, I know.
MANUEL: I know it won too. I go to betting shop for you…
BASIL: Yes, I know, I know, I know.
MANUEL: Then why you say I know nothing?
BASIL: Oh… Look, you know the horse?
MANUEL: Er, Nitwit or Dragonfly?
BASIL: Dragonfly! There isn’t a horse called Nitw… You’re the nitwit.
MANUEL: What is “witnit”?
BASIL: It doesn’t matter. Oh, I could spend the rest of my life having this conversation. Please, please try to understand before one of us dies…
And so on, for another minute or so. At the end of the programme, Basil needs to prove to vile Mrs Richards that the money is his, and so summons Manuel to explain where it came from. Manuel clears his throat, and to Basil’s horror, proclaims “I know nothing!”
A similar mechanism is at work when one situation is treated like another. In “The Initiative”, an episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, vampire Spike has just escaped from a research lab and is lying in wait for Willow. When she lies down on her bed, he pounces and we cut away. When we cut back, Spike is sitting on the bed next to Willow, his head in his hands. “This has never happened to me before,” he complains. “Maybe we could try again in half an hour?” suggests Willow. In fact, Spike has been “chipped” to prevent him from biting people, but the scene plays out like a couple dealing with erectile dysfunction.
Finally, let us also mention practical jokes. Watching a show like Candid Camera we appreciate the additional insight we have which is denied the victim of the prank. When the truth is revealed, we experience the victim’s rush of insight vicariously and so we laugh.
- “I’d walk a mile for a Camel” was a popular advertising slogan. ↩
- This is another way of describing “Chekhov’s gun” – the observation attributed to playwright Anton Chekhov that “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” See Uncle Vanya for a literal use of this device. ↩