The other morning while sitting on my deck having a jolt of java, I recalled a line from Neil Simon’s play, Barefoot in the Park, which goes something like this:
“..it was a lot harder for me to watch what you were doing than it was for you to do what I was watching.”
In context it’s hilarious, and even out of context it’s amusing.
Why? Think about it for a moment. Say the line out loud.
I don’t know why it popped into my head over coffee, but it adds to my core belief that comic writing is impossible to teach.
You can analyze the word structure of Simon’s sentence. It’s an inversion, a deft word-flip fueled by dual perspectives. It has rhythm and lilt and lulls one into a false sense of security, i.e., it surprises. And surprise, we know, is an essential element of humor.
Yes, we can deconstruct the line from now until Bloomsday, but can we be taught to construct its equal?
I don’t think so.
I’d bet Neil Simon didn’t wrack his brains when writing those words. It’s more likely they simply appeared on the page, like magic.
In the play, I believe the rejoinder to the line is “What is that supposed to mean?”
A question its author may have asked himself when he wrote the words. Doesn’t matter, of course, because it’s funny.
Teaching the Weddas How to Laugh
When I was in my mid-twenties, I was living in a tiny garage apartment in Connecticut. One day I went to a yard sale looking for books. I didn’t see any and asked the man colleting money. He led me into his house to the living room where bookshelves ran from floor to ceiling. Before I could even begin to scan the spines, he announced: “If you want ‘em, they’re yours.”
Thinking perhaps I’d start a used bookstore, I called a friend with a pickup truck and we hauled away the collection.
That night I sat amid the piles browsing. One of the first books I opened was of little interest until a crisp $50 bill dropped out from between its pages.
The hell with first editions—I began rifling through the hundred+ volumes in search of more stashed cash. I had visions of an eccentric owner hiding his or her fortune here
As it turned out, I was lucky to have found the fifty bucks because the collection amounted to a public library’s discards. Later, skimming nostalgically through the book in which the bill was stashed (a travel adventure circa 1935) I came across these words:
“…the laughless Weddas of Ceylon…”
I dug deeper, hoping the author would elaborate on the mysterious Weddas, but there was only the one reference. The absurdity of those words rattled in my brain.
I was inspired to write a short story titled “Teaching the Weddas How to Laugh,” in which two British explorers go searching for the tribe. When they finally discover them hidden deep in the jungle, they are struck by their despondence. “Migod,” exclaims my narrator, “we’ve uncovered the saddest human beings on the face of the earth!”
Indeed, the suicide rate had cut the population in half.
In a gallant attempt to save the tribe the explorers attempt to teach them how to laugh.
First, they offer a beginner’s course in snickering which, ultimately, leads up to advanced belly laughter.
Unfortunately, the students’ hysterics reduces them to tears and landing them right back where they started.
In the end the narrator has an epiphany when he realizes the Weddas are not laughless after all, but had laughed themselves to near extinction.
The story went through three or four drafts, yet I was unsatisfied and filed it away. The concept, I believed, was quite nice, but its execution eluded me.
Those are the facts, but the facts could be wrong.
In light of these musings, a book by Jay Heinrichs arrived today: Word Hero: A Fiendishly Clever Guide to Crafting the Lines That Get Laughs, Go Viral, and Live Forever.
Heinrichs conspires to teach the art of “witcraft” via a formula consisting of forty-three techniques… all designed to improve your ability to write and speak, and to help one’s words leave a lasting impression.
Word Hero is nothing if not clever and you’ll find a good deal of wit inside and some amusing exercises that will appeal to word-lovers.
Still, I remain skeptical that ‘witcraft” will transform a literary dullard into Mark Twain.