Monday, May 14, 2007

The Meeting Place between Conflict and Timing

One of the great moments in television erupted from, of all things, silence, when Jack Benny (1894--1974), amply established as penurious, a tight man with a dollar, and otherwise given to financial conservatism, is accosted by a robber (the icon from gangster movies, Sheldon Leonard), who with considerable menace, demands, "Your money, or your life."

There follows one of the most pregnant pauses in all of modern comedic entertainment. You might call it a Benny pause.

Finally, Leonard, impatient, growls out a "Well..?"

And Jack Benny's reply: "I'm thinking...I'm thinking."

Such was Jack Benny's deft timing that you could actually hear him thinking over his options, over the laughter of the audience. Set up. (Benny's frugal nature) Conflict. (Being robbed/threatened) Payoff.

Even now, over thirty years after Benny's death, you will hear the likes of Neil Simon, Woody Allen, Sid Caesar, major writers of dramatic humor, reminisce on the importance of that moment, which influenced their work as they were emerging from the shadows and into prominence.

Significant to the point I'm leading up to is the fact that Jack Benny was close to being a dead-pan in his responses, his most famous other retort being a drawn-out "Wellll!" The only person who could break through the splendid Benny facade was his close friend, the cigar chomping George Burns(1896-1996), another master of timing.

What, precisely, is timing?

Timing is knowing when what comes next can safely arrive.

Timing is knowing how long to withhold information, be it spoken, written, or a gesture.

Timing is knowing how long you can continue getting away with what you've been getting away with.

Timing is also knowing when to quit.

The best way to demonstrate how acute was Jack Benny's sense of timing is with this anecdote, gleaned from those who wrote for him and appeared with him. A generous man in his personal and professional life, he affected a stinginess and also a rivalry based on jealousy with his good friend, Fred Allen.

Benny always instructed his writers to give guests good, funny lines, and inventive agendas. The only rule to be observed was that the guest was not to deliver his/her lines until, on stage before the camera, Benny made eye contact with the guest. Then the guest was free to indulge timing, gesture, and improvised device. If the guest violated that simple rule, the guest was not invited back.

Benny in effect directed his own shows, relying on his innate sense of how long he could delay a moment of dramatic impact, producing the long-lasting guffaw.

Timing, thanks to Jack Benny and George Burns, led subsequent generations of writers and actors to see how conflict needn't be melodramatic or even burlesque--a simple disagreement or misunderstanding would do. And of course conflict was writ large when Benny was challenged with, "Your money--or your life."

Conflict is the placing in motion of differing agendas, competition set loose, disagreement spilling out like an upturned glass of red wine on a white linen table cloth. Put them together, as with, say, Jack Benny, or George Burns, or Neil Simon, and you have a raucous and engaging dynamic set loose as a force that cannot be controlled.

Will the face of humor change? Will Benny and Burns and Caesar and Simon lose their bite? Of course it will, but for now, we see the dramatic origins of it in the work of those who, whether they knew it or not, were influenced by these giants; it takes place in that crowded, ill-furnished guest room between seriousness and literary intent. It is that splendid patch of dramatic landscape wherein James Thurber, curious to know for certain if light shined in a dog's eyes will reflect, is caught by a policeman, on his hands and knees in the dark, trying to shine a flashlight into a dog's eyes--then having to explain this to the policeman.

All of these worthies of timing and conflict have in common a degree of the absurd, which, like a gifted magician, they distract us from. With timing. The absurd becomes real enough for the audience to buy the situation without question.

We have been invited into this dreary guest room between conflict and timing, where somehow our suspicions have been raised and we are along for a ride that lasts us long after the performance has ended.

No comments: