Monday, November 21, 2016

Contrast, the Forgotten Ingredient

There you were, an undergraduate by day, sopping up literature in the English Department of your university, while sneaking out at night, first to write comedy for television, later to work at the night office of the Associated Press, tucked off into a corner of the LA Times newsroom.

What you learned most nights had a growing, remarkable effect on how you progressed during the days. You learned to write essay-type questions on exams as news stories, starting with the most information in the opening paragraph.

In the same way ordinary characters cause readers to set books down partially read, not to be returned to, sameness provokes a similar need to begin casting about for an exit.Contrast is one of the essentials of humor. Persons behaving in a consistent manner rarely provide news stories.

After about two days of writing comedy, you began to understand the importance of the two principals in Aristophanes' great romp, The Frog, being a slave and his master, with each having a specific dependence on the other. Two masters--not funny. Two slaves? Even less funny. 

Later, at the Associated Press, the awareness of a person doing the same thing for forty years might make a short feature article, but a person doing something wildly different after having done the same thing for forty years was a story.

Suppose Abbott and Costello looked alike, Laurel and Hardy, Martin and that twit, Lewis. What about Holmes and Watson, and, well into the twentieth century, Oscar Madison and Felix Unger.

Different is dramatic where sameness is--well, static. Consistent is sameness, change and surprise are explosive. Most jokes and many stories end on a surprise that comes directly from a shift in the sameness.

We've all heard stories about genie's in bottles, offering boons or wishes to mortals who are fortunate enough to encounter one thus imprisoned and now set free. But who could fail to become interested in a story about a hearing-impaired genie, who mishears to great mischief the wish of a rescuer?

Imagine the rescuer, entering a bar, ordering a large drink for himself and a small thimbleful for his apparent prop, a tiny piano player, who begins playing a toy piano.  

"The genie was hard of hearing," the rescuer tells a jaded bartender, a man who, by virtue of his profession, has seen and heard nearly everything.  "I did not ask for this," the rescuer says, indicating the miniature player before him.  "I did not ask the genie for a nine-inch pianist."

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