This month in Reader's Digest history, Bob Hope's joke writer Gene Perret reveals the secrets of being a funny writer
As a joke writer for Bob Hope for 20 years, Gene Perret had taken hundreds of flights. So he was only half listening when the air steward began reciting safety instructions. Suddenly Perret's ears pricked up. "There may be 50 ways to leave your lover," the steward said, "but there are only five ways to leave this aeroplane." And then: "Please return your seat to its upright and most uncomfortable position. Later you may lean back and break the knees of the passenger behind you."
Perret uses this story to make a serious point: humour can grab someone's attention and get a message across. "Some people can't tell a joke to save their lives," says Perret, "but everyone can learn to use humour effectively." The secret is developing your own style, learning a few tricks and taking the time to practise.
How to use humour effectively
The first step Perret recommends is building a "comedy collection." Jot down 25 jokes, asides or stories that you find funny. Then work out whether you are better with stories or one-liners. Don't try to be what you're not. Matching people with the wrong material is "like teaching a pig to sing," Perret says. "It not only wastes your time, it annoys the pig."
Look for humour on a regular basis, not just before you intend to use it. Joke books are OK, but Perret suggests looking for material from your own experience. He tells a story about helping his little daughter prepare to recite a poem at kindergarten. When he offered to write one for her, she said, "No, Dad, this is in front of the whole school. I'd rather it was good." Nothing puts people more at ease than self-deprecating humour.
"Look for humour on a regular basis"
Adapt your material to your style, Perret advises. Comic material has to be put into the speaker's own words. W C Fields loved multisyllabic words and the stilted sentence—"What contemptible scoundrel stole the cork from my lunch?" Bob Hope would call the offender by a simpler word, like jerk.
Material should also be adapted to the audience. When Perret spoke before a gathering of franchise managers of a fast-food chain, he used this line: "McDonald's has sold more than 75 billion hamburgers. They know that because they're on their fourth pound of mince." It went down well. "The more pertinent and specific the humour, the funnier it is," Perret says.
Recovering from a misfire
Be careful with insulting humour. Once at a company function, Perret based a whole routine on a copying machine that never worked. Mid-speech, the manager of the department that made the machine stormed out. It taught Perret never to cut too close to the bone. He now teases audiences only about matters that they joke about themselves.
When Bob Hope jests with a president, he doesn't make foreign policy a target, but the president's golf game, or his inability to catch fish. "You can always spot Gerry Ford on the golf course," Hope once said. "His golf-cart is the one with the red cross painted on top." Perret's rule of thumb on any critical gibe is: when in doubt, leave it out.
Bob Hope. NBC, public domain.
Perret advises people to forget the idea that a speech should open and close with a joke. That kind of formulaic speaking could signal insecurity. If you still insist on a guffaw before getting into your talk, remember that an opening joke or story must have a strong point that will set up the entire speech.
To drive home your message, put the joke after it. For instance, one executive told his employees he wanted them to attack their most pressing problems first. The reinforcement: "As we used to say back home, 'If you got a frog to swaller, don't look at it too long.'"
If you feel you need to end your talk with a joke, make sure you go out with a bang. When a closing joke falls flat, it is almost impossible to recover.
"If you feel you need to end your talk with a joke, make sure you go out with a bang"
Even the most experienced comedians have to be prepared for an occasional misfire. That's when the pros pull out their life-saver—a line that helps make up for the bomb. When Bob Hope bungles a line, he sometimes follows it by saying, "My wife told me that story would never work. I see you all side with her."
A few more hints: keep your material short, tell it slowly and, no matter how hilarious they are, don't laugh at your own jokes while you're telling them. Like tennis or golf, successful humour comes with the doing. The next time someone asks how to get to the Albert Hall, remember to reply, "Practise, practise, practise."
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