• I wrote what I thought was a pretty funny theater review this morning. It took me two and a half hours to finish the first draft and an hour to polish it. I spent most of that last hour cutting 120 words out of my 1,070-word first draft. None of the cuts was longer than a single sentence–it was mostly a matter of trimming individual words and phrases. The first draft contained all the jokes that made it into the final version I e-mailed to my editor, but they were much funnier when I was done.
To the extent that I have a reputation for being funny (though only on paper, alas), it’s probably because I take such pains to trim away superfluous verbiage from my best lines. Wit, I suspect, is mostly a matter of self-editing. Beyond that, I learned a long time ago that one of the easiest ways to be funny is to say exactly what you think. Some critics pull their punches, but I never do. Often I pass over bad things in merciful silence–I try whenever possible to give working actors a break, for instance–but when I do throw a punch, I always go straight for the jaw.
It’s not quite the same thing, but Somerset Maugham once wrote a short story called “Jane” about an unsophisticated woman who acquired a reputation as a high-society wit simply by telling the truth:
I’d said the same things for thirty years and no one ever saw anything to laugh at. I thought it must be my clothes or my bobbed hair or my eyeglass. Then I discovered it was because I spoke the truth. It was so unusual that people thought it humorous. One of these days someone else will discover the secret, and when people habitually tell the truth of course there’ll be nothing funny in it.
George Bernard Shaw agreed: “My way of joking is to tell the truth. It’s the funniest joke in the world.” That’s what I try to do. An example is my Wall Street Journal review of the recent Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, in which Christian Slater played Tom, the character based on Williams himself. I compared Slater’s bluntly straightforward performance to the “careful, over-enunciated” acting of Jessica Lange as his mother: “The bluff, easygoing Mr. Slater is all wrong, too, but at least he acts like a real person, albeit one from some other play (I wanted to send him a telegram at intermission saying DIDN’T ANYBODY TELL YOU TOM IS GAY?).” That’s not a joke, nor is it a comic exaggeration. It’s a near-verbatim transcript of what I was thinking as I watched Slater on stage–but it’s funny.
• Said today by my trainer: “You know, I think God is like a little kid with an ant farm. Sometimes he squashes you, sometimes he only pulls off a couple of legs. Or caves your tunnel in. Or sprays you with Raid.”