They say you can't, or shouldn't, analyze humor. That to analyze is to destroy. Be that as it may, what follows is a short look at a brief sketch I wrote for radio. I didn't set out with the aims I ultimately describe, only to write something funny, but if it helps anybody else who wants to get into comedy writing so much the better.
(A howling Arctic wind is blowing.)
COMMENTATOR: (a fairly close relative of David Attenborough)
As we look across the icy wastes we see an age-old sight that typifies life here close to the North Pole. A lone figure beside a hole he has laboriously cut in the ice. Perched, harpoon in hand, waiting for the arrival of a seal that may provide him and his family with sustenance, clothing and warmth in this bleak desolation. Wrapped in a fur jacket, trousers, hood, boots and gloves, he seems unaffected by the elements, for he has truly adapted to his environment.
This is the Eskimo, or as he prefers to be called today, the Inuit.
ESKIMO: (shouting) Oy! Not me!
ESKIMO: I said, not me!
COMMENTATOR: What, you don't want to be called an Innuit?
ESKIMO: No. I want to be called Doris.
ESKIMO: Yeah. I'm a transvestite.
COMMENTATOR: A what?
ESKIMO: A transvestite. Fella that dresses up in women's clothes. That's why I'm wearing the wife's clothes.
COMMENTATOR: Really ? But that's fascinating. Are there a lot of Eskimo transvestites?
ESKIMO: Dunno. Buggers all look the same to me.
If you didn't find that funny you're free to leave now, but if you did, let's have a look at why we find this tickles the funny bone.
The point I started with was - cultures which don't differentiate between the way the sexes dress couldn't possibly have transvestism. I'm no anthropologist but I don't see anybody getting a thrill from dressing in his normal everyday clothes. Eskimos fitted the bill for me, because there seems to be a dearth of Eskimo jokes. Blacks, blondes, Irish, Polish, they all get it in the neck, but the Eskimo escapes unscathed. It was time this was rectified.
So, the punchline was the fact that a transvestite Eskimo would look exactly like he always did. My problem was in relating a visual joke on radio. You may notice the lengths the Commentator goes to in describing the Eskimo's dress. This, of course, was to reinforce the listener's preconception, but for the same reason I would keep it in even if converting for TV.
The other device I use is in the Eskimo declaring that he doesn't want to be known as an Inuit. The listener immediately begins to think that the joke is leading toward some differentiation between Eskimo and Inuit and is surprised when the Eskimo switches play by saying he wants to be known as Doris. The listener then awaits some salacious detail which, alas, he is denied because as Doris admits, they all look the same.
As I said, this analysis comes after the event. Comedy writing, to my mind, is about coming up with a basic concept and then writing it till an opportunity for a punchline presents itself. You then edit extraneous material to get the pace you want. For instance the Commentator's description of the Eskimo at the ice hole is there for radio listeners but, again, I would keep it in for TV to set a tone and pace for the gag. Besides which, that's the way commentator's talk.
This may not be the way other comedy writers do their business but it works for me. If the joke works for you, I'm getting there.