VI. POW, Right in the Kisser, Part 1
Abbott: I'm telling you. Who's on first, What's on second, I Don't Know is on third–
Costello: You know the fellows' names?
C: Well, then who's playing first?
C: I mean the fellow's name on first base.
C: The fellow playin' first base.
C: The guy on first base.
A: Who is on first.
C: Well, what are you askin' me for?
We've all heard this comedy routine over the years. It has stood the test of time. Why is it funny? One reason is because of what we call 'play on words', or POWs. POWs are used all the time in comedy and there are several different forms: puns, malaprops, oxymorons, double entendres, twisting cliches, reforming words, etc. There are a lot of things to cover here, so we'll only discuss three this week.
Let's start with malaprops. “What does that mean?” you ask. Well, let's just say that it's a fancy way of describing when we misspeak with a humorous result. They mainly work if the person saying them is unaware of what they are saying. Do you remember our previous statements from insurance claims? Go ahead, look back. Okay, most of those are malaprops. Here are a few other examples:
On a wedding announcement: “Mr. And Mrs. John Smith request your presents at their daughter's wedding.”
George W. Bush: “We cannot let terrorists and rogue nations hold this nation hostile or hold our allies hostile.”
Former Chicago Mayor Richard Daley: “The police are not here to create disorder, they're here to preserve disorder.”
It can also be when words are improperly used in place of others. This is a common trick utilized in sketch comedies and sitcoms. For example, in Tim Allen's series, Home Improvement, Tim would often talk to his neighbor, Wilson. Wilson would give wise advice based on obscure references. Tim would later try to quote them to someone else and end up replacing his own words into Wilson's statements. Here's one example:
W: Tim, it's not unusual for a father to want his son to succeed. You know, I'm reminded of what Wally Schirra, the astronaut said, “You don't raise heroes, you raise sons. But if you treat them as sons, they'll turn out to be heroes, even if it's just in your own eyes.”
Then, when Tim tries to relate this advice to his son:
T: I'm reminded of what the great astronaut, Wally Cleaver said. You can't expect your son to do his homework and eat a foot-long hero without Prussian dressing.
How can we use this in our novels? Well, one way is to build it into one of our characters (like Tim 'the Tool Man' Taylor). In Dragon War Relic, my comic-relief character, Doug, is not the brightest bulb on the tree and would often mix things up. Your not-so-comic characters can do it, too, but make sure it doesn't seem out of place for them to say it.
Another technique I use is one I call 'reforming words'. This is where a writer purposely reorders words or letters to create a kind of humorous time bomb: a joke that at first isn't realized until thought about later. Some examples can be found in my Tales of Myrick the (Not So) Magnificent stories. For instance, there's my barbarian character Nonac of Airamic. Nonac is just Conan with the first and last letters switched. Conan was from Cimmeria, so Airamic is a respelling of it backwards. I've also planted more little time bombs in my Myrick stories as a subtle way to make fun of our world and culture while having things set in a fantasy world. Like there are the monks who worship Endonynt (Nintendo). Also, several of the magic spells are scrambled statements waiting to be decoded.
Let's close this week with oxymorons. You probably already know what those are, two words next to each other that are contradictory. Things like: jumbo shrimp, pretty ugly, soft rock, alone together (though it's a great jazz standard), and Congressional Ethics. Some of my favorites are: military intelligence, rock musician, and country music. A good use for these is in chapter titles. Oxymorons utilize the principle of opposites, which is a commonly used technique that we'll delve more into later.
Next time, we'll deal with puns, cliches, and double entendres.