Thursday, March 15, 2007

The secret to comedy

The first thing my Terminale class see when they arrive in class is this short dialogue on the blackboard:
- What is the secret to comedy?
- Timing
I look at the class and tell them to read it. I wait for a few seconds and then I say, "This is funny."
They look blankly.
"Read it again. Do you understand all the words?"
They nod warily.
"I'm telling you this is funny." I scratch my head. "I know. Let's try it out loud."
I ask Louis and Ysoline to read it aloud. They do.
"What is the secret comedy?"
I applaud,"Funny! Yes?" The room is quiet. I feign frustration. "Ok, ok, I'll take Ysoline's line." I motion to Louis. "Go ahead."
"What is the secret..."
"Timing." Louis is discombobulated by the interruption. His table mate chuckles. I seize on this reaction.
"See! It's funny!" Louis is still trying to figure out what went wrong. I don't give him any time to reflect. "Again Louis. Ask me the secret to comedy." Louis is a good sport. He obliges me.
"What is..."
"Timing." Chuckles all around now, Louis too is smiling. He gets it.

I'm teaching an excerpt from a short play called "Sure Thing" by David Ives. It appears in a colleciton of his work entitled "All in the Timing". It's a clever little piece whose central conceit is roughly that of the film "Groundhog Day".
The scene takes place in a cafe. A young man approaches a table at which is seated a young woman. It's the stereotypic cafe moment, the ritual "is this seat taken?" gambit which is supposed to lead to greater things.
In Ives' version, the scene falters almost immediately at which point a bell rings, and the scene restarts with the young man attempting small but consequential variations. Each reprise inevitably falters however - the young man always says something wrong - he reveals he's sports fan or he misidentifies the author of The Sound and the Fury as Ernest Hemmingway or he says he graduated from Oral Roberts University- the woman is instantly nonplussed and the bell rings sending him back once more to square one. It is funny look at how even superficial social interactions between men and women can be like walking through a mine field.
Choosing this text was a bit of a stretch seeing as how humor can be such an elusive and culturally contingent thing. Some forms of comedy transcend language, physical or slapstick is easily understood...a good example of this happened in my room last week. A student named Flaurent tipped his chair back too far, fell and bonked his head on the floor. I think it actually hurt him but of course the initial reaction from everyone was laughter. Two days later he did it again, more laughter. While he's rubbing his head (again) I tell him in a voice loud enough for the whole class to hear. "If you don't learn how to master the operation of that chair you're going to have to sit on the floor." I get a few laughs. Cheap tricks.
Aside from this sort of thing, however, humor can very subtle... wit is after all closely allied to intelligence. Complicating the issue enormously for the language learner are the cultural references which are often a kind of code or short hand leading to and illuminating the punch line.
In the Ives piece my students encountered references to Harvard, the Mets, Faulkner, Hemmingway, and Oral Roberts University. I challenged them to try to come up with French equivalents for all of these references. Harvard was easy...the Sorbonne.
The Mets took a little explaining, a little background about America's pasttime, the World Series, New York baseball teams, the miserable Mets, the hated Yankees but when I had finished all that the students felt pretty comfortable with the following soccor analogy: Mets = Paris SG and Yankees = Lyon.
I thought that finding equivalents for Faulkner and Hemmingway would be fast work but I was in for a surprise. When I asked my class to give me the names of three important French novelists from the 20th century they couldn't come up with a single name for quite awhile. Finally someone said Stendhal (not 20th century). I must have looked flabbergasted because after a few more seconds a student seemed to feel compelled to explain. We don't read contemporary literature in school, she said. She said that they mostly read authors like Diderot and Montaigne and Moliere. Ok, I said, but even if you haven't read them surely you know some names...? Not one name. So I offered Camus up for consideration. They had heard of him. I was a little stunned. This is the sort of anecdote that oftens gets served up in America to support the claims of the likes of E.D. Hirsch (Cultural Literacy) .
Anyway, the we concluded our excercise with Oral Roberts University. It took some doing to try to explain the kind of cultural phenomenon represented by ORU and in the end it seemed a reasonable proposition that this one had no obvious French other words, Oral Roberts University is perhaps a peculiarly American institution...I have no trouble believing that to be true. Funny huh?
The bell sounds. As my students gathered their things, I signal everyone to wait a moment. "Louis!" I said. I point at the dialogue still on the board.
"One more time, Louis, but this time we change roles. Ready?" He nods.
"Louis, what is the secret to...."
"Timing," he interjects with a big smile on his face.
"Now that's funny," I say.
Everybody laughs and heads for the door.


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