Updated: Dec 3, 2021
Let’s zoom in and look more closely at a technique I mentioned in the last lesson: misdirection. I would unconsciously have laughed at misdirection for years, but I first became consciously aware of it watching Have I Got News For You in the 90s. (A formative decade for me.) I didn’t yet have a word for it, but I began to notice that host Angus Deayton would often make the audience assume he was talking about one news story and then, at the last moment, would reveal he was talking about another.
The exact examples are lost to me in the mists of time, but here is a more recent one from Private Eye that I used to illustrate misdirection at a talk on satire at the BFI in London: The Daily Mail, Friday January 10th 2014:Why have we failed to stop foreign flood?Our weak and feeble Government admitted today that it was totally powerless to stop yet more foreign weather flooding into Britain. In this case we assume the news story is immigration but it turns out to be about the weather blowing in from abroad. As well as the surprise, the funniness here is in drawing an unexpected link between two stories and sending up the paper’s attitude to migrants through the lens of weather.
In stand-up then, misdirection is when the comic says something that sets up an expectation… and then the comic walks out of the club never to be seen again. Okay, I’m trying to illustrate the point. You didn’t expect it to go there did you? Misdirection is the classic set-up/ payoff device. The set-up creates expectations that the payoff
subverts. This subversion is a surprise which is central to comedy. As Jerry Corley puts it in his excellent e-book Breaking Comedy’s DNA:
“The number one element that generates human laughter is surprise.”
I like that ‘human’ laughter. As opposed to what? Hyenas? Anyway, a suggestion here is you might stop thinking, “how can I be funny?” and instead think: “How how can I be surprising?” You can, of course, have surprises that aren't funny, but funniness and surprise are so entwined that by going for one you often find the other. Here’s an example of a misdirection gag from Jack Dee:
“I hate people who think it's clever to take drugs...like customs officers.”
The set-up to the joke makes us assume that he is talking about drug users. When we hear the payoff we have to revise our assumption. The key thing with this kind of misdirection is that the set-up contains both possible interpretations, but the audience only hears one meaning until the other is unexpectedly revealed in the payoff. Here is one from a Jo Brand routine on fitness:
“It's hard sometimes because the house is a mess, the kids are screaming. In the end my husband couldn't take it anymore and he stormed off to the pub. I said to him: 'What are you doing here? You're meant to be at home looking after the kids!”
Here an ambiguous phrase brings to mind the natural, obvious conclusion… then the payoff reveals a second meaning the audience didn't expect. We assume (thanks to gender stereotypes) that the woman has been left alone with the kids. We then discover that she is in the pub already. Notice how carefully worded it is. It makes us assume that she has been left with the kids without actually saying so.
Looking at a finished misdirection jokes we can easily understand the mechanism. But how might you set about writing one? Well, one way is to keep yourself alert for any ambiguous phrases from any source and then, in your own time, attempt to work them up into gags. One can imagine Brand (or someone she heard speaking) straight forwardly saying “In the end my husband couldn't take it any more and he stormed off to the pub” and that was the starting point of the joke. Let's return to the Jack Dee gag: “I hate people who think it's clever to take drugs… like customs officers.”
I would suggest that many misdirection jokes could be based on 'found set-ups'. The statements may well have been uttered or written innocently in the first instance and the comic saw a second meaning in the statement. We can imagine that Jack Dee heard someone say, “I hate people who think it's clever to take drugs...” The original speaker would have been talking about drug users, but Jack Dee —we are imagining—heard a second meaning in the statement, that of ‘confiscation’. In this situation there is no need to instantly come up out with the gag; noticing the ambiguity is enough. You put the statement in your note-book and then turn it over in your mind.
Incidentally, regarding editing and being concise, the Jack Dee joke could be shorter: “I hate people who take drugs...like customs officers.” I would argue, though, that in shortening it something important is lost. The phrase “who think it's clever” helps the set-up the misdirection that he is being moralising, and then he helps us see the customs officers as annoyingly smug when we get to the payoff. So, don’t cut your jokes back too far! I have known people diminish the effect of a joke in attempting to get it down to the fewest number of words. And now, here’s an Ellen DeGeneres misdirection gag:
“My grandmother started walking five miles a day when she was sixty. She's ninety-seven now, and we don't know where the hell she is”.
We can imagine she was watching TV and heard someone (let’s call them Voice A) saying, “My grandmother started walking five miles a day when she was sixty. She's ninety-seven now...” at which point Ellen (Voice B) saw a different way the sentence could end. The speaker on the TV would have gone on to say something like “...and in perfect health”—the difference is that she interrupted the statement and ended it differently. (Or she may have actually said it herself in the first instance and spotted the ambiguity in her own words.)
The rhythm here is again set-up/ payoff. Voice A is saying something that has a certain momentum and direction and we sense where it's going next. This is the set-up, but Voice B then interrupts the flow, flips it and overturns our expectations. As discussed previously, the thing that triggers the laugh needs to be the last thing we hear. Compare the Ellen DeGeneres’ joke if we put in the payoff too soon: “My grandmother started walking five miles a day when she was sixty. We don't know where the hell she is now she's ninety-seven.”
Here's a gag from Steven Wright that, like the Ellen Degeneres joke is also based on a phrase from the world (Voice A) that is interrupted (Voice B) and sent in another direction:
Join the Army, meet interesting people, kill them.
The first two phrases “Join the Army, meet interesting people....” (in the context of an army recruitment advert) would lead you to expect something like “see the world”. Here though Steven Wright has interrupted Voice A (the recruitment ad) and jumped in with Voice B which abruptly shifts us to the reality of soldiering. Note too that, like the Ellen joke, it is in three parts. We consider the comic device of rule-of-three below.
Finally in a quote that didn't make the final draft of my Director's Guide book, Geoff Whiting described to me how misdirection can even be visual, with reference to the development of Sarah Millican’s look on stage:
'Sarah Millican did her second ever gig at one of my clubs in Guildford. She had very little make-up on. Pullover and jeans. She looked very mousy, a very dowdy person, and that was deliberate. Her act, for at least the first year or two, until she got picked up by an agent, was based on being very dowdy and talking about sex. That was the whole contradiction. It would mean she'd walk out and people would think she was not going to be into sex, and she was. Her whole appearance was really a misdirection gag in itself.'
An ongoing project: be alive to ambiguity in phrases from any source, including your own words. Capture any promising ones in your notebook. They are your potential set-ups. Now try and write pay-offs. If you want a more immediate task, try looking for ambiguity in today’s news headlines. For example, I’ve just gone to the BBC News website where this caught my eye: “Law student admits Justin Bieber ticket scam”. Personalising it and adding an afterthought, it could become: ‘My nine- year-old niece fell for a Justin Bieber ticket scam. She was told he was good.’ (This was actually the second one I thought of from the handful of headlines on the page but only this one made it into the blog. In this case I threw out 50% of what I wrote!).