Lesson 14: Transpositions
In the previous lesson I discussed the importance of going beyond what actually happened, and going into playful speculation. In your stand-up, don’t just talk about things you actually know about. Speculate about things you don’t! This can be a big part of the funniness of your act. For example, at the start of his first stand-up DVD Cosmic Jam, Bill Bailey builds a speculative routine that features a transposition – the subject of this very lesson. He begins by asking:
“Who photographs kebabs?”
Bill Bailey’s query could well have been born one night in a fast food outlet, seeing the photographs of the dishes on the menu and suddenly wondering who took them. If you’ve wondered about this yourself the pleasure is in hearing this thought being given voice. If not, it invites you to suddenly see the absurdity of something you’d not really thought about. He goes on to speculate about the person who does the job. He asks:
“Is that some guy who had illusions of being a great fashion photographer or a wartime correspondent? And gradually the work didn't come in, he needed the bills paying and he met some bloke down the pub who said: I tell you what, you can make some money on the old snack food circuit.”
Notice the bathos here. Bathos is building something up and then knocking it down again. It’s found in literature, but also is often used in comedy. Here the grandiosity of his dreams is being built up only to be knocked down. Bill Bailey goes on:
“And you meet this guy in the pub and you ask him what he does and he says” (cagily) “'Oh I'm a photographer”. / 'What sort of things do you do?'... 'Oh, I'm freelance, just freelance stuff'… Then after about six of seven pints he's going: 'I do your basic donner, shish, pie and chips, saveloy and chips…’ You can imagine it. He's in a little attic somewhere with a kebab on a cushion. 'Yeah go on yeah'” (he leers) “'You're loving it you little minx, come on you know you want it, give me more you saucy little minx'.”
And this is where we come to the transposition. (And I'm grateful to stand-up academic Oliver Double who suggested this term when I interviewed him for my book.) So what is a transposition exactly? You may have come across an improvisation game named 'old job/ new job.' For example, the old job is car mechanic and the new job is surgeon. The funniness of the game comes from bringing over aspects of the old job (World A) into the new job (World B). Here you transpose elements of car maintenance into brain surgery. (So, for example, the surgeon opens up the skull, peers in at the brain and after a sharp intake of breath says: "It'll cost you.") In Bill Bailey's case, he's transposing soft porn photography into snack food photography.
And remember, it's all pure speculation which is more effective than if he'd have just asserted it as facts he'd discovered about this man. (Looking at this the other way, I have often worked with comedians who have been presenting a comic idea as if it's factual, but when we change it to become speculative it works better. It gets over the hurdle of the audience not being willing to believe it. All they have to do is entertain it.)
Here is another transposition example where Lee Evans transposes an element of the alarm clock into the fire alarm:
“Why do they have the snooze button on alarm clocks? Why do they give us that option? They know we're going to use it! ‘I've had a long sleep...sod it, I deserve a nap!’ You wouldn't have one on your fire alarm: ‘Quick there's a fire!’ ‘Is there? [mimes pressing snooze] Fuck it, eh? We'll burn a bit.’”
The British 1980s TV sketch show “Not the Nine O’clock News” uses exactly this transposition with firemen being woken by the fire alarm, sliding down the poll and hitting snooze. This might just have been in the back of Lee Evans' mind, but more likely he independently hit upon the same idea. You’ll also find this kind of transposition in a lot of Steven Wright's finely crafted one-liner jokes. For instance:
“I have a microwave fireplace which means I can sit in front of the fire for the evening in eight minutes.”
Transposing the speed of heating from a microwave to a fireplace, where it defeats the point. Steven Wright also says:
“I was arrested today for scalping low numbers at the deli counter. Sold a number 3 for 28 bucks.”
Thereby transposing ticket touting to delicatessens. All of these transpositions work because the two objects (or situations) have key attributes in common: two types of alarm, two means to generate heat and two reasons to have tickets. The comedy comes from taking a detail from one and transposing it to where it no longer makes sense.
There are many, many examples of transpositions since it's one of the fundamental ways that comedy can happen—which makes it all the more surprising that some comedians simply don't go there. I once worked with a comic who closed gigs and when I watched a video of her thirty- minute closing set there was not a single transposition. Of course, she was funny in plenty of other ways, but introducing the idea to her gave her this huge untapped area to start exploiting.
Similarly, I helped a successful impressionist introduce transpositions into his act. Until we worked together, all of the people he impersonated appeared in their natural context. He did an impression of the comedian Tim Vine on stage in a comedy gig, but after creating a transposition he now has Vine presiding over a funeral (of course doing lots of death puns). The laughs are now a lot richer and he’s into 'what if…?' territory and the transposition is inherently amusing. Homework:
If you have a thing in mind to talk about, ask yourself: is there another thing that has something in common with this but isn't normally linked with it. For example, if you're talking about everyone going outside from your workplace due to a fire alarm... that's a bit like all the kids going outside for play time at school. You could then transpose elements of 'play time' onto the fire drill: eg, kiss chase, stealing lunch money...
And, to continue the theme of questioning and speculation (and bringing in 'transpositions'), in your note-book, keep an ever-growing list of questions that you don’t know the answers to and the more playful the better. Review the list and pick one that tickles you. Here’s one I really liked that a student asked on my stand-up course: Who are newsagents talking to on the phone? (We decided that all newsagents are on one big conference call. Other answers could include they’re keeping up a second job as the speaking clock.)
Once you’ve chosen a question try answering it, speculate, and if it doesn't go anywhere, leave it and come back to it. In playfully answering the questions you can potentially find angles to explore. Then once you have some material, look to find a transposition. Your world is World A – try and bring some elements of a World B into it. For example, having explored the phenomenon of newsagents always being on the phone, you might then ask who else is on the phone a lot? One answer could be teenage girls. Then, if you’ve set up a male newsagent, there could be comedy to be had in (having made the comparison) developing an act-out where he talks to another middle-aged male newsagent about Harry Styles and make-up (or whatever teenage girls talk about.)