Be Funnier with Scotty Meltzer: Mixing it up

Comedy Fish

One of the most important tools in a comic’s kitchen is their mixer, and not just because we’re all bitter alcoholics. Mix jokes are a staple of the comedy diet, yet most variety performers try to survive on totally mix-free fare. In this month’s article, I’m going to help you expand your comedy palette to include some mixes on the side.

Mix jokes, aka “mixes,” “substitutions,” “substitute jokes,” or “The Mix,” are comic metaphors. There are several different kinds:

  • Mixes that apply attributes of one thing onto another
  • Mixes that combine two familiar things to create something new
  • Mixes that use one thing to talk about another

These are not the only categories, and they’re not mutually exclusive. A particular mix joke can be one or all or none of these. With that caveat in mind, these definitions will still be very useful as we learn to mix.

Let’s start with some examples.

(PARENTAL WARNING: Some of the examples in this article link to routines that some might consider inappropriate for children. There is no swearing, but there are implicit references to sex and human anatomy. I’ve colored those links RED to make them easier for your kids to find.)

Mixes that apply attributes of one thing onto another

This is the most common mix joke structure.

For example, here’s Ellen DeGeneres doing a mix that takes the attributes of children playing tag and hide & seek and puts them onto adults in the workplace:

Notice how in her “duck behind the desk” act-outs, the audience is not just laughing at the POV shift. They’re laughing at the idea of an adult doing something that childish at the office. They’re laughing at the mix.

Later in that same show, she mixes football players analyzing game-day video onto a couple watching a video of themselves in bed. This sequence is made even more powerful by the audience’s slight discomfort about the subject of sex. Crossing that line makes the laughs that much bigger.

Another example? When an impressionist does an intro like this:

IMPRESSIONIST: You ever wonder what it would be like if Barack Obama were a used car salesman? I think it might sound something like this …

you can be sure that the gags that follow are going to be attribute-mapping mix jokes like this:

IMPRESSIONIST: (as Obama) If you like your 1992 Ford Fiesta, you can keep your 1992 Ford Fiesta.

Stephen Colbert uses this same mix joke structure, mapping the attributes of one thing onto another, in these gags from his opening triptychs:

COLBERT: Fidel Castro made his first public appearance in three years. Then he saw his shadow, so … 50 more years of communism

COLBERT: The Queen of England just got a seven million dollar raise. It was that or lose her to the Miami Heat.

COLBERT: China has just set up a 24-hour panda-cam. I can hardly wait to see those majestic animals assemble an iPad

Colbert and his writers use this type of mix all the time. In the gags above, they conceal the structure. In the links below, they leave it hanging out for all to see:

And our final example of an attribute-mapping mix comes from the brilliant comedy-juggler Marcus Monroe with a gag I so badly wish I had thought of (and I had a 20+ year head start):

(MARCUS walks off stage. Grabs an EIGHT FOOT LADDER and ungracefully drags it across the stage. He slowly sets up the ladder and then places his hand on it.)

MARCUS MONROE: This is my stepladder. (Long pause.) I never met my real ladder.

(MARCUS waits for the laughter to die down. Just before it’s completely silent, he tags by dragging the ladder off stage without doing anything with it.)

Monroe’s initial joke takes a common saying about a stepfather and applies it to a stepladder, while his tag, which often gets the bigger laugh, is a pure lead away.

Mixes that combine two familiar things to create something new

Saturday Night Live uses this formula a lot:

  • “Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer”
  • “The Bel Airabs”
  • “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood”
  • “Giant Businessman”
  • “The Devil Frets about Bin Laden Coming to Hell”
  • “Appalachian Emergency Room”
  • “Samurai Hotel/Delicatessen/Tailor/Stockbroker/Psychiatrist/Optician/et al.”

Jack Handey, the real life S.N.L. writer who wrote all the “Deep Thoughts with Jack Handey” segments, explains this type of mix: “A lot of comedy is going the extra step. An unfrozen caveman was funny—but that’s not enough.” For example, Handey mixed two simpler sketch ideas: “Too Many Frozen Cavemen,” in which a surplus of frozen Neanderthals drive scientists crazy, and “Swamp Bastard,” about a Swamp Thing-like creature who keeps stealing everyone’s girlfriends. “I guess my brain put these things in a blender, and out came ‘Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer.’”

There was even a hilarious full-length West End musical, Jerry Springer – The Opera, built around a single mix joke .

The difference between these first two categories, mixes that apply attributes and mixes that combine subjects, is quite fuzzy, and the overlap is large. I present them as separate types not to help you categorize existing mix jokes but rather to give you more ways of thinking about mixes so you have more ways to write new ones.

Mixes that use one thing to talk about another

Our final mix type, using one thing to implicitly talk about another, is almost always used with a taboo second subject. The laughs come each time the audience makes the jump from what you’re saying, which is benign, to what you mean, which is charged.

In this Daily Show routine (the mix jokes start 3:33 into the clip), the words are about the architecture of a new stadium, but the meaning is about something entirely different.

When your second subject is sex or bodily functions, this structure lets you talk dirty without actually saying anything explicit.

But the taboos you’re alluding to don’t have to be sexual or scatological (although for the vast majority of mix jokes of this type they are). You could also use this kind of mix to talk in code about anything you’re not supposed to say out loud. For example: a husband in a sitcom, talking to his in-laws, could outwardly complain about his dog while we, the audience, know he’s actually complaining about the in-laws themselves. That would also be a mix that uses one thing to implicitly talk about another.

Writing mix jokes

One common method for writing mixes is the two-list method taught by both Ron Carver and Gene Perret. This was the first comedy-writing method I ever learned, and I never really understood its power until I started working on this article.

Like so many of our other comedy-writing tools, this one is based on lists, but this time we’ll be making lists of associations, instead of lists of assumptions like we made for Mike Goudeau’s big piece of paper and Ben Decker’s implied meaning methods.

The reason so many comedy-writing methods are based on lists is that comedy hides in the specifics. Association lists and assumption lists give us lots of chances to find those funny specifics.

1. Find two subjects you have a reason to mix

To create a mix joke or routine, we start with two things we want to mix. For this exercise I’ll use Thanksgiving and Hanukkah because the day I started writing this article (November 28, 2013) these two holidays fell on the same day for the first time since 1918 (1945 in Texas).

This overlap will be our reason for bringing these two different things together. (Greg Dean calls this reason “the context link.” The more organic your context link, the more natural your mixes will feel.)

2. Make two association lists

We start by making a list of things associated with Thanksgiving:

  • Turkey
  • Stuffing
  • Cranberry sauce
  • Gravy
  • Gobble, gobble
  • Pilgrims
  • Puritans
  • Indians
  • Drunken fights with family
  • What are you thankful for?
  • Parades
  • Watching football
  • Leftovers
  • and on and on

Next we make list of things associated with Hanukkah:

  • Jews
  • Miracle of the oil lasting eight days
  • Hebrew blessing as we light the candles
  • Dreidels
  • Nun, Gimel, Hei, Shin (the Hebrew letters on a dreidel)
  • Kosher food
  • Eight crappy presents
  • Competes with Christmas and loses
  • Judah Maccabee
  • and on and on

We can also make sub-lists of things associated with anything on either of those first two lists.

Jews:

  • Pogroms
  • Anti-Semitism
  • Jews and Arabs fighting
  • Stereotypes about being cheap
  • Holocaust
  •      – Six million killed
  •      – Hitler
  •      – Never again / Never forget
  •      – Ovens
  •      – Gas
  • The guttural “ch” sound
  • Six-pointed Star of David
  • Payis
  • Sabbath restrictions
  • Yarmulkes
  • Bagels
  • Jewish mother stereotypes
  •      – Guilt
  •      – “No. You go out. I’ll just stay here in the dark.”
  • and oy and vey

Pilgrims and/or Puritans:

  • Belt buckles on their hats
  • Tri-cornered hats
  • Religious persecution
  • Old timey speech
  • The Mayflower
  • The Winthrop Fleet
  • Bought Manhattan for $24 in beads
  • and that’s all I know

We’re looking for associations that are commonly known and strongly linked to their subjects because these will lead us to less obscure, more successful jokes. For example, a joke mixing Nun, Gimel, Hei, Shin with the Winthrop Fleet will not be nearly as successful as a joke about stuffing the turkey with bagels.

3. Combine elements from each list

Next, we look for ways to combine elements from each list. We’re looking for things that are similar and things that are opposites. We’re looking for exaggerations, reverses, logical connections, illogical connections, surprising parallels, and anything else we find funny. For example:

  • Leftovers lasting for eight days
  • Gobble, gobble becomes Chobble, chobble
  • Family fights / Israeli vs. Arab conflicts
  • Puritan religious persecution / Anti-Semitism
  • $24 in beads / Stereotype about Jews being cheap
  • Dead turkeys / The Holocaust
  • Tri-cornered hats / Six-pointed star
  • Maccabees / Applebee’s
  • Christmas competes with both
  • Hanukkah + Thanksgiving = Thanksgivukkah or Chanuksgiving

4. Create candidate jokes

From these combinations, we create our candidate jokes.

If this step – turning a pair of comic associations into a possible joke – seems like magic to you, you’re not alone. That’s how I felt for the entire first year I tried to use this method. Let me just assure you that with enough practice, this step changes from magic to juggling.

(For more help on this step, you can go back and reread Comedy CreationismThou Shalt Not Steal, Nice Structure, Structure? Genius!, or You Punch Like a Girl.)

After a bit of practice, you’ll start automatically transforming pairs of associations and shattered assumptions into jokes. You’ll see setups all around you, and your head will fill up with punches screaming to get out. With a little bit of work, you’ll be just as annoying as me.

For example, all the jokes below, along with a half dozen more I’m leaving out for space, came from about a half hour of writing by Thomas John, Katrine Spang-Hanssen, and myself in response to Thomas’ email challenge this morning: “It’s Thanksgivukkah. Whatcha got?”

(I’m not going to say who came up with which, but I will say that the last one did not come from Katrine or me.)

“Thanksgivukkah:” The day we celebrate the miracle of the turkey that lasted for eight days.

“Thanksgivukkah:” The day all the turkeys say: “chobble, chobble.

“Thanksgivukkah:” Because six million turkeys can’t be wrong.

Calling it Thanksgivukkah is so offensive to my people. We prefer: Chanuksgiving. The day we give thanks for Jewish-Canadians.

This Thanksgivukkah my mom listed all the things she was thankful for. Her son the juggler? Not one of those things.

This year Hanukkah and Thanksgiving overlap, prompting thousands of turkeys to say “Never again!”

My family will be celebrating both Hanukkah and Thanksgiving tonight. We’ll be combining the traditional turkey, gravy, and stuffing with the even more traditional latkes, candles, and guilt.

Tonight, Jews all over America will light the first candle of Thanksgivukkah to celebrate the fact that the Puritans hated the Indians even more than they hated us.

This is the first time in almost a hundred years that Thanksgiving and Hanukkah overlap. It’s a pity, because if those early Pilgrims had a few of us Jews with them, they would have gotten New York for just $18 in beads. [TAG] Even back then you people paid retail.

(Animated logo for Thanksgivukkah: Two tri-cornered Pigrim hats flying together to form a six-pointed Star of David.)

Hanukkah sucks. You just can’t bluff in dreidel.

I don’t know why we don’t do Thanksgiving and Hanukkah together every year? Turkeys and Jews have so much in common: male pattern baldness, payis, a healthy fear of ovens …

Notice that I didn’t say, “create funny jokes.” I said, “create candidate jokes.” We want to keep all the judgment and criticism away from this creative step. As I argued in “The Secret of Great Comedy:” It’s hard to sit down and write one or two really funny jokes, but it’s easy to write a dozen candidate jokes, and then choose the ones you think might be funny.

5. Review your candidate jokes

After you’re done writing a bunch of candidate jokes, it’s time to decide which ones to test in front of an audience, so let’s go back and see which, if any, of our new jokes are funny enough to try onstage at least once.

I like leaving some time between this and the previous step. A day or even a week if I have the luxury. An hour or two if I don’t.

You’ll notice that some of the jokes above are too offensive for most of the venues that jugglers perform in. (A few others were so offensive I couldn’t even put them in this article as instructional examples!) That’s okay. You just don’t perform those jokes in those venues.

But you should still give yourself permission to write them. You don’t want to place any limits or judgments on your creativity at the early steps of the joke-writing process. The role of the critic doesn’t appear until this step. As a future MacArthur ‘Genius’ Award-winning comedy writer once blogged:

“While you’re writing, there’s nothing that’s so racist, sexist, dirty, homophobic, inappropriate, or misogynist that you can’t write it down. Don’t limit yourself. Don’t censor yourself. It’s only later, when you’re deciding what to perform or what to pitch that you edit out the inappropriate stuff.”

You want to postpone all those critical and judgmental decisions till these later steps, and even here at this step, you don’t have to be negative. You never have to cross out any of the jokes you don’t like. You just circle the ones you do and move forward with them. (This difference, between crossing out and circling, is even more important when you’re writing with a partner.)

You then take those jokes, find a place in your show where they could fit, write some quick segues in and out to make sure they flow okay, and give ‘em a try!

6. Test some of your new jokes onstage

Off the page and onto the stage! Of the 18 jokes Katrine, Thomas, and I wrote this morning, do you think any are good enough to try once onstage?

If so, feel free to try them next time Thanksgiving falls during Hanukkah.

Homework assignment

Mix it up a bit. If you don’t know where to start, here are some possibilities:

  • What if jugglers ran the Congress?
  • 12 ways to know if your cat is a Republican.
  • In high school, while the other kids were playing spin the bottle, I was learning to juggle.
  • Write a love letter in the form of a legal contract. Now rewrite it as a Rush Limbaugh diatribe, a Shark Tank pitch, a doctor’s diagnosis, or a tweet.

Scott Meltzer would to convince Google that he is the world's most experienced trade show juggler.

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