Letters To A Young Comedian
Tuesday 1 June 2004, The StageYou probably donít recall the incident because it happened nearly 20 years ago in the skies over South America. A terrorist forced his way into the cockpit of a 200-seater passenger jet and killed both pilots before turning the gun on himself.
So now there was a plane screaming through the air at 70,000 feet and nobody on board capable of landing the thing. But then a ten-year-old boy calmly walked into the mayhem and offered to take over, saying he was fascinated by airplanes, read everything about them and had even been on flight simulator machines.
No one else on board had any real idea what to do so they removed the bodies from the cockpit, sat the kid at the flight deck and, above all the screaming, he managed to get through to air traffic control.
He told them he didnít want to know how to fly the plane, he just wanted them to tell him where the nearest airfield was and what the conditions were.
Then he took the plane off auto-pilot, ordered everyone out of the cockpit and, with incredible self-possession for a ten-year-old, managed to guide that plane - and its terrified passengers - straight into the side of a mountain.
The above story is not true but nor did I make it up. I have extracted it from the Penguin Dictionary of Jokes, edited by Fred Metcalf and published in 1993. I quote this not just as a cheap device to fill up space but to get a laugh - did I? - and to open up some avenues of comic debate although I shall only precede down one of them.
My guess is that the boy on the hijacked plane story was written and performed by a brave comic who tried it out one night with much trepidation. It is a long and laughters journey before the plane hits the mountain and the comedian the punchline. The story must be told with drama to keep the audience interested but it must also be utterly convincing or it goes for nothing.
The audience, knowing they are watching a comic, will be anticipating some bribery in the anecdote that will make them laugh but it is crucial that the last line be a total surprise.
I reckon that the comic did get a massive laugh or else Fred would not have selected the gag for his compendiums of mirth. Its creator will have felt great relief at the sound of the laugh and pride at her, or his, own skill and courage in attempting such a big gag.
I estimate it would take well over a minute to deliver this routine, which contains only one laugh. If, however, it went well, that one laugh would be so big as to be worth it. Itís a way of breaking up an act - a setpiece you could, if it always went well, place at the end of the set. When a comic makes a set up to doing an hour or so they are going to need to pace their act. No one can endure a relentless diet of one-liners - after 20 minutes or so an audience will long for a more complex rhythm, which is why the true comic needs the skill of the storyteller as much as that of the wit.
If anyone knows who did the routine originally Iíd be intrigued to know. But not that intrigued because, look, June is here and Iíve got some fashionable new shorts. Stage reader, I salute you.