Baseball, Gags, and the Power of Three

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March 12, 2022 by libroshombre

            The shutdown of major league baseball made a recent New Yorker cartoon by Roz Chast poignant.  Chast is a personal favorite, but calling this particular work a cartoon is, in the strictest sense, a misnomer since it isn’t a single panel, but a sequence of four.  Titled “Meet Mr. Grownup,” Chast plays off “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”  The first panel shows a man in a t-shirt sitting in a subway and saying “I will take myselfout to the ballgame …,” in the second he’s inside a stadium saying, “… where I will purchase some healthful snacks: One tofu dog, no bun, please.  And one water.”  Then he’s sitting in the bleachers saying, “I will root for the home and the away team.” Finally, he’s in bed saying, “I will get back at an appropriate hour: Work tomorrow!”  Legendary cartoonist Will Eisner coined “sequential art” “to describe art forms that use images deployed in a specific order for the purpose of graphic storytelling (i.e., narration of graphic stories) or conveying information,” and Chasts’ does that, but it lacks a “bang.”

In comic strips and standup comedians’ jokes, much depends on an effective “bang finish,” a phrase coined by George Swanson, a low-level cartoonist whose principal comic strip, “The Flop Family,” ran for 38 forgettable years until 1981.  ComicKingdom.com said “it could pretty well be defined as the ultimate mediocrity of stripdom.”  That didn’t stop him from writing in an essay in 1930, “Bang Finish Is Necessary,” that claimed “the beginner should remember to end every strip with a ‘bang.’  Your strip is no good unless in the last picture the joke is put over in a manner sufficient to make your point instantly clear to the reader.”  He illustrates this with contrasting panels showing, for example, a man being surprised and keeling over backwards as he drops his cigar and his hat flies straight up.   In Swanson’s recommended panel the man springs off the panel – with abundant motion lines – only his legs showing and his shoes popping off in the process.” 

Unfortunately, Swanson’s own bangs were terribly lame, with a typical example being the Flop Family dad seeing his wife cleaning the basement while his son naps and his daughter reads love stories, so he berates his kids and then tells them to tell their mom he’s off to play golf.  He was an awful gagman.  “Gag” in this sense means “a joke or humorous story,” and not to choke or stifle.  “How to Read Nancy: the Elements of Comics in Three Easy Panels” by Mark Newgarden & Paul Karasik, a wonderful book Santa brought me, said that “Etymologists note that as early as the mid-nineteenth century ’gag’ was used as a synonym for ‘joke’ and suggest that it has theatrical roots in the word’s primary meaning ‘to stuff or to fill’ (as in time onstage, holes in scripts).” 

As the Library Journal reviewer wrote, “The central thesis of this fascinating new book … is that interested parties can learn everything they’ll ever need to know about understanding and creating comics from a close study of a single, three-panel Nancy comic strip, created by Ernie Bushmiller in 1959.  A scan of the strip in question, which depicts Nancy and some neighborhood kids blasting one another with water guns, may cast some doubt that the authors will actually pull this off, but by the time readers have gone through the text and watched the authors exhaustively analyze every single detail … they’ll be both convinced and in awe of Karasik and Newgarden’s eye for detail and critical faculties … a beautifully designed volume that’s as entertaining as it is informative.”  The Comics Journal added that it’s “the best book ever written about comics.  No question.” 

Our local library doesn’t own a print copy but does offer an online version through Hoopla on their catalog.  Everyone isn’t a comics nerd, but Karasik and Newgarden originally wrote “How to Read Nancy” as a very readable essay accessible at http://www.laffpix.com/howtoreadnancy.pdf.  It will enlarge your worldview, but the book gives far more detail, including a good biography of Ernie Bushmiller, the creator of Nancy and the gagman’s gagman, who began his art career in newspapers at age 15 drawing and lettering blank crossword puzzles.  Nancy first appeared as an occasional niece in his Fritzi Ritz strip about a flighty flapper that began in 1922.  By 1933 flappers were passe, on January 2 of that year Nancy was introduced, and five years later the strip was renamed “Nancy.”  As comic strips were allocated less and less newspaper space in the 1950s, Bushmiller refined his art and “got back to basics and down to his life’s work: his self-proclaimed quest to discover and delineate ‘the perfect gag.’”

The most successful gags often employ “the Rule of Three,” which Wikipedia defines as “a writing principle that suggests that a trio of events or characters is more humorous, satisfying, or effective than other numbers” that “combines both brevity and rhythm with having the smallest amount of information to create a pattern … The rule of three can refer to a collection of three words, phrases, sentences, lines, paragraphs/stanzas, chapters/sections of writing and even whole books.”  Also known as a tricolon, It adds that a “hendiatris is a figure of speech where three successive words are used to express a single central idea.  As a slogan or motto, this is known as a tripartite motto.”  Famous hendiatris examples read like a Boomer’s life stages: “stop, look and listen,” “turn on, tune in, and drop out,” and “snap, crackle, and pop.”

            A tricolon is described by MannerOfSpeaking.org as “A series of three words, phrases or sentences that are parallel in structure, length and/or rhythm” that makes “a single, powerful impression … in a pithy and memorable way … The first two elements get the audience thinking you are going in one direction, but the third element introduces an unexpected twist.”  Mark Shatz went into more detail in a WritersDigest.com article, “Comedy Writing Secrets: Triple the Funny.”  “The triple formula uses hostility, exaggeration, a buildup of tension, and a surprise ending that inflates the payoff. Most triples are short—two or three sentences—but longer triples can work if done correctly. The opening lines are logical setups and the final line is the most audacious.”  Shatz described how even longer anecdotes can be improved by including a tricolon.  “A minister comes home to his apartment early and finds his wife nude in bed and the room filled with cigar smoke. He looks down from his tenth-story window and sees a man smoking a big cigar just leaving the building. Enraged, he picks up his refrigerator and throws it out the window, killing the man instantly. ‘Why did you do that?’ someone yelled from the street. ‘You killed my priest.’  The minister was so distraught that he threw himself out of the window.  A few moments later, three men—a priest, a minister, and a rabbi—approach heaven’s gate and an angel asks each how he died.  ‘I don’t know,’ says the priest, ‘except suddenly a refrigerator smashed me into the ground.’  The minister says, ‘I threw it. But I was so filled with remorse, I jumped out of the window and killed myself.’ ‘What about you, rabbi?’ asks the angel. ‘You got me. All I know was I was minding my own business, sitting in a refrigerator …’”

            Humor’s refreshing with the absence of the National Pastime due to greedy, inconsiderate, billionaire club owners, which reminds me: “Yogi Berra’s Yankee teammates swear that one night the stocky catcher was horrified to see a baby toppling off the roof of a cottage across the way from him. Yogi dashed over and made a miraculous catch – but the force of habit proved too much for him. He straightened up and threw the baby to second base.”

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