The highest priced words are ghost-written by gagmen who furnish the raw material for comedy over the air and on the screen. They have a word-lore all their own, which they practise for five to fifteen hundred dollars a week, or fifteen dollars a gag at piece rates. That's sizable rate for confounding acrimony with matrimony, or extracting attar of roses from the other.
Quite apart from the dollar sign on it, gagmen's word-lore is worth a close look, if you are given to the popular American pastime of playing with words — or if you're part of the 40 per cent who make their living in the word trade. Gag writers' tricks with words point up the fact that we have two distinct levels of language: familiar, ordinary words that everybody knows; and more elaborate words that don't turn up so often, but many of which we need to know if we are to feel at home in listening and reading today.
To be sure gagmen play hob with the big words, making not sense but fun of them. They keep on confusing bigotry with bigamy, illiterate with illegitimate, monotony with monogamy, osculation with oscillation. They trade on the fact that for many of their listeners, these fancy terms linger in a twilight zone of meaning. It’s their deliberate intent to make everybody feel cozy at hearing big words, jumbled up or smacked down. After all, such words loom up over-size in ordinary talk, so no wonder they get the bulldozer treatment from the gagmen.
Their wrecking technique incidentally reveals our language as full of tricky words, some with 19 different meanings, others which sound alike but differ in sense. To ring good punning changes, gag writers have to know their way around in the language. They don't get paid for ignorance, only for simulating it.
Their trade is a hard one, and they regard it as serious business. They never laugh at each other's jokes; rarely at their own. Like comediennes, they are usually melancholy men in private life.
Fertile invention and ingenious fancy are required to clean up ‘blue’ burlesque gags for radio use. These shady gags are theoretically taboo on the air. However, a gag writer who can leave a faint trace of bluing when he launders the joke is all the more admired — and more highly paid. A gag that keeps the blue tinge is called a ‘double intender’, gag-land jargon for double entendre. The double meaning makes the joke funny at two levels. Children and other innocents hearing the crack for the first time take it literally, laughing at the surface humour; listeners who remember the original as they heard it in vaudeville or burlesque, laugh at the artfulness with which the blue tinge is disguised.
Another name for a double meaning of this sort is ‘insinuendo’. This is a portmanteau word or ‘combo’, as the gagmen would label it, thus abbreviating combination. By telescoping insinuation and innuendo, they get insinuendo, on the principle of blend words brought into vogue by Lewis Caroll. ‘Shock logic’ is another favourite with gag writers. Supposedly a speciality of women comediennes, it is illogical logic more easily illustrated than defined. A high school girl has to turn down a boy's proposal, she writes:
Dear Jerry, I'm sorry, but I can't get engaged to you. My mother thinks I am too young to be engaged and besides, I'm already engaged to another boy. Yours regretfully. Guess who.
Gag writers' lingo is consistently funnier than their gags. It should interest the slang-fancier. And like much vivid jargon developed in specialised trades and sports, a few of the terms are making their way into general use. Gimmick, for instance, in the sense either of a trick devised or the point of a joke, is creeping into the vocabulary of columnists and feature writers.
Even apart from the trade lingo, gagmen's manoeuvres are of real concern to anyone who follows words with a fully awakened interest. For the very fact that gag writers often use a long and unusual word as the hinge of a joke, or as a peg for situation comedy, tells us something quite significant: they are well aware of the limitations of the average vocabulary and are quite willing to cash in on its shortcomings.
When Fred Allens' joke-smiths work out a fishing routine, they have Allen referring to the bait in his most arch and solemn tones: "I presume you mean the legless invertebrate." This is the old minstrel trick, using a long fancy term, instead of calling a worm a worm. Chico Marx can stretch a pun over 500 feet of film, making it funnier all the time, as he did when he rendered, "Why a duck?"
And even the high-brow radio writers have taken advantage of gagmen's technique. You might never expect to hear on the air such words as lepidopterist and entymologist. Both occur in a very famous radio play by Norman Corvine, ‘My client Curly’, about an unusual caterpillar which would dance to the tune ‘yes, sir, she's my baby’ but remained inert to all other music. The dancing caterpillar was given a real New York buildup, which involved calling in the experts on butterflies and insects which travel under the learned names above. Corvine made mild fun of the fancy professional titles, at the same time explaining them unobtrusively.
There are many similar occasions where any one working with words can turn gagmen's trade secrets to account. Just what words do they think outside the familiar range? How do they pick the words that they ‘kick around’? It is not hard to find out.
According to the writer, gag writers thrive on
Refer to the following lines:"Gag writers' tricks with words point up the fact that we have two distinct levels of language: familiar, ordinary words that everybody knows; and more elaborate words that don't turn up so often, but many of which we need to know if we are to feel at home in listening and reading today. To be sure gagmen play hob with the big words, making not sense but fun of them. They keep on confusing bigotry with bigamy, illiterate with illegitimate, monotony with monogamy, osculation with oscillation." In this passage the author states that the gag writers make the use of double meaning language in order to make everyone feeling cozy.
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