Monday, October 03, 2011

What Stand-up Comedy Can Teach Us About Transition Sentences

Comedian Jim Gaffigan is standing in front of a sold-out crowd at the Comedy Improv in Houston, Texas. His set of jokes dealing with laziness and staying in bed has done well. He has the audience in his hand. All that's left now is to move into his final set of jokes. This final set is the one he is best known for and it always kills. The only problem?
It's about bacon.
This is a broad leap. How does one go from talking about bed to talking about bacon? Most people don’t naturally associate the two. He needs to shift the dialouge. He needs a segue.
In short, he needs a transition sentence.
So how does he connect these two paragraphs in the dialogue of his stand-up act? First, he tells a small joke about breakfast in bed. Then he says this line:
JIM G: Of course, what makes breakfast in bed so great is the fact that you’re lying down and eating BACON, the most beautiful thing on earth.
That's it. The crowd cheers and he launches into his bacon bit. Beds are never mentioned again. The remainder of the set—about five minutes and 20-odd jokes—deals only with bacon. Very few people even notice the transition. But it--and a dozen like it--was there.
Comedians are professional transitioners.
I've had many tutoring sessions where the tutee asks me to look at transitions. I've had even more where they didn't, but we ended up talking about them anyway. Transitions are a big part of that evasive, etheral writing ideal everyone seeks--the pot of gold at the end of the writing rainbow--Flow. Students seem to know they need to transition, but they don't know how to write one.

And that's why we should look to the comedians.
Now, it's obvious that the transitions comedians use aren't exactly subtle. Gaffigan has another bit where he talks about Waffle House, a chain of breakfast restaraunts similar to IHOP. Before this bit he does a bit on babies and changing diapers. Here's the transition he uses:
JIM G: Speaking of diapers, I went to Waffle House last night.
Not subtle (and in this case, that's part of the joke). But it's there. And that's the most important part. Many students seem to think a transition has to be some profound, brilliant statement that is far beyond their capacity to ever write. It isn't. It's simple. It can often be done in less than ten words. All we have to do is connect one idea to another.
Which is what comedians do. They are great illustrations of how to transition.
More examples:
Going from jokes on marriage to jokes on camping:
JIM G: I married a woman who loves to camp. I am what you call "indoorsy." My parents never took me camping. You know why? Because they LOVED me.
From camping to hammocks:
JIM G: I'm indoorsy. The only thing I like to do outside is lie in a hammock. It’s hard to do anything once you get in a hammock because you can’t get out. It’s like a giant net for catching lazy people.
From hammocks to bed:
JIM G: Of course, the hammock is just the outdoor bed.
And then from bed to bacon:
JIM G: Of course, what makes breakfast in bed so great is the fact that you’re lying down and eating BACON, the most beautiful thing on earth.
And finally, just because it's funny, this bit:
JIM G: I even like the name "bacon." You can’t tell me the success of Kevin Bacon isn’t somehow tied to his name.
“Who’s in this movie?"
"Kevin Bacon."
"Hmmm. Sounds good.”
Again, the most important part of a transition is that it's there. Many students miss this. I propose that a better way to teach this isn't through cracking open the old tome of English grammar and composition, but by opening up a YouTube page and spending some quality time with Jim Gaffigan, Mike Birbiglia, or Brian Regan.


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