Timing Is Everything

12Dec13

Ro Cuzon recently posted a link on Facebook to a piece written by Laura Lippman for Rogue Reader. She took an opportunity to mention one of her favorite movies, Funny Bones, starring Oliver Platt and the great Jerry Lewis.

 Every time I see a photograph of Jerry Lewis, a vivid memory of one of his greatest solo skits comes to mind. I was perhaps six or seven years old, sick with a flu and home from school. I lounged on the couch in front of the black and white television set (we’re talking 1961-1962 – don’t say a word), watching whatever I could find on one of the three channels the rabbit ears would deliver. That particular day, the morning movie was The Errand Boy (1961), starring Lewis, Brian Donleavy as “T.P. Paramutual,” and Howard McNear as “Dexter Sneak.”

 I was a Lewis fan already, because The Bellboy had come out the year before, and what six-year-old wasn’t captivated by Lewis’s goofy rubber face, idiot voice and exaggerated pratfalls?

Then there came a point in the movie when I became hypnotized.

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 Known to Lewis movie aficionados as “The Chairman of the Board,” the skit portrays Lewis’s character, Morty Tashman, a lowly errand boy in the corporate office of Paramutual Pictures, as he takes liberties in the Boardroom. He slips into the Chairman’s seat at the head of a conference table, helps himself to one of the Chairman’s cigars, and proceeds to direct an imaginary phalanx of board members in a magnificent pantomime, expertly choreographed to the incomparable “Blues In Hoss Flat” by Count Basie.

 Yes, it was comedic genius, but why? What was it in that skit that seared my memory so completely that I remember it so clearly fifty-four years later?

 The Big Band music is a factor, of course, but listening to Basie’s orchestra without the visual of Lewis doesn’t quite fit the bill.

 It is Lewis’s choreography, his timing, the deftness with which that character seamlessly moves from stealth corporate spy to ruthless bigshot, and the disconnect between the angry Chairman and the hilarious, goofy faces that are flashed in that anger.

This certainly translates to storytelling, especially as it illustrates how humor can work so well in the tough environment of crime fiction.

As anyone who’s read some of my stuff knows, I’m fond of humor. The punch line that delivers on the very last syllable. The pause before the snarky reply. The raised eyebrow before the one word riposte. I can only hope that the more I work on that, the closer I can get to the exquisite timing of men like Lewis.

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One Response to “Timing Is Everything”

  1. 1 Sheryl Dunn

    Great post, Pete.

    I have a difficult time putting humor into my fiction, although people tell me I’m funny in “real life.” I can create funny situations, but the one liners in the middle of a tense scene (which can be hugely important)??? Can’t seem to manage it.


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