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 practice 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 otter.
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% 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. Its their deliberate intent to make everybody feel cozy at hearing big words, jumbled up or smacked down. After all, such words loom up a 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 nineteen 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 head 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 favorite with gag writers. Supposedly, a specialty 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 :
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.
Gag writers’ lingo is consistently funnier than their gags. It should interest the slang-fancier. And like much vivid jargon developed in specialized 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 writes.
Even apart from the trade lingo, gagmen’s manoeuvres are of real concern to any one 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 tick, using a long fancy term, instead o calling a worm a worm.
Chico Marx can stretch a pun over five hundred feet of film, making it funnier all the time, as he did when he worried the work viaduct, which 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.
118. According to the writer a larger part of the American population
(a) indulges in playing out the role of gag writers.
(b) indulges in the word trade.
(c) seeks employment in the gag trade for want of something better.
(d) looks down on gag writers.
119. The hallmark of gag writers is that
(a) they ruin good, simple language.
(b) have fun with words.
(c) make better sense of words.
(d) play with words to suit the audience’s requirements.
120. According to the passage, the second level of language is important if
(a) one wants to be at home with reading and listening today.
(b) one want to be a gag writer.
(c) one wants to understand clean entertainment.
(d) All of the above.
121. According to the writer, gag writers thrive on
(a) the double-layered aspect of language.
(b) audience craze for double entendres.
(c) vulgar innuendoes.
(d) commonplace jugglery with language.
122. In gag writers’ trade
(a) long words are abbreviated for effect.
(b) parts of words are combined to produce a hilarious portmanteau effect.
(c) long words play a major role.
(d) Both (b) and (c).
123. When the writer says, “They don’t get paid for ignorance, only for simulating it”, he means to say
(a) the audience likes to think the gag writers are an ignorant lot.
(b) gag writers are terrific with insinuations.
(c) simulating ignorance is the trick that makes gag writers tick.
(d) None of the above.
124. Gag writers have influenced
(a) television artistes.
(b) radio writers.
(c) circus clowns.
(d) All of the above.
118. The writer says that a large part of the American population indulges in word trade.
119. The hallmark of gag writers is that they have fun with words.
120. The second level of language is important if one wants to be comfortable listening and reading.
121. The writer says that the gag writers thrive on the double layered aspect of the language.
122. In gag writing, both, long words as well as combining of parts of words to produce a hilarious effect are important.
123. Gag writers stimulate ignorance.
124. According to the passage radio artistes have taken advantage of the techniques of gag writers.
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