My friends--my first "second family," really--at Just For Laughs are about to announce the lineup for the event's 25th Anniversary in a few days, and one night last week I caught up with a few of my now L.A-based Festival colleagues and alumni for dinner.
Conversation was wild and varied, and one of the questions posed to yours truly was "So, why exactly did you leave?" (Historical note: I split JFL in 1999 after 15 years in various positions, ending up as the event's English and French Language CEO.)
While the answer is multi-faceted (and never regretted considering the fun and success I've had with Airborne),the deep-rooted, profound sentiment was that my life had become predictable. My calendar was a Groundhog Day-like loop, but worse yet, I was getting all the jokes before they were even told. I knew the end was near when, at an L.A. Comedy Club with manager and pal Howard Lapides, I spent more time looking at the people in the room than at the acts on stage.
Looking back, it's amazing how similar the art of creating Surprise is to the art of creating humor. I used to teach comedy writing at Concordia University, and at the root of every joke--EVERY joke--is what I used to call the "Fork In The Road" theory. It's a simple tale of setting up the expected but delivering the unexpected, and it goes like this:
- Every joke starts off as a journey.
- You walk along a path, and get to the fork in the road.
- You expect the joke to take a right turn.
- Instead, it veers to the left.
- Therein lies the humor.
Working in comedy started out as fun, but in the end, the process of creating humor became so routine that not only could I telegraph every punchline a mile away, but I had heard so many jokes that my response to them--no matter how brilliant--was not a belly laugh, a guffaw or even a chuckle. It was a two-word reflective compliment: "That's funny."
The moral of the story is that, as I've said so often here, Surprise is not a one-time shock; it's a constant flow. After a while, no matter how much Pow! in your Surprises, the tines on the fork-in-the-road meld into one.
And that's when, instead of offering your customers/your audience a right or left turn, you dig out the ground beneath their feet and leave them breathless as they fall down a hole they wouldn't have expected in their wildest dreams.