Muppets and Parallel Structure

Steven Harper PiziksThis came from Kermit the Frog’s Twitter feed a while ago:

Success isn’t easy. It takes determination, perspiration, and, for frogs, condensation to make it.

It’s cute, but not very funny.  It could be funny, but it isn’t.  Let’s look at what went wrong–and how to fix it.

WARNING: Humor, like a frog, is wrecked when you dissect it. But you have to dissect it to understand it and make it work. Be ready for wrecking.

First, good writing uses a thing called parallel structure.  This is when you repeat a word or phrase in a similar–parallel–way to create a pleasing pattern.  It’s fun to read.  If you don’t use, you should.  An example: The first chair was too hard.  The second chair was too soft.  The third chair was just right. Another example: Because I love you, because I cherish you, because I adore you, I want to marry you. Notice how in both cases, the phrases create a nice pattern.

Kermit’s tweet, however, starts a parallel structure, then wrecks it.  He begins with a series of words that end in -tion. Nice!  Then he interrupts his parallels with the prepositional phrase for frogs. This jars the reader and wipes out his parallel.  Bad frog. No horseflies.

Also, most humor comes from unexpected opposites, which is when a character says or does the opposite of what we expect.  The TV show Friends used this masterfully, especially with the character Phoebe. For example, in one scene, Ross is talking to Rachel’s pregnant belly. “I’m gonna play with you all the time!” he coos.  Phoebe interrupts.  “How can you let him talk to your crotch like that?”  “He’s talking to the baby!” Rachel protests.  “Oh!” Phoebe says.  “For a moment I thought he was waiting for an answer, and I said to myself, ‘There’s a trick!’ ”

We get a bunch of unexpected opposites in the scene.  First is the idea that Phoebe thinks Ross is talking to Rachel’s crotch.  The second is that Phoebe thought Ross would actually get an answer, and third is the mental image of it really happening.  It’s even funnier because the reality never occurs to Phoebe–yet another opposite.

Kermit misses this chance.  He could have come across as assuming that everyone is a frog, just like him. That’s another reason why the for frogs part of the tweet wrecks the humor.  Without that phrase, it would look like Kermit assumes we’re all frogs, too.  An unexpected opposite.  Funny!

Finally, humor should always end with the punch line.  Notice in the Friends example above, Phoebe ends with “I said to myself, ‘There’s a trick!’ ” She doesn’t end with, ” ‘There’s a trick,’ I said to myself.’ ” There’s a trick is the funniest part of the scene.  Adding anything after it wrecks the humor.

The funniest part of Kermit’s tweet is the word condensation. But he adds to make it afterward.  Not only is the phrase unnecessary (it’s already implied by Success isn’t easy), it also adds words after the punchline.  Get rid of it!

If we tweak the tweet according to the principles above, we get this:

Success isn’t easy. It takes determination, perspiration, and condensation.

Rather better!  But we can make it even punchier by getting rid of the linking verb is in the first sentence, leaving us with:

Success takes determination, perspiration, and condensation.

There!  Short, punchy, funny.

With parallel structure.

–Steven Harper Piziks

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