Missing a trick

Alex Bennett mounts a defence of the 'pull back and reveal'

I woke up the other day, and I was naked, so I decided to masturbate. I enjoyed it, as I often do, and decided that I was now ready to go to work, so I got off the bus…

This is an example of the technique of joke writing known as the ‘pull back and reveal”, or the ‘lead away” as Americans cal it. It is also an example of the kind of thing I might be doing in a new stand up set in character as Rosa Parks.

This technique of constructing a joke is, as most people who read this will know, generally frowned upon by many of the comedy community, calling it ‘hack’ or ‘lazy’. I’m a man who greatly enjoys comedy that is strange, and plays with the form of stand-up, such as the work of Stewart Lee (who loathes the pull back and reveal), Ed Aczel, Daniel Kitson, and Kevin Eldon’s fantastic 2010 Edinburgh show. Yet, here I am, writing in defence of that very technique.

Why? Because I think it should be the originality and funniness of a joke that is held up to criticism, rather than the technique used to write that joke.

Here’s a Tim Vine joke: ‘My next door neighbour worships exhaust pipes, he's a Catholic converter’. The joke is a pun; the humour arises from the similarity between the words ‘Catholic’ and ‘catalytic’ in the context established in the set up. Here’s a Gary Delaney joke: ‘I put diesel in my Escort the other day. She died”. The humour in this joke arises from the double meaning of the word ‘Escort’. These are two jokes written in a way some people would consider outdated, but Delaney enjoyed many very favourable reviews for his superb debut Edinburgh show this year, and Vine continues to tour to dedicated fans and receive good reviews. There are two reasons for this, the jokes are original, and they’re bloody funny.

There’s a finite number of ways to write jokes (hugely varied and expansive, but ultimately finite). Once you start eliminating methods of constructing jokes on the basis they’ve been done before you’re going to end up with no respectable gags at all.

Ed Byrne does a pull back and reveal at the end of a long routine about thinking of a retort to a statement in an argument that finished ages ago. The joke works well, even though the situation to reveal is fairly straightforward, because the misdirection before the reveal is so well written. This is the way to subvert an audience’s expectations, and direct their attentions away from the structure of the joke. Or, do the exact opposite, as Kitson and Lee have been doing for years.

Comedy is all about surprise, expectation and language. The pull back and reveal plays with all three. I just think whatever the pull back and reveal punchline is it needs to be original, rather than ‘I got off the bus’ or ‘And that was just the teachers.’ Use your imaginations – the real key to any good comedy.

Published: 22 Sep 2010

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