The power of the punchline
A few days ago, my wife sent me a link to “Jamie and Jeff’s Note to the Babysitter,” a McSweeney’s piece by Paul William Davies. I thought it was hilarious, both because I’ve written similar letters myself and because it’s a true rarity: a properly constructed page of humorous writing that fully develops its funny conceit from start to finish. Like many of its peers, it basically takes the form of a list, a format that the Harvard Lampoon pioneered decades ago, but unlike most, it doesn’t rely on that framework as an excuse to string together a loose series of unrelated gags. Instead, it benefits from the fact that its central idea lends itself naturally to the list structure, and above all from its last line, which Davies clearly knows is gold. Like Vijith Assar’s very different but equally excellent “Interactive Guide to Ambiguous Grammar”—which is probably my favorite McSweeney’s piece ever—it has a punchline. And that makes all the difference. (The lack of a punchline is why so many “Shouts and Murmurs” pieces in The New Yorker seem to wither away into nothing: they tend to suffer from what I’ve elsewhere identified as that magazine’s distrust of neat endings, which leads to articles that conclude at the most arbitrary place imaginable, as if the writer had suffered a stroke before typing the final paragraph.)
And it got me thinking about the power of the punchline, not just to end a piece on a strong note, but to enable everything that comes before it. In his commentary track for Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation, Christopher McQuarrie talks at length about the challenges involved in structuring the fantastic sequence set at the Vienna Opera House. I’ve watched it maybe five times now, and it gets better with every viewing: I’m convinced that if it had been directed by, say, Brian DePalma, we’d already be calling it one of the most virtuosic scenes that the genre has ever produced. It’s an immensely complicated piece of suspense with simultaneous action unfolding on three or four different levels, and it was evidently a nightmare to stage and edit. But McQuarrie had an ace up his sleeve. The moment when Ethan has to figure out how to save the Chancellor of Austria from two different assassins, with only a single bullet at his disposal, is priceless, and the whole crazy machine builds to that punchline. McQuarrie knew it would work. And although I don’t think he says so explicitly, he obviously felt liberated to indulge in such a teasingly long, complex set piece because he had that destination in mind. (And he probably wishes he’d done the same with the rest of the movie, the ending of which was being constantly rewritten even as the film was being shot—not that you can tell from the final result.)
A punchline, in short, can reach backward in a work of art to allow for greater flexibility in the journey, which is something that most writers eventually learn. In Adventures in the Screen Trade, William Goldman makes the same point in a discussion of the famous twenty-minute chase in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid:
There were two reasons I wrote it so long. One: I felt without such an implacable, irresistible enemy, the move to South America wouldn’t wash. Two: I wrote it so long because I had the confidence to be able to do it. And that confidence was born of one thing—I knew the Sundance Kid couldn’t swim…
When you have what you hope is gold in your hands, you can ruin it all by poor placement. If, for example, when Butch and Sundance were fording the stream on their way to Hole-in-the-Wall, Butch had said, “Why do you always get nervous around water?” and Sundance had said, “Because I can’t swim,” that wouldn’t have been so smart.
So I saved it for the moment just before the jump off the cliff. In point of fact, the entire Superposse chase is structured toward that moment. I was positive that no matter how badly the chase as a whole might be done, the swimming revelation, followed by the jump off the cliff, would save me. The jump was, had to be, surefire.
In other words, when you know you’ve got a good punchline, you’re free to develop what comes before it in the fashion it deserves. The opposite point also holds true: when you don’t know where you’re going, you’re more likely to flail around, casting about for ways to make the action more “interesting” when you lack a basic end point. I always try to keep a residue of unresolved problems—to borrow a phrase from the film editor Walter Murch—throughout the writing process, but I also know more or less where a story will conclude, and whenever I’ve broken that rule, as in my short story “Cryptids,” I think the weakness shows. On the plus side of the column, I allowed myself to take The Icon Thief into strange byways because I knew that the ending, in which Maddy breaks into the installation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, would be memorable no matter what I did, and a story like “The Whale God” hinges almost entirely on its killer last line. And while writing my first radio script, for a project that I hope to be able to discuss in more detail soon, I gained confidence from the knowledge that the ending would work. A good punchline is a great thing in itself, but it’s even more valuable as a kind of seed crystal that shapes the preceding material before the reader is even aware of it, so that the ending comes as both surprising and inevitable. Or in the words of David Mamet: “Turn the thing around in the last two minutes, and you can live quite nicely. Turn it around in the last ten seconds and you can buy a house in Bel Air.”