Chicago improv stalwart Jimmy Carrane asked the question on Facebook: Why is David S. Pumpkins funny? In case you don’t know what he’s talking about, take a gander.
Now, I’m about to do the least funny thing a person can do. I’m going to analyze the bejeezus out of comedy.
This sketch seems like it rolled off an assembly line designed for maximum enjoyment. Let’s examine the parts that make it work.
The setup: A couple is sitting down for a scary ride.
The twist: The ride isn’t scary.
Much of comedy is designed to lead an audience to draw one conclusion/expectation before thwarting it. The first two stops on this ride are sights you would expect to see on a scary ride. With two stops, we’ve established a pattern, that’s where an old comedy warhorse makes its appearance…
The Rule of Threes: I’ve previously written about the comedic power of the Rule of Threes. Nearly everyone can use it to great effect. Breaking a pattern on the third example is inherently funny. In the Haunted Elevator sketch, we see a scary thing, a second scary thing and then Tom Hanks as David S. Pumpkins being inherently un-scary. Our primate brains realize this incongruent thing does not match the pattern. It’s the same amusement generated by the famous “Sesame Street” scene where the girl is reciting the alphabet and periodically says, “Cookie Monster,” instead of a letter. (Granted, she’s not using the rule of threes, but she’s breaking a pattern.)
The Straight (Wo)Man: In this scene, Kate McKinnon and Beck Bennett are there to call out the incongruity. It’s important that they are not similarly wacky characters, otherwise it’s just a string of crazy people acting crazy. A straight man/woman/couple often relays the truth of the scene. We know David Pumpkins, excuse me, David S. Pumpkins is not scary, but it’s great to hear the people in the scene acknowledge that. Their disappointment in the lack of a scare is key. Imagine how the scene would have played out if the couple were scared. Suddenly, it’s a scene about people who are scared by scary things AND random things. It doesn’t work.
The name, “David S. Pumpkins”: A hard “k” sound is funny. It’s a comedy rule. Embrace it.
The goofy dancing: Comedy audiences love dancing. That song is also strangely corny. If they danced to legitimately scary music, it wouldn’t have been funny. The SNL music team specifically chose that bizarre keyboard sound to help sell the bit that this is NOT a scary scenario.
The Rule of Threes (again): We see David S. Pumpkins and his skeleton guys once, then we see them again. For the third time, it changes, as it must with the Rule of Threes. We see Leslie Jones break the Pumpkins pattern. Are we back to the “scary” stuff? It seems like it, briefly, until the reveal of the skeleton dancers. The scene ends with David S. Pumpkins lurking behind the couple – yet another twist on the established pattern.
Repetition: “I’m David Pumpkins! Any questions?” Virtually anything can be turned into a catchphrase. Entire sitcom empires have been built on audiences clamoring for a familiar phrase from a familiar voice. We like the familiar. It comforts us. It scratches an itch. If you find yourself needing to juice up a scene, adding a strange catchphrase for your character can do the trick. Even the genius TJ Jagodowski has advocated this tactic, so don’t feel like you’re above it. It’s a crutch, but crutches can come in handy from time to time.
Commitment: You have to commit on stage, especially if you’re doing something dumb. If you’re doing something silly, like being a breakdancing skeleton or simply saying, “I’m David Pumpkins,” over and over, commitment to that specific choice will buy you a lot of leeway with an audience. They like seeing you be silly, so embrace it.
But not everything works in this scene. Kenan Thompson has an innate need to gun for laughs. He’s the elevator operator and he has one legitimately funny line, but he’s mugging and playing way too hard to the camera. I wish he would have made a different choice.
What’s the point of an exercise like this? Well, friends, if you’re going to study comedy, you need to know what works and what doesn’t. Sometimes we know why these comedy staples work, sometimes they’re just taken as gospel. But if you dissect the lessons of David S. Pumpkins, you can build equally successful comedy scenes.
Within the SNL arsenal, we see Pumpkins DNA all over the place…
Rule of Threes: Even in the same Hanks-hosted episode, SNL did a sketch called “Black Jeopardy.” Three contestants: a black woman, a black woman and a white Donald Trump supporter. In the classic Land Shark sketch, Gilda Radner opens the door upon hearing the third thing. After eating Laraine Newman in the same way (multiple lies until she opens the door), the Land Shark gets his third victim (Jane Curtin) to open the door simply by stating his true identity. Keep your eyes peeled and you can find the Rule of Threes everywhere.
Repetition: “I’m Brian Fellows!” “We come from France.” “I’m Chevy Chase and you’re not.” “Never mind.” “We are two wild and crazy guys!” “I’m Gumby, dammit.” “Schwing!” “I’m just a caveman. Your world frightens and confuses me.” “Superstar!” “More cowbell!” “Live from New York, it’s Saturday Night!”
The Straight (Wo)Man: So many great scenes are great not just because of the weirdo in the scene, but because of the straight person doing a lot of the heavy lifting. Consider Buck Henry in all the Samurai sketches (including one where his head was actually gashed open by the sword), Will Ferrell’s Alex Trebek in every Celebrity Jeopardy, the celebrities delivering straight answers on the Chris Farley Show, Tim Meadows in a census sketch in 2000, Tina Fey in a census sketch in 2010, Jeff Goldblum lobbing great set-ups in Mr. Dave’s Job Interview, Sam Waterston straight-up murdering in the Old Glory Insurance ad, and perhaps the most underrated cast member of all time, Jane Curtin in so many sketches against so many weirdos. In the years when SNL struggles most, you can often chalk it up to them not having a reliable cast member who can pull off the authority figure roles. They are the unsung heroes that help sell the sketches.
Goofy Dancing: The Roxbury guys, Justin Timberlake’s dancing mascots, Will Ferrell and Cheri Oteri’s cheerleaders, “What Up With That?” Farley as a Chippendales dancer, whatever the hell we were subjected to every time Taran Killam wanted to dress up like a French kid.
Commitment: Farley throwing himself through walls and tables as Matt Foley, Mike Myers being a weird German on “Sprockets,” Molly Shannon slamming into furniture as Mary Catherine Gallagher, Chris Kattan humping everyone as Mr. Peepers, and literally every Eddie Murphy character. Some performers like Sandler and Spade barely tried to disappear into characters and they could get by on natural charisma. But for the bold performers who are willing to sell out and do something weird or physical with total commitment, there is comedy gold to be had.
To be sure, you can assemble a sketch using some or all of these techniques and they wouldn’t necessarily be successful, but the point is that these methods have worked in the past and they will work again. Indeed, you could pick any episode of SNL from any era and you’ll find at least some of these things at work.
Here ends my exhaustive and needless dissection of the David S. Pumpkins phenomenon. But before I go, let me make a not-so-bold prediction: We’re going to see David S. Pumpkins again next year. And maybe two years after that. And by then, the diminishing returns will prove fatal and David S. Pumpkins will be replaced by something equally absurd. Such is comedy.
Upon reading this post, Jimmy Carrane declared it to be like “a mini-master class in comedy.” Any questions?
If you’d like to learn directly from me, I’m teaching Level One at Chicago’s Under the Gun Theater starting in December. Register here. Save $25 by enrolling before November 14 with the code “early.”