The Element of Surprise
Monty Python said it best: “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!” The element of surprise takes the set-up and punch line format to a whole new level. It's all about distraction, leading the audience down the garden path — then siccing the dogs on them. You make them expect something, and then you really twist it. It's like watching a good magic trick; it's all about deception.
Imagine what it was like for the first person in history to be handed a can of salted peanuts only to have cloth-covered spring snakes fly out of the can. That's what the element of surprise is all about.
Here's a great example of the element of surprise: In 1985, comedy magician Harry Anderson hosted Saturday Night Live. At that time, he was the star of the successful sitcom Night Court. In his opening monologue, he spoke about how the audience wouldn't be seeing the “old Harry” any more — No more shoving a needle in his arm, or dropping his pants on stage. Now that he was a star he had to provide only “good, clean fun … family entertainment.”
Be careful not to overuse the element of surprise. It's all based on trust. If you continue to violate the audience's trust in you, eventually they'll get wise to you and won't take the bait. Any of these techniques can be overused; it's up to you to know when to stop.
Then he introduced his new best friend, a cute little guinea pig named Skippy. After trying to get Skippy to do some simple tricks and failing, Harry finally said, “Well, Skip … you know the rules — you don't work, you don't live.” Then he proceeded to shove the guinea pig into his mouth and eat him, mumbling, “We'll be right back!”
Now that's a surprise! The audience probably knew something was going to happen, but nobody expected that. As it turned out, they were the guinea pigs in a bizarre comedy experiment. (By the way, Skippy was in on the gag and lived out his life in Boca Raton.) The element of surprise manipulates the audience's expectations, then takes them somewhere completely different.