"The delay of the ultra obvious can be just as funny as the ultimate surprise." -- James Agee
Sophia, on an episode of the "Golden Girls," was having fun playing gag store practical jokes on her daughter Dorothy. She had already used a whoopee cushion and a dribble glass when she pulled out a metal peanut brittle canister. When Dorothy declined her offer of some candy, Sophia opened the canister and munched on some pieces of candy. Later Dorothy returned to the kitchen and spotted the peanut brittle canister sitting on the table. She opened the canister and spring snakes shot out. Sophia emerged from hiding to chortle, "You're so easy."
That is an example of a comedy technique known as Delayed Anticipated Action. When Sophia introduced the peanut brittle canister audience members recognized it as the kind sold in gag stores. They anticipated snakes coming out of the canister. The surprise that it actually contained candy brought a little laughter from the studio audience. There wasn't a great deal of laughter because in addition to being surprised, the audience members felt foolish for thinking that it contained spring snakes. When Dorothy released the snakes there was a burst of laughter. This was caused by two things. First, the audience was surprised by when the snakes came out. If the snakes had come out the first time the can was opened there wouldn't have been any surprise because it was too predictable and there wouldn't have been any laughter. They weren't expecting the snakes flying out when they did. That was the surprise that caused the most laughter. The second cause of the loud laughter was that the audience felt vindicated in their belief that kind of can was used to contain spring snakes.
Gene Sheldon was a skilled clown and magician. He played Bernardo, Zorro's mute servant in Disney's "Zorro" television series. He created and used audience anticipation in a sleight of hand sequence during an episode from the first season, which is available on DVD. During the sequence, which takes place in the public square, he vanishes a watch. Then he peers at the ear of a donkey standing next to him. He reaches behind the donkey's ear as if expecting to find the watch there, but his hand comes away empty. Puzzled, he glances around looking for the watch, and then reaches behind the donkey's ear again. This time he succeeds in finding the watch. He changes the watch into an egg, and back again. Then he vanishes the watch. He stares at Sergeant Garcia's cummerbund, and then reaches underneath it to reproduce the watch. Again his hand comes away empty. Puzzled he looks around. Sergeant Garcia says he doesn't know what happened. He pats his cummerbund and then reacts in embarrassment when he breaks the egg which had appeared under his cummerbund.
Repetition is another way to cause the audience to anticipate something happening. For example, in Dimitri's train porter act he portrays a railroad employee who fails to get a cart of luggage loaded before the train departs. He begins opening cases to check on their contents. When he sees that the first one contains a musical instrument he squeals in joy. He plays that instrument. He discovers another instrument when he opens the second case and again squeals in joy. After he plays that instrument, he opens a third case discovering another instrument. He squeals a third time. During the hour-long musical comedy act he squeals in joy each time he opens a case discovering another instrument. The audience comes to expect him to respond that way. Finally he opens a case and silently gazes at the audience. They begin to laugh because they are surprised by the silence. As their laughter starts to die down, he squeals in joy and they begin laughing even harder.
Sometimes just the presence of a prop creates anticipation. If you introduce a cream pie the audience assumes that somebody is going to get hit in the face. You can get a lot of laughter if you are trying to hide the pie and almost get caught several times. However, eventually somebody has to receive the pie. The most laughter comes if the person who introduces the pie is the one who gets hit with it.
If something is such a cliché that it is ultra obvious, how can you delay the anticipated action? Instead of relying on a cliché, how else can you create anticipation? How can you communicate to the audience what is going to happen? How can you build anticipation through repetition? How can you confirm that the audience was correct in their assumption? How will the anticipated action finally take place?