I went, not long ago, to see a performance of the Capitol Steps. They’re very talented and very funny, of course. But what struck me most was one particular routine, a solo speech entitled: Lirty Dies: The Load to the Erection 2012–What a Lunch of Boozers, in which the performer swapped the letters in certain words to humorously irreverent effect. In the title, for example, the first letter of the first two words are switched so that “dirty lies” becomes “lirty dies,” and the first letter of road is switched with the second letter of election to become Load to the Erection, etc.
I found this speech fascinating on two accounts: first, the way in which the switches created clever and pointed satire (the Capitol Steps’ stock and trade, but still…); and second, the fact that the entire audience, me included, could comprehend the new meaning and the original meaning simultaneously. (Indeed, the humor–the laugh–came in part from the juxtaposition of the two meanings.) It felt like listening to two very different kinds of music at the same time and being able to hear both equally. I would not have thought it possible and was amazed at my being able to do it. How did they and we accomplish it?
To figure out how our minds accommodate two meanings at once, let’s look at a couple of examples from the speech. There’s the reference to Arnold Schwarzenegger: “He had a waby out of bedlock” in place of “he had a baby out of wedlock.” Perhaps it is the connection the mind automatically makes between wedlock and bedlock that permits one to grasp both meanings at once? (I should note that the Capitol Steps play fair; that is, the speech also addresses the foibles of John Edwards and Anthony Weiner.)
Then there’s the reference to Rick Perry, referred to as Pick Rerry: “The Stapitol Ceps have always said you were stumber than a dump.” Which is more insulting? To call someone dumber than a stump? Or stumber than a dump, with the colloquial associations “dump” brings to mind? Either way, the mind registers the insult.
But how does one approach writing this sort of thing? Do you write a straight speech stating what you want to communicate and then mechanically start inverting letters to see what combinations turn up? Do you start with sentences like “We got the boring Mormon, Mitt Romney. And we got our old pal Newt Gingrich,” and just start switching letters around, playing with them to see what comes up until one arrives (as the Capitol Steps do) at: “We got the moring Borman, Ritt Momney. And we got our old nal Poot Gingrich”? Surely the swap resulting in a reference to Borman is not accidental; nor the reference to Poot, which one is bound to associate with poo. Or does one somehow figure out what swaps will work when composing the underlying speech?
Finally, is this a technique best applied in satire and farce? Could it also be put to powerful use in a darker form of literature? Admittedly, I don’t think the technique could be sustained throughout the length of a novel. But, I do think it would be an interesting exercise to experiment with it, to test the limits of its possible applications. What’s the worst that could come of it? Even if playing with the technique did not result in a new, innovative story, it would gain one the pleasure of playing with language and what the mind may do with it. And that could lead one into other new and interesting work.