After several years of being out of favor, multi-camera shows are having a renaissance this season. But I caution the writers -- the reason they went out of fashion is the joke rhythms became tired and stale. For a long time they worked, and the jokes themselves may be funny, but audiences have grown weary of their predictable form. And more and more this season I'm starting to see these shows fall into old ruts -- even the new shows.
So here are some over-used joke forms to watch out for:
The “No…(blank)” joke.
COACH: They call me Red.
CUSTOMER: Oh, cause you used to have red hair?
COACH: No, cause I once read a book.
The problem is you’re asking the customer to set up the joke by saying something she probably wouldn’t say. Straight man seeks clarification by asking the seemingly obvious only to learn it’s something else. Plus, it usually makes the set up person seem incredibly dumb.
The “Lenny & Squiggy”:
Named for those two characters because of how they entered every scene.
LAVERNE: Who would be stupid enough to drink sewer water?
LENNY & SQUIGGY ENTER.
An alternate version of this is the “Flip scene”.
MOLLY: I wouldn’t sleep with you Fred if you were the last man on earth!
CUT TO: MOLLY IN BED WITH FRED.
The trouble here is you can see the joke coming from nine miles away. A third version of this is the “Stan Daniels Turn”, named after one of the funniest comedy writers ever, who used this form to perfection. Character rattles off a list and does a 180.
LOU: She’s brash, she’s obnoxious, she’s rude… I’m in love.
Again, thirty years ago this was a fresh form. But now you’re waiting for that turn.
Stock comic characters are also tiresome. The wise-ass precocious teenager you just want to smack into next Tuesday, the “sassy” housekeeper, the befuddled foreigner (complete with fractured English), the wacky neighbor, and the oversexed oldster (“Once you’ve had an octogenarian, honey, you can never go back. Hoooo hooo!)
Punch line catch phrases can send you scrambling for the remote as well. “I’m too stupid to live!” “Oh, did I say that out loud?” I’m sure you can find ten others – just by watching TVLand tonight.
And my main pet peeve: characters not acting the way real people act. The “No…(blank)” is one offender. Here are more:
Ever notice how in traditional sitcoms no one ever leaves a room without a joke? And if people insulted each other right to their faces like they do in sitcoms half the population would be walking around with black eyes.
Which brings me to my final point – one character saying something completely inappropriate and the other character conveniently ignoring it. Here’s an example. I like BIG BANG THEORY. There are always some good laughs. But they did something in the pilot that drives me crazy. Since BIG BANG THEORY is going into syndication this year, the pilot is airing a lot lately.
The show opens with Sheldon and Leonard at a sperm bank. They return home to find smoking hot Penny has just moved in across the hall. Smitten, they clumsily engage her in conversation. So far so good. Lots of funny lines. They invite her to lunch. She accepts (why, I don’t know but that’s another story). As they’re crossing the hall she mentions that she’s had a rough day unpacking, then asks what they did that day, and one says, “We masturbated into a cup for money”. She just nods and follows them into their apartment. Huh??? What??? She wouldn’t be horrified? Or shocked? Or completely puzzled? She just accepts this as if he had said, “Oh, we went to Starbucks for coffee”? And she still enters these weird guys’ apartment? Ten minutes later she uses their shower and enters the room wearing only a towel. I’m guessing most women on the planet would not do that if placed in the same situation.
BIG BANG THEORY can get away with it (sorta) because the jokes are generally very sharp. But heap unreality with bad, forced humor and you have a comic form best put on display at the Museum of Natural History.
And here’s the thing: multi-camera shows don’t have to be formulaic. SEINFELD wasn’t. RAYMOND wasn’t. COSBY (in its early years) wasn’t. All it takes is good writing, fresh ideas, and a desire to take the art form further. Otherwise the form may eventually die, it may indeed be too stupid to live.
Sunday, October 23, 2011
By Ken Levine at 5:55 AM