Wednesday, January 30, 2013
A lot of it.
There is a misconception that comedy writers never laugh. Although we frequently do just nod and say, “That’s funny, put it in” there is also a ton of laughter.
Being able to laugh all day is the one saving grace of sitting in a pressure-filled room night after night after night. Well, that and junk food.
True that most of the laughs stem from jokes that don’t get in the script. No comedy writer would ever win a Humanitas Award or Peabody if any outsiders heard him for five minutes during a rewrite session. And when you consider the jokes that do get into TWO AND A HALF MEN and MIKE & MOLLY (they had a whole subplot this week about their dog who couldn’t take a shit), you can only imagine what didn’t get in.
You need laughter to keep the energy level up. And raunchy, totally appalling material sparks that. If you’re loose and having fun you’re more apt to come up with that great line that will get in the script. Even the California courts agreed when a disgruntled writers assistant tried to sue the staff of FRIENDS for sexual harassment. She lost. Courtney Cox vagina jokes won.
The tone of sitcom writers room differ depending on the showrunner and staff. Our first staff job, as I mentioned yesterday, was on THE TONY RANDALL SHOW run by Tom Patchett & Jay Tarses. I’ve never been to a comedy club where I laughed even half as much as I did during any one rewrite night on that show. Don’t tell anybody but I would hope for bad runthroughs so the rewrite nights were longer. I was young, single, had nowhere else to go, and they had Almond Joy minis.
As a showrunner I prefer a raucous room. And I like good laughers. But that isn’t to say you have to have a boisterous atmosphere to write funny scripts. The quietest, most subdued room I’ve ever been in was FRASIER. It was like rewriting in a library. And yet look at the results. Pure magic. But there were long periods of silence. If there was a Daphne joke that didn’t work we could be there for an hour.
I have a rule. If someone pitches a joke (for the script) and it gets a big laugh in the room the joke goes in just the way it was pitched. So often someone will pitch something and someone else will suggest an alternate version. Then it gets tossed around and after awhile you don’t remember the original or why you laughed in the first place. This is called “Stabbing the Frog.” You have a bouncy little frog in Biology class. You dissect it and see what makes it tick. But now you have a dead frog. (I know one showrunner who pathologically had to change at least one or two words of every pitch so he could put his own stamp on it. Yes, he was infuriating.) So my policy – if a pitch got a huge laugh, even if its structured weirdly – it goes in as is.
So yes, there is laughter in the writers room. I would hope in drama writing rooms too, although I can’t picture a real party atmosphere in the CRIMINAL MINDS room. Laughter is a great release, a great indicator, and all you have left when the Almond Joy minis are all gone.
By Ken Levine at 6:00 AM