Thursday, August 01, 2013
Mitchell Hundred asks:
How do you keep a joke from going too far (e.g. offending too many people, clashing with the tone of the show, having all the humor beaten out of it, etc.)?
There’s no concrete answer to this. It’s a judgment call. On the one hand you want to be edgy but on the other you don’t want to cross a line of bad taste.
Know your audience is my first suggestion. Andrew Dice Clay should never work a church banquet.
GIRLS has a pretty young hip audience. Lena Dunham can get away with a lot. But even there, in an attempt to really push the envelope there are those who feel she goes too far. And others who find painful anal sex funny.
The trouble is you run the risk of alienating your audience and possibly chasing them away. For good. So you have to decide – is this joke potentially funny enough or audacious enough that you’re willing to gamble that it won’t cost you viewers? That’s way different from a joke that maybe just won’t get a laugh.
But sex jokes that are perfectly acceptable on TWO AND A HALF MEN would be jarring on MODERN FAMILY.
Personally, I tend to err on the side of caution. I prefer to take the high road. I like jokes that are more elegant. But that’s for the script. For the room I may pitch a joke that in any other work environment would get me jailed.
And it’s generally an either/or situation. Watering down jokes to make them more acceptable rarely works. You end up with a tepid joke that’s not nearly as funny. So either stick your chin out there and do the controversial joke or just find something else.
The problem with shock humor for me is that (a) anyone can do it (whereas I want people reading my scripts saying, I wish I could do that), and (b) you’re almost obligated to keep topping yourself so you wind up almost always crossing the line. GIRLS is an example of that. FAMILY GUY is another. For the first few years I loved FAMILY GUY. Now I go “Yikes” and never watch it.
But again, it’s all in the context. Mel Brooks does Hitler and is a riot. But I don’t think he’d be the right guy to showrun a sitcom on THE DISNEY CHANNEL. In my stage play, one of the biggest laughs comes from a reference to the C-word. I’d never pitch that on FRASIER.
In terms of personal parameters: I try not to take gratuitous shots at people (although we did once on CHEERS. We took a cheap shot at an old borscht belt comedian, felt terrible the night it aired, and then the comedian sent us a note thanking us). And I try not to dwell on physical appearances. If the person can’t do anything about the reason for the joke it seems cruel to do it. A guy is a pompous ass? Fair game. An actress is in love with herself? Let the insults fly. But if a girl is 20 and looks like Eleanor Roosevelt at 60 I give her a pass.
Take into consideration that real human beings have to say these lines. If actors are uncomfortable they’ll either balk or not do the line justice. You do yourself no favors in establishing trust with actors when you give them objectionable material to say or perform. So how important are your relationships with these actors? That's up to you.
And finally, I say always preserve the tone of your show and the dignity of your characters. When you give a character a particularly crass line just know you can never go back again. You’re permanently defining that character as racist or stupid or a skank or Tea Party member or whatever. Is that really what you want? Is that joke so important and so hilarious that you’d be willing to sacrifice your character’s dignity for all subsequent episodes? For me, it’s easier to just look for another joke.
There’s no hard and fast rule here but part of what you, as a professional comedy writer, are getting paid for is making these types of determinations. They can be tricky and tough. Or you could work on 2 BROKE GIRLS and just do anything.
By Ken Levine at 6:00 AM