Thursday, August 01, 2013

How do you know if a joke's gone 2 far?

Here’s a Friday Question that became an entire post.

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.

35 comments:

Murray said...

For me, modern comedy is suffering a desperate famine of "I wish I wrote that" and viscous flood of "deers urinating on people."

karenb said...

I'm reminded of Tracey Gold on Growing Pains. The early season fat jokes didn't cause her anorexia, but she admitted they were a contributing factor.

Hamid said...

"Or you could work on 2 BROKE GIRLS and just do anything."

Anything except, it seems, being funny!

I'm Bradman said...

I'm a 60 year old single male and when I hear some of the jokes on Two And A Half Men and 2 Broke Girls, I laugh and cringe at the same time. Cringe because I know there are parents who let their kids watch anything. And in a few months/years, those crass jokes will run even earlier in the evening during syndication. I much prefer the witty inference, or hint of a risque line. Naughty is funny. Raunchy isn't.

Scooter Schechtman said...

The dancing/music/humor we young folk had was innocent, even though our parents complained. Now that I'm old I complain about the dancing/music/humor those young folk have. And I'm proud of my regularity, thanks to whole wheat bread.

Jacob Hearst said...

Hi Ken,

Based on the previews and your insider knowledge (assuming you read some of the pilot scripts), what new sitcoms this fall are you most excited to watch?

Igor said...

Ken, it's good to see a pro writing what you did about appearance-jokes. I think Janet Reno was a comically-bad (and no-so-comically-bad) Attorney General, but all the jokes made about her physical appearance/attractiveness were wrong in a number of ways.

Rudy said...

Friday Question: I enjoy the show "Suits" but now feel like the premise - that Mike Ross doesn't have a law degree - is now just baggage. Do you think they should move past it? Can you think of other shows that have let a heavy handed premise go away?

Thanks.

Kyle said...

Homer raped by a panda ruined the Simpsons for me.

Susannah said...

I have a question. You once wrote that even if a writer doesn't live in the US., it's ok to submit specs to American shows if you make it known that you'd be able to fly out in an instant if necessary. Now, what if it's really hard to get your hands on the last season or the last few seasons of the show in question where you live. Say the show is in season 5 but you've only seen the first four. The dvd for your region won't be available for months and you don't wish to download illegally. Is it ok then to submit a spec and inform the show creators that your spec is based on the first four seasons? Or will it be dismissed instantly?

Thanks in advance!

Hamid said...

Rudy - I stopped watching The Simpsons from around 2000 onwards. I only watch the classic seasons from the 90s. When I stumble on a post-2000 episode, I'll give it a few minutes but I can never endure more than 2 minutes. It's actually painful to see how awful it's become. When it was at its best, it was the funniest, wittiest and cleverest comedy show ever, live or animated. Now it's a pitifully unfunny and low brow shambles that has endless celebrity guest stars, a gimmick that was used sparingly in the early days and when it WAS used it was actually funny. I still remember Dustin Hoffmann as Mr Bergstrom. Now they just haul in N-Sync and we're supposed to fall about laughing.

It's a miracle the movie was funny. It wasn't at the level of the writing in the 90s but it was infinitely better than what the show's become since 2000. The golden rule is to always go out on top. Cheers and Frasier ended when the writing was still sharp and funny. Roseanne outstayed its welcome by a good 4 or 5 years. The Simpsons should have ended around 98 or 99. Instead of cementing its status as the greatest comedy show ever, it'll be remembered as the greatest comedy show ever which then sadly went into decline.

Sorry for my rant but I can't really convey how terrible it is to see what the show's become. Where we once had lines like "I, for one, welcome our insect overlords", we now have lines like "I used to be lost, until a friend turned me onto a book. It's called 'Lisa is Stupid'."

Hamid said...

Sorry, that was meant for Kyle, not Rudy.

Kyle said...

Hamid, I totally agree. Especially since in the early days of the Simpsons, the stars (Dustin Hoffman, Michael Jackson, etc) were uncredited. Even little phrases from those years still make me laugh. "Dental Plan/Lisa needs braces."

Wayne said...

Last year I tuned in Comedy Central show with Daniel Tosh to see what the buzz was. They showed a skateboarder dropping his shorts while skateboarding down a street. And then he defecated! Talk about moving your bowels.
I thought "that's on basic cable where they have to censor themselves? What's on pay channels?"

RCP said...

Once in a while, the 'All in the Family' writers would give Edith a risqué line that "passed" because she was so genuinely oblivious to what she was saying - as when was once describing Archie's kissing technique: "Archie was always more of a pecker."

Sister Mary Martha said...

very comical that your definition of ruining a character by making them, stupid, a racist, a skank....has
"Tea Party member" so naturally included.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

It's always struck me how many jokes on TWO AND A HALF MEN and THE BIG BANG THEORY revolve around the actors' appearance. On TBBT much is made of Simon Helberg's small size, Kaley Cuoco is often mentioned as having big feet and masculine hands, and Leonard is mocked for being short by both his friends and himself. On 2 1/2 Men it was Angus T. Jones's big head.

wg

Craig said...

I thought 2 Broke Girls was great last year. This year I gave up about 3 episodes in. It stopped being funny and seems only to exist to see how much they can get away with.

Igor said...

Sister Mary, don't overlook the A.N.S.W.E.R., bringing us stupid and racist (I don't know about skank) for 12-odd years.

Siberian Khatru said...

"I try not to dwell on physical appearances".

Who directed Roz and the Schnoz?
:-)

cadavra said...

I'm willing to put up with a lot as long as the joke is funny . I know that saying I like 2 BROKE GIRLS won't win me many friends around here, but for the most part I find the show hilarious (of course, Kat Dennings' spot-on delivery is a huge help). To be sure, Oleg is tiresome and one-note, but overall the quips are jolly enough to justify their raunchiness.

Ron Clark said...

All these sitcoms that seem to be an endless stream of put downs and insult jokes always leave me with one feeling: Why on earth would these people be friends with one another? I can suspend my disbelief for a lot of things. but awful shows like Two and a Half Men defy that suspension of disbelief. They have a dull, depressing, monotone beat (setup, setup, INSULT, setup, setup, INSULT) that can totally destroy my interest within about 5 minutes. Man, I long for the days of Barney Miller and Night Court.....

J. Allison said...

"For the first few years I loved FAMILY GUY. Now I go “Yikes” and never watch it."

This.

Steve said...

"You’re permanently defining that character as racist or stupid or a skank or Tea Party member or whatever."

Ken... we get it. You're a liberal. Many people aren't, however, including those who read your blog, and many of that subset might -- *gasp* -- agree with certain principles that are ascribed to and advanced by the "Tea Party."

It's unfortunate that someone who is known for clever writing would feel the need for a cheap shot; it's ironic that it would come in a post decrying the use of cheap humor. Please do your many fans a favor and leave the hackery (political and humorous) to the likes of Keith Olbermann, who couldn't in a million years come up with the clever writing you have demonstrated for decades.

Tom Walters said...

When Tea Party members stop saying outrageously dumb things that are natural fodder for comedians, then maybe comedians and comedy writers will no longer lump them into the same category as racists, skanks, and other equally stupid people. Seriously, if you are a sensible Republican or a sensible Tea Party member (and I know there must be lots of sensible people in the party), then surely you must cringe repeatedly at the moronic things so many prominent members of the party have said in the past 12 months. If you think these figures deserve a pass when they get a case of foot in mouth disease (legitimate rape, anyone?), then you're going to be endlessly disappointed. If you don't like being associated with skanks, racists, and stupid people, then for God's sake reign in the members of the party that make it so easy to make that association.

Hoverbored said...

Friday Question:

When sending out a spec script, is it sometimes a good idea to include a brief outline or one-page synopsis for the benefit of the reader, or does it just give them one more thing to read?

Joseph M.

Marty Fufkin said...

Shows don't just try to top themselves, they also try to top other shows. Around the time when Seinfeld was pushing boundaries, other shows tried to follow suit. But they weren't Seinfeld and it was embarrassing. Where Seinfeld did the hilarious masturbation show without ever mentioning the word, Friends tried to top it by doing the show where the baby got a penis-shaped birthday cake by accident. It wasn't funny. It looked cheap and crass and it made me uncomfortable.

Pat Reeder said...

To Tom Walters:

I have written topical comedy material for radio hosts all across the political spectrum for over 20 years, and I can assure you that no political party has a corner on intelligence or facts. I've heard Tea Party and far right people say dumb things, but I can point you to just as much stuff that's just as stupid from the left (apples-to-apples comparison: Whoopi Goldberg defended Roman Polanski because what he did to the backside of that drugged 13-year-old girl "wasn't 'rape' rape.") Comedy writers tending to be liberal, you don't hear many jokes about those people, though.

I have to be scrupulous in fact-checking and sourcing stories, or my clients look like schmucks and I'm out of business. So I instantly recognize when someone takes a phony cheap shot at a political adversary. And they come from all sides. I've seen Tea Party people who are actual law professors and know more about the Constitution than Obama. I've seen dumb, misspelled signs at Tea Party rallies, but I've also seen progressives deliberately infiltrating those rallies with such signs in hopes of smearing Tea Partiers. And I've seen lots of idiotic misspelled signs at OWS rallies. It's my job to verify they're legit before I comment on them.

Because my wife is in music and theater, many of her Facebook friends are extremely liberal, while her friends from her home town in Texas are extremely conservative. Both routinely post quotes and news stories supporting their views that because of my job reading news 12 hours a day, I instantly recognize as being either wildly out of context or totally fabricated (from an Onion-like satirical site, for instance, or an urban legend email). The major difference I see is that people on the left tend to be a lot more smug about it. The ones on the right post misinformation and just say "Amen" and start griping about Obama. The ones on the left post misinformation and insult those idiots and morons and Teabaggers for not being smart enough to know this. Then they congratulate themselves for being part of the "reality-based community."

The truth is that no matter how much they flatter themselves about their own intellects, most people tend to choose friends and believe stories that reinforce their own prejudices, and left or right doesn't matter. Do I sound cynical? Sorry. After 20-plus years of having to ferret out whether the news has any basis in truth or not, that's sort of an occupational hazard. Especially since I've also written for politicians and been on the inside of a number of things that have made news over the years, and not a single one of those reports ever got all the important facts right.

Mac said...

@Hamid, yes it's such a shame how the Simpson's went. It used to be blisteringly funny but you could watch it with kids/oldies and even if there was an "adult" joke, it was so jaw-droppingly smart that it went over the heads of kids, and so beautifully placed that they'd have no idea they'd just missed an adult joke.
The last time I saw it, there were very obvious sexual jokes and adult themes that you couldn't show to kids. It seemed to be trying to keep up with "Family Guy" and it just didn't work. I'd imagine for the film they must have got the old band back together - from the classic seasons 3 to 8 (or 9-ish).

Ellen said...

I want to know who the Borscht Belt comedian was!

Hamid said...

Mac - I think the departure of Josh Weinstein and Bill Oakley from The Simpsons marked the start of its decline. They were writers and/or showrunners during the classic years. From what I've read, they chose to leave when they did because they didn't want to risk a deterioration in quality. They said they "didn't want to break the show". Ironically, after they left, that's precisely what happened but only because they were no longer there to maintain standards. I mean, would they ever have allowed a gag as pathetic as "Honey I Threw Goo Over The Audience" or a "financial crisis rollercoaster" that ends with a goofy voice saying "Mmmm, that's good satire"?

Tom Walters said...

@Pat Reeder:

As I pointed out earlier, there are no doubt lots of very intelligent, articulate and knowledgeable Republicans and Tea Party members. I was very much a Republican for a long time, until the party morphed into something that panders to fear of change, and crawled into bed with the most extreme right wing elements in the party. As for the Liberal Vs Conservative argument, you're right; liberals say as many dumb things as conservatives. The difference is that I don't care what Whoopi Goldberg says about anything; her opinion in irrelevant. She isn't what I'm talking about, any more than are the stupid things that Rosie O'Donnell says, or Patricia Heaton, or whoever. I DO care when people who have the actual power to create laws, or veto bills, are the same people who make stupid comments about "legitimate rape". It's not just a dumb thing to say; it demonstrates to me that too many members of the party are so out of touch with reality that they present an actual danger to peoples' right to pursue happiness. Whether or not a progressive infiltrates a Tea Party rally and spells it "Tee Partee" on a sign is also irrelevant, because that's not what I'm talking about either. I'm talking about elected officials and candidates in the party that not only say incredibly stupid things, but then seem oblivious as to why they were stupid in the first place. It's always been apparent to me that, when they are caught up in one of these gaffes, they are just parroting what their damage control people told them to say, and they truly don't get why it was dumb (thereby making them even better comedy fodder). Until the party stops defending and supporting these candidates and officials, they are going to continue being fodder (and rightfully so) for every comedy writer and late night comedian on the block. Do you really believe that professional comedians deliberately ignore dumb things said by liberal politicians out of some sense of loyalty? I'm pretty certain that if a Democratic senator had made the "legitimate rape" comment, Jon Stewart would have been all over it with the same gusto as he would when it was said by Todd Akin.

Matt said...

Ken,

Your answer about humor was interesting and smartly thought out. While I compliment you, thank you for writing it and for sharing your wisdom experiences in a free-to-read blog. Cheers and Frasier remain two of my favorite all-time shows.

However, your drive-by insult of Tea Party was ugly and beneath you.

I know it is hard for those of the political-left to understand, but even so it is sadly often, it is still jarring to have your political beliefs insulted in a forum in which you don't expect.

Storm said...

Being butthurt in the comments on this blog at a passing remark about a group of people who act/live in a bizarre and laughable fashion gets you nowhere, or he'd stop making cracks about people like me who dress up in costume at conventions. IT WAS A JOKE. Ha ha? If you're gonna hang with laugh-worthy people, you're gonna get laughed at; this is why I cringe but roll with it when he makes nerd jokes. Get over it. In fact, get over EVERYTHING IN YOUR LIFE. YOU LOST. AGAIN. TRY BETTER NEXT TIME and move on with your lives.


Cheers, thanks a lot,

Storm

Steve Bailey said...

I read that there was supposedly an "Andy Griffith Show" script in which Barney Fife was supposed to faint in a funny way. Griffith nixed it because "next time he'll have to faint funnier, and next time funnier still, and then the character will have lost all credibility." Some current TV script-writers would do well to remember that concept.