Tuesday, September 03, 2013
My thoughts on your punchlines
Danny was so afraid of commitment that...
And I hope you had fun. Today I’m going to go through some of them. And to ensure anonymity I’ve hidden all the comments from the original post. So if I critique yours, no one will be the wiser.
I’m not going to point out all the ones that hit the mark (and there were quite a few) nor am I going to critique every one that I felt still needed work. I’ve received close to 300. There were some that I absolutely didn’t get. I wouldn’t know how to respond. They’re insane. And I say that with the disclaimer that I might just be dumb and missed the joke. But yikes.
A couple of other disclaimers: every rule has an exception, especially in comedy. So nothing I suggest should be set in stone.
The point of this exercise is not to be critical. It’s to illustrate the rigors that comedy writers put jokes through. In writing rooms there are frequently long discussion about jokes – why they work, why they don’t, what’s wrong, how can we make them better? At times we can be real sticklers (read: assholes). But comedy often requires precision. Adding a word, changing the order of two words, substituting a more specific or funnier word – these are the tools we deal with.
We’ll often say a joke “doesn’t track” if the punchline doesn’t match the requirement of the set-up. We’ll flag jokes as being “on the nose.” These are jokes that fulfill the requirement but don’t have a comic spin. Danny is so afraid of commitment he refuses to get married. It tracks just fine, but where is the funny?
And then there are jokes that are too “convoluted.” They require the audience to connect three or four steps to get to the laugh. Audiences don’t like working that hard. You want them to hear it, get it, and laugh.
So as I go through these please take the suggestions in the spirit they were meant -- to help you get a better sense of what comedy writers go through and how to write better jokes.
WARNING: This is a long post. Much longer than usual. So grab a sandwich and make a day of it. Or just skim.
...he put his number on the Do Not Call List, then called up telemarketers to apologize.
Making a commitment requires an active choice. In this one Danny makes a commitment but then has second thoughts. So it’s more that Danny is indecisive. See the difference? Sometimes you’ll pitch a joke and for some reason it just won’t feel right. It seems to hit all the parameters but there’s something nagging. Go back and see if the joke addresses the exact definition.
He woke every morning, knowing that today was going to be, possibly, the best day or worst day ever. Or tomorrow.
Again, there’s nothing for him to actually commit to.
That he still does not have a favorite Beatle.
Funny and specific example of how he still can't make a commitment for fifty years.
...he used "Call Me. Maybe." as his pick-up line.
This could be interpreted as the person he’s trying to pick up is the one with commitment problems.
...that the Save The Date Card for his wedding was a perpetual calendar.
Weddings are a good area because they involve a strong commitment. This is clear and funny.
Danny was so afraid of commitment that his umbilical cord was a bungee.
Sharp joke with a funny image.
...he didn't come out of his mother until he was six years old...not quite sure about that life thing.
You don’t have to explain the joke. (not sure about this life thing) Let it stand on its own. This exercise remember, comes from Andy Goldberg’s improv class. We were all asked to fill in the blank. This was mine. It's very similar to this last one.
Danny was so afraid of commitment he stayed in the womb for two years.
A number of you guys beat it with funnier punchlines.
...he took pruning shears to his ring finger.
Ouch. You run the risk that people will blanche instead of laugh.
....he decided to divorce all five of his wives.
This is what we call a joke on a joke. He has five wives (which already shows he has a fear of commitment) and then takes an extra step. It’s usually cleaner if he if the joke settles on one concept. I say “usually” because sometimes it works.
...he lived out of rental cars.
This implies he can’t commit to a home or a car. I think it works. Why? Because it’s so short. And it satisfies another requirement of the joke. Danny was SO afraid of commitment. It’s not enough he drove around only in rental cars; he lived in them. Now back to the bigamist. You could argue that divorcing them all addressed the SO afraid part of the joke. But I would suggest a better example is he was so afraid of commitment he had ten wives or twenty.
He moved to Utah for more choices.
That’s more in the ballpark. Utah and bigamy are good areas for this joke.
...on first dates he'd park the car and leave the engine running.
You leave yourself open to other possibilities as to why he leaves the engine running. He might be worried that his date won’t want to make out with him in which case he’d want to quickly leave. If he goes up to the hills with his date to make out but can never decide where to park, that’s closer.
...that when his girlfriend asked him to move in, he not only faked his own death, but hers as well.
Okay, this is one of those jokes that’s completely illogical (how do you fake someone else’s death?) but is so extreme and the concept is so funny that it sort of works. Sometimes in a writing room someone will pitch a joke, everybody laughs, and then someone else says “Yeah, but it makes no sense.” Everyone made some connection that made them laugh so in cases like that I usually go with the joke. This might be one of those.
...he wouldn't even listen to U2.
I’m confused. Are you saying that everybody listens to U2 or is the name U2 somehow significant in the punchline? Or am I just out of touch?
...he left the movie theatre before Harry met Sally.
Not sure what this means. He is so afraid of commitment he can’t bear to watch other people who are afraid of commitment?
…he only dates hermaphrodites.
Short, funny, absurd, specific. Yes!
he’d only date twins.
Even shorter. Well done.
Danny was so afraid of commitment he signed a pre-nup with his inflatable girlfriend.
Danny was so afraid of commitment that he RENTED the first season of the Partridge Family.
Most people rent television shows. And why the PARTRIDGE FAMILY? Since the person in the joke is Danny, is that supposed to tie into the PARTRIDGE FAMILY reference (Danny Bonaduce being a member of the cast)?
His favorite song is the minute waltz...
This would work if the joke was Danny was so impatient that…
He lives in Four Corners...
Bingo. Short. Clear. Funny.
Danny was so afraid of commitment he wrote his love letters in pencil.
Good but could be funnier. Go to the extreme. How about this one from another reader?
his wedding vows were written with invisible ink.
This is typical procedure in a writers room. One person suggests an area and the search begins for the best version.
...that he told his lady to keep her legs crossed
Not sure how that applies. He’s afraid of getting her pregnant?
Danny was so afraid of commitment that he brought a plus one to his own wedding.
This is a thinker. It’s a little convoluted. To hedge his bet he brought another date? It could also mean he brought a friend for moral support.
Danny was so afraid of commitment that it drove him crazy...enough to be committed to an asylum.
This is on the nose. It answers the question but needs a comic spin. This just told you the consequences.
Danny was so afraid of commitment that he died alone. Sad and alone.
Same thing… although I wonder if the writer was even trying to make people laugh.
... he avoided women by moving into a San Francisco rowhouse with a creepy hair-fetishist wannabe rockstar and an even creepier cartoon-voice imitator.
Way too long and I suspect these references are inside jokes about people I should know but don’t. Long winding payoffs usually don’t work as well as short punchy ones.
...his marriage license had an expiration date.
Marriages are a good area. Nice.
Danny was so afraid of commitment that he married a Kardashian.
Yes. Off beat and specific. The Kardashians' penchant for brief marriages is so well known that this reference scores.
... he wouldn't even do things half-assed.
This would work if Danny was so lazy or such a bad worker that…
...that he asked Congress to authorize his actions.
Using the joke to make a political statement. Certainly valid.
... he defied gravity
I know I’m being a stickler, but avoiding commitment is an active choice and unless he has a superpower, defying gravity is not.
...he signed up on the one-way trip to Mars.
Danny sounds pretty committed to me if he’ll do that. And why a one-way ticket? And why Mars? Not clear.
....he only listened to "unfinished" symphonies.
Danny was so afraid of commitment that he kept a goat in his bedroom.
I don’t get it. A goat eats things. How does that apply?
He started writing his first novel on an Etch a Sketch.
Danny was so afraid of commitment that even listening to the song 'Mustang Sally' brought him out in hives.
I’m completely befuddled. And usually when a writer is asked to explain his joke, there’s a 99.9999% chance it’s not going in the script. Ed. Weinberger used to do that when he was showrunning. He'd challenge a writer who just pitched a joke. "Why is that funny?" he'd bark and the poor writer would have to answer in front of the whole room. This resulted in numerous emergency calls to therapists.
Danny was so afraid of commitment he only dated nonagenarians.
Okay. To protect himself Danny only dates people who are going to die soon. People have to know who nonagenarians are but it’s valid. Is there a clearer version? He only dates girls from assisted living facilities. Here’s an alternate version someone posted:
Danny was so afraid of commitment that he decided to only date amnesiacs.
That seems a little sharper. Here’s another try on the old age theme:
Danny was so afraid of commitment that he only dated girls from the terminal ward.
Needs a comic spin.
Danny was so afraid of commitment he finished his sentences with semi-colons;
Funny and off beat. Nice one.
...he carried his groceries in his coat pockets cause he couldn't make the call between paper or plastic
Sets up a funny image of a guy walking around with groceries bulging out of everywhere. If you can picture the joke that's generally a very good thing.
... his imaginary friend was an imaginary acquaintance.
...took his mother to speed dating.
A thinker but a funny concept. Bringing your mom to speed dating ensures no one will go out with you. If I was a showrunner I think I’d say let’s try it but have something else in the bullpen.
...that he moved to Japan, joined the Yakuza and then proceeded to violate their code ethics by screwing up the Starbucks order, showing up in blue jeans before casual Friday, not replacing the toner cartridge, etc. which lead to having the tip of his pinky finger and eventually his ring finger amputated, which meant he could not wear a wedding ring, which wouldn't really keep him from getting married so never mind.
Possibly a tad convoluted? Whattaya think?
Danny was so afraid of commitment that he called himself Anny.
In this case he’s just committing to a different name. If he was so afraid of commitment he couldn’t answer to any name that would be more on target. See the difference?
He became bulimic.
Oddly absurd. I like it.
Danny was so afraid of commitment he's still trying to decide whether or not to watch the pilot of VIVA LAUGHLIN.
Convoluted. We have to know what VIVA LAUGHLIN is. We have to know that it’s a show that hasn’t been on the air for quite a few years. That’s a lot to know and put together for one joke. And Danny’s lucky by the way that he missed that pilot.
Danny was so afraid of commitment, his longest relationship was with his divorce lawyer.
Danny is so afraid of commitment that he makes Sarah Palin look like Cal Ripkin Jr.
We gotta know who Cal Ripkin Jr. is and what he represents – he holds the consecutive game streak in baseball. And we have to know who Sarah Palin is and for purposes of this joke, know she’s flighty. Then we have to put the two together in the intended context. Way too convoluted.
He rented a burial plot.
Thanks again to everyone who participated. It's amazing how many different punchlines there can be for one joke. The last tip I'll share: if you're stuck, go down a different road. We sometimes get myopic trying to find a payoff in one area. Let yourself be free. Seek alternate options. Pretty soon you may surprise yourself and instead of saying, "What can I come up with?" you're saying, "Which of these do I like best?" Of course, then you might turn into Danny.