Wednesday, January 15, 2014
But I kept those because I thought they worked and were appropriate and those who were offended were overly sensitive. You can’t do humor without offending someone. I have never however, kept a joke because I thought it would be too hard to replace.
Professional comedy writers learn early that swapping out jokes is just a part of the game. Many young writers are very defensive. They like the joke they wrote, it took forever to come up with that joke, or both. But jokes often need to be changed. And not just because they don’t work. Actors have a problem, the network has a problem, standards & practices have a problem, legal has a problem, the scene changes and it doesn’t fit as well anymore, it’s funny but too jarring, it’s funny but makes the character seem too stupid, it’s too hard to shoot, it’s too similar to another joke, or of course – it’s too Jewish. You get the idea.
Comedy writers need to get in the habit of swapping out jokes. When my writing partner, David and I can’t agree on a line, rather than argue for forty minutes and one team member ultimately unhappy, we just throw it out and come up with something else. It’s easier, faster, and reduces a lot of unnecessary tension.
Obviously, re-writing jokes is a skill – you’re working under very specific parameters. And in time you get better at it. How do you learn that skill? Read on.
The way I approach it is to first think that I’m “beating” a joke, not “swapping” it. A bad habit for young writers is to think of the first joke and just go with it. Be tougher on yourself. The first joke is often the obvious one. Come up with four or five alternatives. Or ten if need be.
David and I are always looking to “beat” jokes. Once we’ve finished a script we’ll take another pass for just that purpose. And you'd be surprised how many eleventh-hour jokes proved to be the best in the script.
There is one instance though where I advise against changing jokes. On multi-camera shows the writing staff sees run-throughs every day. By the third time they’ve heard the same joke they get tired of it. So they want to swap it out. When that happens you generally make lateral moves or negative ones. Remember that the audience hasn’t heard the original joke. So if a line gets a good laugh on the first day of rehearsal, leave it. Yes, it won’t be funny the next three days you see it, but trust that virgin ears will find it delightful.
Learning to “beat” jokes will take you a long way. So how do you learn it? Simple. Tape a current sitcom. As an exercise determine jokes that could be beat then go at it. Some will come easily. Others will be a bitch. Don’t give up. Wrestle the bitches to the ground.
Make no mistake – television comedy writing is competitive. You want to be the one that producers swap “for.”
Best of luck.
By Ken Levine at 6:00 AM