yesterday’s post generated a lot of comments. I want to further the discussion by defending the use of “jokes.” There are several definitions for jokes. Here's one: A joke is something spoken, written, or done with humorous intention.
In some cases it has a punchline, or just something you didn't expect, which amuses you.
Jokes have become uncool, passé, something to sneer at and scorn. Writers who resort to jokes are hacks or old or worse – old hacks. A commenter yesterday who's a writer on a sitcom said his showrunner threw out anything that was too "jokey." And I will grant you there are many bad jokes, lame jokes, racist jokes, old jokes, formula jokes, juvenile jokes, and blonde jokes.
But there are also good jokes. And good jokes make you laugh. Not smile, not nod in appreciation, but laugh.
That monologue you loved at the Golden Globes delivered by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler – those were jokes. The riotous plays that Neil Simon wrote for Broadway for over fifty years – those contained jokes. My Oscar review that many of you enjoyed – those were jokes.
CHEERS had jokes. Single-camera war comedy MASH had jokes. So did ultra-sophisticated FRASIER. ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT was crammed with them.
THE DAILY SHOW relies on jokes. So does THE COLBERT REPORT. And Louis C.K. builds his entire stand-up act around them.
You get the point. There’s no shame in writing a line that evokes a laugh.
Recently, Chuck Lorre became the first producer to have four shows in the top ten. That is a remarkable achievement. And the one common denominator in all four shows? Guess.
Now you may say, “I’m just looking to reach a niche audience. I don’t want to pander to the masses.” Again, the jokes don’t have to be stale or "vagina." And if you’re putting in all that time and effort to make your show, don’t you want the largest audience you can get? Plus, always remember that television is a business. Unless you have a big hit you’re vulnerable. Your show drops from a .08 to a .04 Deadline Hollywood will announce you’ve lost 50% of your audience. If your show gets hard to sell or the network has something else in the pipeline they think might do better, you and your niche show are gone.
And the good news is you don’t have to be on a major broadcast network to have a hit sitcom these days. BIG BANG THEORY reruns on TBS get better ratings than THE MINDY PROJECT on Fox. Imagine an original sitcom. Cable networks are trying and sooner or later one or more of their comedies will break through. Then, if you have a .08 share you’re even more vulnerable.
To me, a sitcom avoiding jokes is like an NFL team not employing a passing game.
I’ve been reading all the current pilot scripts, and the good ones just pop out. I’ll reserve identifying them until I see how well they’re actually executed. But on paper at least, they clearly rise above. They’re very funny. There are jokes that are sharp, fresh, and surprising. I’m keeping a list of these writers and should I ever get another show on and they’re available, they’re my first call. Other pilots are forced, familiar, and mild at best. I’d be reading one and think: “I guess if they get the perfect cast and the perfect director who sets the perfect tone and the lighting is just right and the camera angle is just so – then maybe this line will get a half-smile.”
And please, network development divisions, I beg you – no more slacker men-children.
I think agents and execs do young writers a disservice by telling them the industry is only looking for fresh new voices and different points-of-view. Here’s what showrunners are really looking for – young writers who are FUNNY. Their scripts can be single camera, multi-camera, two characters, eight characters, urban, rural, whatever. Just put some laughs in there. And what’s a real good although not trendy device for doing that?
the Old Hack