Thursday, July 31, 2014

The comedy writing rule of 2's

If only this could get me membership in the Magic Castle.

I have this astounding ability to watch a lot of sitcoms and pitch the jokes mere seconds before the actors say them, almost verbatim. It’s an amazing skill. Houdini never could do that. Audiences are mystified.  Talk about magic. 

Of course, the truth is that after years of writing comedy I just can identify the most obvious punchlines. And there are shockingly way too many sitcoms that are guilty of this.

You might think this is a byproduct of multi-camera shows where rhythms have become stale and predictable, but single-camera shows are sometimes worse. They often resort to irony so it’s not even jokes. It’s catch-phrases or “Gee, THAT went well.”

If I can predict a joke it’s just lazy writing. Either that or the staff is just not very good. So I choose to believe it’s laziness.

What’s keeping me out of the Magic Castle is that by now you’ve seen so many sitcoms that you too can probably perform this psychic skill.

I blame the showrunners. Someone has to approve these clams. Someone has to say, “Yeah, that’s good enough.” Someone has to say, "Fine.  I've got Laker tickets." 

On CHEERS we had the rule of 2’s. If the writing staff was working on a joke and any two writers pitched essentially the same punchline we automatically discarded it. Didn’t even matter if it was funny.  Our feeling was that if two writers could come up with the same joke so could some audience members. And so it was quickly jettisoned. There was no debate. Ever.

When you’re trying to come up with a joke sometimes your first punchline might be the obvious one. Especially if you came up with it quickly. Learn to dig deeper. Is there a better joke? Is there a fresher joke? Is there something more unexpected? Maybe even something from out in leftfield?

Because sitcom audiences are more sitcom savvy your job is much harder now than it was back when we were writing CHEERS. And yet, I bet if you watch a CHEERS today there will still be jokes that surprise you and make you laugh.

Now I realize that not every show is CHEERS or is even going for the type of humor we went for. But you can strive to be the best in your genre, whatever it is. GOOD LUCK CHARLIE was a Disney Channel show but so clearly superior to other series on that network.

I know it sounds like a real contradiction. Comedy writing is a highly competitive business and yet high-priced comedy writers often get away with being lazy. I suppose it’s a matter of personal pride. Just consider this:  The last thing you want is for me to thank you for getting into the Magic Castle.

43 comments:

Bob said...

First ever comment on here. To be fair, being able to guess the joke is sometimes part of a sitcom's charm. And isn't it usually more about character interactions than jokes?

I've only recently discovered FRASIER, and after about two seasons, any interactions between certain characters end up going the same way and thus the punchline is usually pretty predictable... but it only makes the jokes funnier when it is delivered with such aplomb. And of course there are plenty of other non-interaction jokes in FRASIER too.

I too feel like smashing the laptop up when "Really?" is used as a punchline though.

Jim S said...

Maybe I'm just an old grump because the young folks won't get off my lawn, but I think it's because many of today's sit-com writers just aren't well read. Granted, not everyone can have written for the Harvard Lampoon (that's just for the Simpson writers).

But I get the impression that today's sitcom writers learned about writing from watching a lot of sitcoms. I suspect that haven't spent a lot of time reading Mark Twain or Hart or the great comedy writers of the 1920s and 1930s, when wit and erudition counted for a lot. Instead we get rehashes of sitcom tropes from 20 or 30 years ago.

It's like looking at a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy. Or I could be wrong.

Dan Ball said...

Since we've been going back through CHEERS, I've always liked the comebacks to "How's it goin', Mr. Peterson?"

"What's up, Norm?"
"My cholesterol, but what the hell? Get me a beer!"

"How's it going, Mr. Peterson?"
"To Hell. But first it's going to this stool for a cold one!"

"Whattaya say, Norm?"
"I say 'Beer!'"

"Want a beer, Norm?"
"No, I really want world peace. But there won't be world peace if I can't have beer, so yeah...set me up! Let's get these peace talks rollin'!"

Friday Question:
Since the CHEERS set was a fully-functional bar, did it require its own liquor license or did the studio's insurance cover that? Say an intern stole some booze, got drunk, and went outside to puke on Patrick Stewart's Datsun, who would have been liable for the damages?

(I help run a wedding venue, so this comes up A LOT.)



ScottyB said...

Here's a Friday Question for Ken, since he's been around quite awhile and has seen a lot of places: Exactly what do writers rooms actually *look* like? And does it affect the quality of the material? I know the rooms must surely vary in appearance from conference-room sterile to Delta House puke-grunge, but it might be interesting to hear about some local color and atmosphere you've seen over the years.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Jim S: You see some of the same effect in tech circles, where the lighter-weight people working today in the more futuristic areas have often seen lots of SF movies and TV but not read classic SF...and today's SF movie writers also have seen their predecessors but often haven't read the great SF books from the first half of the 20th century.

wg

MikeN said...

Scotty B, it is something like a combination of the backroom in Cheers and the set for 24.

MikeN said...

Some of those lines that can't be guessed make no sense at all.

Hey everybody, guess what?

Chandler:"The fifth dentist caved and now they all recommend Trident?"

Dave Creek said...

I agree with Jim S. and Wendy Grossman, whether we're talking about Mark Twain or classic SF novels. Some of today's TV writers seem primarily influenced by other TV, which is fine as far as it goes.

But I think you have to have a broader view of things. I write SF and read plenty of it, but I also read mysteries, mainstream fiction, and non-fiction about science and history. You have to know what's going on beyond the boundaries of your story.

A sitcom writer can't just pull situations and punch lines from between the cushions of Frasier's couch. There's a wider world out there.

Bob Leszczak said...

Great post today. I concur. Two or the most egregious offenders of this are GOLDEN GIRLS and HOME IMPROVEMENT. All Magic Castle, all the time - I could predict every joke every time. CHEERS, FRASIER and FRIENDS were exceptions. Not only were the jokes on CHEERS great, many were two-tiered. One in particular stands out in my mind - Cliff had been attacked by a canine while delivering mail. He tells the story by saying, "A dog bit me on my route." Alone, this is a funny double-entendre. However, it goes a step farther, and realizing what he said, he clarifies this with, "No, I mean a dog bit me on my mail route," making it even funnier and multi-layered. Perhaps a quadruple entendre. Brilliant.

Tom Quigley said...

@Dan Ball:

My favorite Norm comeback:

WOODY: What's going down, Mr. Peterson?

NORM: My cheeks on that bar stool.

Igor said...

Ken, I've never been more baffled by something you've posted than by this:

If the writing staff was working on a joke and any two writers pitched essentially the same punchline we automatically discarded it. Didn’t even matter if it was funny.

But... Isn't part of the magic of pro comedy writers the creation of the setup? And so, yes, other pro comedy writers may come up with the exact same punchline, but that's because they are pros - and, again, the magic was coming up with the setup?

Of course, Johnny Carson's Tonight Show wasn't a sitcom (even if one might argue that, sometimes, it was), but some of the best moments came from a guest saying something and Johnny just sitting there with "a look" - IOW, he'd let it just hang there, giving the audience the time to fill in the oh-so "obvious" punchline.

I sit at home watching sitcoms and I, too, can often guess the punchlines. Sure, sometimes because the entire "bit" is lazy. But many times, the "bit" is is clever, and the relative obviousness of the punchline is part of the fun.

Bob Newhart's shows had a lot of that to it. And how many times did we laugh at punchlines on the Mary Tyler Moore show, even though we knew they were coming, because it was the setup that made it?

All that said, maybe (truly) I'm missing the point because you're using "punchline" in a broader sense.

Help...?

Anonymous said...

A guy who was drummed out of the business a decade ago telling us that he's so much smarter than people working today. Perfect.

Wayne said...

Common reactive sarcasms like "Really?" or "Well THAT went well" are in effect catchphrases for every- and anyone.

"God will get you for that, Walter" was a catchphrase for Maude.

Cap'n Bob said...
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Cap'n Bob said...

Not just punch lines. I've been able to predict most dialogue in a show/movie for decades.

404 said...

MikeN, I hope you're not using that line as an example of things that make no sense? Growing up with all those stupid Trident commercials, it makes perfect sense to me, and is still one of my favorite Chandler lines to this day.

Canda said...

But we're living in a different comedy world now, where snarkiness and mockumentary are the leading styles. Shows like 30 Rock, that championed these, have become the Gold Standard.

Scenes from Maude, when performed, were like well-written character comedy plays. Most comedies today don't have scenes that long, or experienced actors with those acting chops. Many of the Norman Lear sitcoms featured actors older than most stars of TV sitcoms today. They had extensive experience in theater and film.

Howard Hoffman said...

Speaking of Norm entrances, there's one which I actually use in real life, which I believe is a measure of success of a sitcom joke.

"How's life treating ya, Norm?"
"Like it caught me in bed with its wife."

Stephen Robinson said...

FRIDAY QUESTION:

I've noticed that with sitcoms filmed before a live audience, the audience will "react" (laugh) to a joke that is only a surprise if you're watching at home. For example, the camera zooms in to a close-up of the character saying something inspiring or potentially upsetting and then it pulls back to reveal that everyone she was speaking to has vanished or passed out. The audience would have noticed this set-up (the characters leaving the stage or lying down on the floor) so how do they keep the audience from "reacting" until the actual visual punchline?

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

My fav' Normism:

"It's a dog-eat-dog world, and I'm wearing Milk Bone underwear."

Sam Miller said...

There's a great interview with Glen Charles in the new book Poking A Dead Frog by Mike Sacks where he references this idea. I'd never heard of it before but have worked in enough rooms where it's happened to both see why those jokes end up in scripts and why you don't want them in there.

Thanks for sharing! Any other CHEERS room rules that we might not have heard of?

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...
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The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

interesting comments from everyone.

Let's face it, even if the lines are stale or forced, if its given to a great comic actor with a great character anything can sound funny.

Whether its Louie DePalma, Kramer, Norton, Ted Baxter, Woody, Phoebe, Niles, etc... they made "nothing" sound and look memorable.

Bryan L said...

Just want to second the thumb's-up for "Good Luck Charlie." My 11-year-old gets a kick out of the fact that I'll watch it with her (unlike many other Disney shows). I tell her that I'll watch it because it's a pretty good show. Now I've got corroboration.

DBenson said...

I always thought the funniest things were unspoken or deferred punchlines. These were usually connected to knowing characters well enough to fill in the blanks.

On "Frasier" you'd have a lot of wisecracks, but there was often a sort of preliminary laugh as one character was clearly digesting a setup (Frasier restraining his first reaction to Martin's enthused description of a steakhouse, for example). Daphne's broad double entendres (or single entendres, like "And there I was, naked as a jaybird") were amusing, but the real laugh was usually Niles silently processing them until an annoyed Frasier knocked him back to reality.

"Newhart" was largely a bunch of slightly off people saying amusingly things, followed by Newhart visibly debating whether or not to ask the obvious question. And Judd Hirsch on "Taxi" was usually a sensible guy knowing he'd been pushed into a non-sensible circumstance with no graceful way out (i.e., a polite dinner where Louie says something horrific).

tim said...

Off topic, but I thought you and interested readers would like to know about the threat to ReelRadio, one of your linked sites: http://www.reelradio.com/riaa_announcement.php#riaa

At a minimum the RIAA, threatens the usability of this museum of archived Top 40 airchecks.

VincentS said...

I think the first time I experienced lazy writing was during the original STAR TREK movie series, specifically START TREK III and STAR TREK GENERATIONS: When you can't come up with a satisfactory climax trash the ship. For me it's also the same when I can predict song lyrics. I was in the laundry the other day and this guy pulls up blasting his rap music - of course, you probably know about this, Ken, since he was blasting it so loud in Brooklyn you probably heard it in California! - and the singer came to the word "bigger." Take a wild guess what the rhyming word was.

benson said...

The set up is critical. That's why if we were picking a Mt. Rushmore of straight men (the comedy term, not the gender preference term, I offer up these four: Bob Newhart (the Button Down Mind Albums especially) Bud Abbott (Who's on First doesn't work without a great straight man) George Burns and Jack Benny.

Dan Ball said...

Jim S., Wendy, Dave Creek:

I agree and I feel like I'm part of that photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy generation. It kinda frightens me that I grew up in that same environment and now I'm afraid photocopying is all I know. I do make an effort to stay fresh, though. I definitely don't read as much as I should, but I like to study history, life, food, music, etc. I've got a liberal arts mind, so everything informs everything else.

Dan Ball said...

VincentS:

As the resident Trekkie, I disagree that both ship-trashings were lazy writing. In STIII, it built upon a a parallel to A TALE OF TWO CITIES which began in STII, in which Spock (Carton) and Kirk (Darnay) vie over the Enterprise (Lucie). In STIII, Kirk sacrifices the girl to save his friend.

In GENERATIONS, they wanted to ditch the old Enterprise and get a film-friendly one. I don't know how they would've transitioned differently other than simply by decommissioning the old one. I guess the Klingons or Romulans could've stolen it.

As for the ship-trashing in NEMESIS, THAT was lazy. And John Logan did it too, no less. I don't mind trashing the creative decisions on that one, because they all came from a wrong place. After INSURRECTION, Berman and Paramount freaked out and tried too hard to make a good movie. Hiring Logan might've been a good idea, but they got the wrong director because he was cheap (he's a much better editor) and that killed the movie. A horrible way for TNG to go out and a horrible last movie for Jerry Goldsmith to score (though he did a great job with it).

Nelly Wilson said...

Friday question, what's your take on the Big Bang Theory actors 'if we can get more money we deserve it' attitude? Per episode I'd say they would really do about $2000 work, the rest they acquire through good fortune and to cover 'celebrity costs'. At what point do they become just selfish and greedy opportunists at others expense?

Pat Reeder said...

Couldn't agree more with the assessment that a lot of modern writers know contemporary pop culture but have no references beyond that. One of the things that clients have told me they liked about our radio comedy service was the way we'd sneak in so many obscure references among the more obvious jokes. If they didn't get them, it didn't matter; but if they did, they'd laugh at both the joke and our balls for actually doing a joke or pun based on something that arcane. Probably explains why one of my favorite singer/songwriters is Al Stewart, the only man I know who would write a catchy pop tune filled with countless details about the life and works of Edward Lear.

That noted, I recently saw a brief promo for the CBS sitcom "The Millers" in which the mom character did a line that was so obviously a minor change on some famous familiar quote that I couldn't believe they not only used it, they used it to promote the series. It's driving me nuts trying to remember what it was, so if anyone else saw it, please chime in.

Marco said...

Hi Ken,

I've got a friday question: Are there examples where network notes / executives notes actually bring benefit to a show?

Like, for example, Seinfeld? To my knowlege (please correct me if I'm wrong) it was an NBC exec who wanted a female regular on Seinfeld which made Jerry and Larry come up with this extremly wonderful character called Elaine. Considering I am right with my understanding that this decision came from "upstairs" indeed, do you have any other examples?

Thanks!

Johan said...

Nelly: I read an enlightened take on this issue a while back, dealing with either the actors from The Simpsons or Friends. They were making something like a million each per episode, and the natural question is/was of course "do they really do one million worth of work?". The take is that their salaries are no longer related to what they actually do, but to how much money the show is generating in total. They are simply getting their fair share of the cake, and in this case it's an enormous cake making their shares huge. So it's not a case of greed (at least not entirely) but of equal shares.

Anonymous said...

All these Norm-isms are cracking me up! I haven't seen Cheers in quite sometime but I remember many of these.

Largo161 said...

@Bumble Bee Pendant
I concur. I think Lisa Kudrow/Phoebe was the Queen of making something out of nothing.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I'd have to agree with Johan about the actors' salaries on TBBT: they know their work is generating billions in revenue, and the primary beneficiaries will be Chuck Lorre, Bill Prady, and the various studios and networks. It's ridiculous to suggest they're being greedy for wanting some of it - they're basically asking to be paid on the back end for the first few years (which will be generating healthy revenues for decades) where they weren't being paid much.

*Except* that I think they'd be better off campaigning for more money for all the leads, not just the three top stars. Nayyar and Helberg have been paid substantially less from the beginning, and I imagine so are Byalik and Rauch. They would do better to emulate the FRIENDS stars and negotiate as a cooperative, even if that means the top three earning less than they maximally could. Creating gross pay discrepancies on an ensemble show isn't a great idea.

wg

Geoffrey Vasile said...
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Baylink said...

FTR: The Three TBBT leads went from 350k to about a mil, Simon and Kunal went from 100k to somewhere south of 500k, and Melissa and Mayim are reportedly around 100k.

chuckcd said...

I have done that at times myself.

Tod Hunter said...

I know what you mean. I would watch sitcoms with my mother and anticipate punchlines and she would cluck appreciatively and say "That's good writing."

I would say no, it's BAD writing. When I see the jokes coming and I beat them to the punchline. They aren't surprising me. It's lame, hackneyed crap."

Let me know if you want to go to the Magic Castle. I know people.

--t

Tod Hunter said...

I know what you mean. I would watch sitcoms with my mother and anticipate punchlines and she would cluck appreciatively and say "That's good writing."

I would say "No, it's BAD writing. When I see the jokes coming and I beat them to the punchline, they aren't surprising me. It's lame, hackneyed crap."

Let me know if you want to go to the Magic Castle. I know people.

--t

cellorelio said...

Direction. The audience has a director, and for all intents and purposes, are acting. They often have to watch scenes over several times and are coached to laugh just as hard each time.