Saturday, August 16, 2014
For purposes of this piece let’s call him Shecky because he pretty much embodied the lowest of the borscht belt comics. Loud, lascivious, dyed his hair and eyebrows with shoe polish, always hustling and creeping-out the extras. He was the uncle your parents always kept you away from when you were little.
Shecky only cared about jokes. Usually old, usually off color. Supposedly when he was on staff of an earlier series whenever it was time to break a story he fell asleep.
One week we had an act break joke that was just a vile gratuitous slam on gays. I called and said the cast and I were all extremely uncomfortable with the line. He said he wanted to see it at runthrough. Okay. Fair enough.
I rehearsed the scene and told the cast not to purposely tank the line. They didn’t need to first of all, and secondly, we didn’t want to give Skecky any ammunition for keeping the line.
So the writers all came down, we did the scene, and predictably the joke bombed… except for Shecky laughing hysterically. And this was the conversation that followed, almost verbatim, between me and the Sheckster.
Me: Well, it didn’t work. We could really use something else here.
Shecky: What are you talking about? It worked great!
Me: Huh? It did? No one laughed.
Shecky: I laughed.
Me: Yes, but not one of your other writers.
Shecky: Well, of course they didn’t laugh. They’re comedy writers.
Me: Excuse me??
Shecky: They’re comedy writers. But real people will laugh at that. Writers are jaundiced.
Me: Wait a minute. Isn’t the fact that they’re professional comedy writers mean they’re watching the material to determine whether an audience of real people will find it funny? Their job is not to be entertained themselves. Their job is to best determine what others will like. Otherwise, what’s the point of even having a runthrough?
Shecky: To support the actors. Look, the joke stays.
I was just the freelance director. I walked away in utter disbelief. They did the joke on show night and not only did it not get a laugh, it got gasps from the audience.
Later that night Shecky said he was putting in a new line in the scene we were about to shoot. It was an office party scene and one character was trying to impress a co-worker he had eyes on. So another character suggests Xeroxing his ass. Why this would charm a woman I do not know. But there was some lame line of justification. Shecky wanted to change it. When the one character was reluctant to Xerox his ass the other was now to say, “Look, everyone knows the way to a girl’s heart is through the butt.”
Me: No, really.
Shecky: That’s the line.
Me: You’re not serious, are you? I mean, you’re not actually proposing that line, right?
Shecky: Why not? What’s wrong with it?
Me: What's wrong with it? Really? Uh… well, for starters -- it’s tasteless and offense and not remotely funny.
Shecky: Well, fuck you! That’s the line.
I refused to give that line to the cast. If he wanted it in he would have to do it. He cursed me out again and stormed onto the stage. Two minutes later he returned.
Shecky: (begrudgingly) Alright, we’ll do the original line.
Me: Let me guess, the actor refused to say it?
Shecky: FUCK YOU!!
By mutual consent, that was the last ASK HARRIET I directed.
But the big question is this: How do you know when something’s funny? Especially since humor is so subjective. The standard answer is “it’s funny if it’s funny to you”. I disagree. And I use Shecky as an example. If you’re attempting to become a professional comedy writer you need to gage what strangers will find funny.
This requires a knack, based on observation, experience, and your own sense of humor. Paying attention to what works. The only true determination is if the audience laughs. So how are the jokes constructed? How dependent is the material on performance? Or reactions? What about tone? Timing? Do you have the right target audience? What and exactly when are they laughing? And then of course, there’s common sense. I’d be surprised if a single one of you thought, “the way to a girl’s heart is through the butt” was funny and appropriate.
Can this knack be developed? Absolutely. My first staff job was on THE TONY RANDALL SHOW. I went down to my first runthrough, sat on a director chair with the rest of the writers and enjoyed the runthrough immensely. Meanwhile, I’m looking over at everyone else and they’re madly scribbling. I’m thinking “What are they seeing?” But then we’d get back to the writers room and they’d start discussing the script and their concerns. The next day’s runthrough would be dramatically better. By paying attention I began to see what they saw.
So what if you don't have the luxury of being on staff?
When you go to comedy movies make note of what works and try to figure out why. Same with plays. Sitcoms are harder unless they’re multi-camera and you’re in the audience. Because through editing, sweetening, and retakes they can make shows appear better than they played. But train yourself to study comedy. And when you feel you finally have a real handle on it then learn this cardinal rule:
No one is always right.
I hate to say it and wish it weren’t so but no matter how long you’ve been doing it, how many Oscars or Emmys or Tonys you have, you still may be wrong. That’s why we have runthroughs. That’s why Neil Simon, after all his smash hits, rewrites constantly while his plays are still in tryout. That’s why movies are previewed.
So we never know for sure. But start thinking professionally. If you do your due diligence, if you begin to trust that you’re right most of the time you’ll have a much greater shot at breaking in. And more importantly you’ll help weed out fucking idiots like Shecky. Please do it. For me.
By Ken Levine at 6:00 AM