Tuesday, September 02, 2014
An occupational hazard for comedy writers:
Last week, in my review of the new Woody Allen movie I made a Joan Rivers joke. Later that morning, when I was away from my computer and couldn’t do anything about it, word came through that she was in critical condition. I since removed the joke but there it was for about six hours. I looked like the most insensitive human being on the planet. Forget that if anyone would find it funny it would have been Joan Rivers, still it looked like a cheap shot.
Obviously that wasn’t my intent. And as I write this, I pray for her recovery.
But those things happen. Comedy is in the specifics and sometimes you get burned as a result.
On CHEERS we always felt that in a strange psychic way we could be responsible for killing people. Here’s how: Let’s say we put in a Rose Kennedy joke. Sure enough, the night the episode airs NBC breaks in with a news bulletin that Rose Kennedy had just died. They then cut back to our show (already in progress) just in time for our Rose Kennedy joke.
So if someone would pitch a joke featuring an icon, four writers would chime in “Do we really want to kill him?”
And it doesn’t have to be an elderly celebrity for writers to get trapped. Just unfortunate luck. David Isaacs and I wrote an episode of THE SIMPSONS called “Saturdays of Thunder.” It was about a soap box derby, but there’s a sequence where Homer attends the National Fatherhood Institute. Within those scenes there was a plethora of Bill Cosby/father jokes.
Years later the show is in syndication. KTTV is the Los Angeles affiliate. They set their programming schedule weeks in advance. And again, there was nothing in the title to even suggest there would be mentions of Bill Cosby. Well, tragically, Cosby’s son dies, it’s all over the news, and sure enough, three hours later KTTV airs that episode. The station switchboard went nuts. We of course, felt terrible, but there was nothing we could do.
It’s a risk you take, and the alternative is playing everything so safe that nothing is funny. I guess the best you can do is be sensitive to it. Like I said, if someone is really getting up there you increase your odds of a faux pas, but in general you just have to cross your fingers. 99 out of 100 times you’ll make a reference and it’ll be fine. But when that one comes up, yikes. I imagine most long time comedy writers have experienced the same thing. All I can say is, it happens, it’s very unfortunate, and no disrespect is ever meant. We have enough guilt writing bad jokes. We don’t want to have blood on our hands too.
By Ken Levine at 6:00 AM