Sunday, October 12, 2014

"Beating" jokes

When is something funny enough? That’s a little hard to say since every example is different and every case is subjective. But as a general rule, whenever I write a joke I ask myself two questions.

Is it funny?

What would be funnier?

Just getting a yes on the first question is no easy task. And by funny I mean FUNNY. Not wry, not amusing, not lol, not smiley face, but something that will make people actually laugh. And not just people – strangers. It’s hard. It’s why they used to pay the big money.

So when you feel your joke has passed the rigorous mirth test it’s tempting to take a moment, pat yourself on the back for being a comic genius, and move on to the next triumph That’s what most comedy writers do.

Don’t be one of them. Ask the second question. How can you make the joke funnier? What’s a more offbeat reference that achieves the same result? What’s fresher? Is there a better set up? Is the wording just perfect? Or is there just a better line altogether?

Small example of a joke just to give you a sense of my thought process. When Manny Ramirez was suspended for violating baseball’s drug policy I was asked if I was surprised. My first thought was, “At this point I wouldn’t be surprised if Mother Teresa was a dope dealer.” The incongruity of Mother Teresa selling drugs seemed funny. But “is there something better than dope dealer? What I came up with is this: “I wouldn’t be surprised if Mother Teresa was a gun runner.” That seemed to suggest a funnier image, Mother Teresa haggling with terrorists over AK-47’s.

At some point of course you've got to land on a joke and go with it otherwise you can spend the next fifty years trying to get Jess out of a room. But don't just automatically settle for the first thing you come up with. That sounds obvious but you'd be surprised how many writers do.

A better example comes from THE HANGOVER. How many bachelor party gone-bad-in-Vegas screenplays do you think there’ve been? A thousand? Ten? Four idiots getting shitfaced and in trouble in sin city is comic gold. But I bet none of those scripts had tigers, chickens, missing babies, and Mike Tyson. Okay, well most of them didn’t have Mike Tyson. But you catch my drift. Reach.

There’s an expression in the writing room – “Can we beat this joke?” Don’t settle. ESPECIALLY if you’re writing a spec script.

Eventually you’ll train yourself to automatically think that second question. It could be the subtle difference between good and “you’re hired”.

This was a re-post from the last decade.  But revised.

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

With a new play in rehearsal, re-posting is not only acceptable but should be mandatory.

VP81955 said...

The blog equivalent of a clip show. (I know; I've done it.)

emily said...

Great repost Ken!

(This was a re-comment from last week. But revised.)

Scooter Schechtman said...

Right on. Sitcoms today need a new Chuckles the Clown scene and it's hard to imagine one coming from "Anger Management" or "The Goldbergs". OR SHARK TANK, KENNETH

Pat Reeder said...

This was something I did every day on our radio service, the Comedy Wire. I was brought up on people like Groucho Marx and early Woody Allen, and I try to sharpen every line to make it pointed, surprising and unpredictable. I think that's why people in the industry liked it. One program director told me he'd look at other prep services occasionally and think, "that line's okay, that's an idea for a line that might be funny with enough work, I don't know where they're going with that line," etc., but ours was the only one that consistently made him laugh out loud.

James Lamb said...

I'm a new reader, so it's new to me!

Johnny Walker said...

I'm a long time reader and it's new to me!

Strangely I've found playing chess on my iPhone has taught me something about doing this. I will think I have a killer move, but before I send it over to my opponent (and get that nice buzz of having made what I believe to be a good move) I really try to look at all my other options. It takes much longer, but it's also more satisfying: I usually find I come up with moves that I wouldn't have normally, that are much stronger and that my friend doesn't see coming. I also often notice that my "killer move" was actually very poor and would have lost me a piece.

The annoying thing is that as much as I continue to play (and we're well into our hundredth+ game) I still have to take the time to do this. As soon as I get complacent, I'll start losing regularly again. I'm guessing it's the same with writing -- just because you've been doing it for years doesn't mean you get to take shortcuts. If you want to produce your best work, you still have to stop and see if you could do better before moving on.

mmryan314 said...

I`'ve played chess online too. Thought I was pretty good until I played someone who killed me. I asked his/her age and he/she said 12.I lied and told them I was 11 (:

VP81955 said...

mmryan, to have made your response work, you should have added something about girls being icky.

mmryan314 said...

@v- I should have but I was 65.

Charles Cavender said...

376I was just thinking about you, and I hope this was your line. We were discussing "Cheers," and I recounted my favorite line from the series, delivered by Norm: "Cliff, you're a walking encyclopedia. Unfortunately, you're also a talking encyclopedia." I don't think that line could be improved on.

DBenson said...

For me, the dream is how concise you can make it at the same time. Also, making a setup absolutely innocent -- a natural, appropriate comment; ideally some inevitable exposition. Or a setup that appears to be pointing somewhere else.

Mr. Cavender's example is great, because it could end on "walking encyclopedia" and play as a sarcastic compliment. The payoff is elegant, at once a surprise but howlingly logical.

In the first episode of "Frasier," Niles looks at one of the assisted care brochures Frasier is using to find a place for their father. Niles improves on its slogan: "We care, so you don't have to." Boom. And it cuts to the core of the conversation they're having.

A lesser show would have given Frasier a faintly unnatural line built around the word "care" first. Or another not-quite-as-good slogan as a lead-in.

The closing line from "Some Like It Hot" is short, casual and brilliant (no spoilers here). Any other writers may have been tempted to go with a tricky double-entendre or something merely outrageous; for all we know Wilder and Diamond had a wastebasket full of them before and even after the final choice came up.

Old Oslo said...

DBenson, I believe that closing line in Some Like it Hot was, according to Wilder, "all we managed that day". Wilder & Diamond just kept it in there as a place holder, until they could come up with the zinger they wanted...

Anonymous said...

"Well - nobody's perfect"

MikeN said...

Mother Teresa running guns reminds me of this with Madeleine Albright

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7h3GPc_yMCE

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Old Oslo: and thus was created the greatest last line in the history of cinema.

wg

Old Oslo said...

Wendy MG: Yup.