Friday Questions based on my writing process and recent posts about my play (closing soon so get your tickets now):
Matt starts us off:
You have said before that you tell actors to hold for the laugh because you don't want them talking when nobody can hear. What do they do if there is no laugh?
They just keep going. The actors I have, Jules Willcox & Jason Dechert, are seasoned vets of the stage and easily roll with the punches. I am amazed at how aware they are of everything around them. They’re totally in the moment and relating to each other on stage yet after the show they’ll say “You moved to a different seat in the second act” or “there was a guy who stifled a sneeze in the third row.”
I once sat in the first row at the LA Music Center for a play and was so bored I almost fell asleep. But I had to pretend I was interested and really engaged. I didn’t want to insult the actors or hurt their feelings. The best performance in the theater that night was by me. So far no one has fallen asleep in my play... or at least snored loudly enough to be heard.
Ken, I'd be interested to know more about your process for rewriting and inserting new jokes.
I suspect it's a lot more difficult than just coming up with a funnier punchline. Wouldn't you have to go back and rework the set-up, alter references, perhaps even adjust the overall plot of the play? I imagine the ripple effect of any small change could possibly affect other things somewhere else in the script. Love to hear more.
Absolutely on all counts.
So many times when a joke doesn’t work it’s the set-up that’s at fault. Remember, there are three elements to a good joke (and if any of my USC students are reading this, write it down):
Information, set-up, punchline.
If the audience doesn’t get the reference, or the reference is ambiguous and might be misinterpreted, or even vague, then the joke is unlikely to land.
The set-up could also be too wordy or too hard to say. I try to read my stuff aloud but sometimes things slip through. I hear the actor struggling and know it's my bad.
Often times if a joke doesn’t work and I can’t think of a better punchline I’ll just go in a different direction, find a different joke altogether. This is where a partner helps. We sometimes get too locked in to one avenue. You have to train yourself to step back and attack the problem from an alternate direction.
And in writing character comedy, the jokes have to express an attitude and move the story forward. So it’s not just how funny can I make this line? The joke has a function and must serve the story as well as get a laugh. And serving that story comes first. So it’s tricky sometimes.
I also try to have several running jokes throughout the piece. So if a joke comes out that is part of the running gag then I might have to make further adjustments to other lines. The good news though, is when you hear an audience laugh at something you can often do a call-back, and that call-back might solve your need-new-joke problem.
MikeK.Pa. has two questions:
Does laughter increase or decrease in relation to alcohol content? Assume laughs go up with the blood alcohol. Also, do you continue to tweak the play in its second week or is it now a done deal? Will there be a second act (another play) in the future?
I am not an authority on alcohol but assume one or two drinks might put a person in a more relaxed, receptive mood for comedy. But drunks rarely pick up on character humor or satire.
As a writer, I do not want my material to depend on alcohol or any other crutch. I write my jokes hoping they’ll stand up to the most sober audience.
I have tweaked the play a little after opening night but not much. Just a line here or there. It’s 90 minutes of some intricate dialogue and only two actors. At some point you just have to let them learn it and get comfortable with it. I love my actors and don’t want them to hate me by the end of the run.
What’s your Friday Question?