Thursday, June 25, 2015
Striving for the BIGGEST laugh
THE HONEYMOONERS, for many of my younger readers (and hopefully I have more than six), was a 1950’s sitcom starring Jackie Gleason (who was a guy) as Ralph Kramden, a New York bus driver who was always looking to get rich.
By the time he has to go on the show he knows every song ever written. Now the joke. 60 YEAR OLD SPOILER ALERT. The very first song they give him is “Suwannee River” and he doesn’t know it. Maybe because I was like eleven at the time but I didn’t see it coming. That joke utterly killed me.
Today we are more savvy. We’ve all seen a billion more sitcom episodes. It’s hard to imagine an audience not anticipating this punch line.
But I always loved it, and I always admired the courage of building an entire episode around one payoff. Talk about all or nothing. Plus, like I said, it’s harder to pull off today because audiences are more sophisticated to sitcom-plotting-ways.
Still, as a comedy writer, it’s something I always wanted to do. On CHEERS I got my chance. David Isaacs and I had an idea – what if Frasier and Lilith are worried because their toddler Frederick still hasn’t spoken? Lilith questions her own parenting skills. So Frasier takes over as primary care-giver. Frasier, of course, brings little Freddy to the bar every day. And this is what happens. (They won’t let me embed it so you’ll have to click on the link.)
Happily, the studio audience did not see it coming and erupted in huge prolonged laughter. It was both a rush and a major relief.
Writing it proved to be a bitch, but not for the reason we expected. We had to somehow set up the joke without telegraphing it. That part we knew. To do that we established that parking meters were now installed on the nearby streets and Norm had to feed the meter every couple of hours. That way he could enter the bar four or five times and Frederick could learn the pattern. But what it meant for me and David was that we had to write four or five Norm entrances. At that point in the series run writing one was a bitch. We kept grumbling through the entire first draft, “We are such schmucks! We did this to ourselves!”
Ultimately, the show worked like a charm. The episode title, by the way, is “Breaking In Is Hard To Do” and it’s available on Hulu Plus if you want to watch it. I can’t embed that either.
But I owe it all to THE HONEYMOONERS and writers Leonard Stern & Sydney Zelinka. Another great example of an entire episode based on one gigantic payoff is the “That’s My Boy” installment of THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW. I won’t spoil that if you haven’t seen it (I gave you sixty years to see “the $99,000 Answer”), but thanks to writers Bill Persky & Sam Denoff.