Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Getting a laugh and tear at the same time

As a comedy writer I like to occasionally challenge myself. If I were athletic I’d just climb Everest or run marathons, but that takes waaaaay too much coordination and effort. And no one ever fell off a mountain writing a joke.

James L. Brooks once strove to get a laugh with the punchline “cancer” (in his movie TERMS OF ENDEARMENT). He succeeded beautifully.

Last week I talked about rolling the dice and building an entire show around one big payoff. Today’s feat is to get the audience to both laugh and cry at the same line at the same time.

This is from “Never Love a Goalie – Part Two, “ season five of CHEERS, written by me and David Isaacs.

The premise was that Carla was dating a goalie from the Boston Bruins and ultimately became his jinx. Since most couples have “their song” we thought it would be funny that “Oh Canada,” the Canadian National Anthem played before many NHL games would serve as their romantic song. (Hey, it’s still better than “My Heart Will Go On.”) We got a few jokes out of it and moved on.

Eventually we wanted them to break up. Those scenes are tough because you want the audience invested in your characters. If they experience a great loss you want the viewers to feel bad as well. But those scenes, especially in sitcoms can get horribly maudlin or the tone of the show can switch unnaturally. If at all possible, it’s great to have some laugh in there, even a little one. But you don’t want the laugh to minimize the situation. Tricky, huh?

What we decided was this: Eddie would come to the bar, break up with Carla, and give her a cassette he wanted her to have. Late at night when she was alone in the bar she played the cassette. It was “Oh Canada.”

I looked up at the studio audience. Most were laughing, some were crying, and a few were doing both at the same time.

Of all the things I’ve ever written it’s one of my favorites. Laughs and tears derived from a real moment – it’s everything I ever want to write. And now I can sit home and watch marathons while eating bagels.

38 comments:

Name said...

Jared Fogel, Subway spokesman: home raided this morning in connection with child porn. Fogel is being detained as they analyze electronics pulled from his house! Duggars, Cosby, Stephen Collins and now Fogel!

Carol said...

My favorite type of entertainment is something that makes you laugh yourself silly, then make you cry, and then make you laugh again. It's why I liked MASH so much.

Igotta Millioovum (Well, 2) said...

Jared Fogel's case has nothing to do with this blog, but who would have expected a spokesman for Subway to be involved with something so underground?

I guess this explains why he'd go to the store and order a three-inch.

Igor said...

Wow, how cool would it have been if "My Heart Will Go On" was their song?

Anonymous said...

@Igotta so you think he went for the boys? I'll have to agree with you, but I can't wait for the feds to release some details. I'll be so happy if they knock his smug ass down a peg.

Oat Willie said...

You can tell when writers are going for that precise kind of humor, and it usually ends with Very Special Episode garbage. There was a reason Seinfeld said "No hugging, no learning."

Carson T said...

Ken, it's like Truvy said in Steel Magnolias, laughter through tears is my favorite emotion.

A. L. Crivaro said...

Scrubs had some great emotional moments... before it got unforgivably awful.

Mark said...

The laughter through tears is why I love The Kinks so much, he does that so amazingly well.

Gerry said...

I didn't know Brooks wrote Terms of Endearment, one of my all-time favorites!

Jay said...

Hey Ken!
Were you in the bar area at Boneyard Bistro in Sherman Oaks on Monday evening? I saw a man in glasses with a few other people, and I swear he looked like you. I used to work on a late-night talk show, and celebrities would pass my desk endlessly, and I rarely if ever batted an eye. But yesterday I was like, "Holy shit, Ken Levine, a huge TV comedy writer!! That's so cool!" That's how much of a TV/comedy/writing fan/nerd I am.

Best,
Jay

Ken Levine said...

Jay,

Yes, that was me. I go there after my play/pilot on Monday nights at the Whitefire. Please stop by next time and say hello. Thanks for even recognizing me.

KateBannet said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Diane D. said...

Because the writing and acting in CHEERS made the fans care so much about the characters (especially Diane and Sam), one of the funniest, wittiest shows ever created also produced tears aplenty, often at the same time. I would be surprised if anyone connected with that splendid show didn't consider it the most satisfying work they ever did.

For the fans, it spoiled us forever. Almost everything seems mediocre in comparison. Thank goodness for DVDs.

Jay said...

Very cool, Ken! Didn't want to bother you during your dinner. But I hope to make it out to see your pilot at the Whitefire one of these Mondays.

Thanks!
Jay

Norm! said...

One of the most emotional moments ever and which still gets to me even now was Sam watching as Diane leaves the bar and then saying quietly "have a good life". Heartbreaking stuff and beautiful acting by Mr Danson.

Igor said...

About "The Bernie Mac Show" -

Here's a quote from creator Larry Wilmore, who was fired ("fired"?) from his own show: "We actually get notes where they say — and this is not an exaggeration or a reinterpretation — 'No more poignancy.'"

http://splitsider.com/2014/11/how-the-bernie-mac-show-changed-the-future-of-the-sitcom/

Wayne said...

Laugh and a tear.
Chaplin in City Lights.
The blind girl who can't see him.
And the drunk millionaire who doesn't know him sober.

opimus said...

Here's another laugh and a tear.
Chuck Jones's "What's Opera,Doc?

Anonymous said...

Henry Blake's plane being shot down takes it for me.
Janice B.

Jake said...

"The Middle" and "The Goldbergs" pull this off beautifully now, and "The Simpsons" did back in the day.

Vince Waldron's "Classic Sitcoms" book praised one of your "Cheers" scripts for zinging a sentimental moment with a laugh at the perfect time.

Tom Jay said...

Season 5, episodes 16 & 17.

Mark said...

I was planning on asking a Friday question on making something funny and touching, with the example of Opie's concern over Aunt Bee in the pilot of the Andy Griffith Show.

Johnny Walker said...

A big shame they changed the song for the DVD release.

Just kidding! :)

Love those moments.

Cat said...

Norm!--I agree. Mr Danson doesn't get enough credit for what he's done on Cheers. The episode Endless Slumper also showed how astute he is with drama and comedy.

MikeK.Pa. said...

During my street hockey days, before games we'd pretend "Oh Canada" was playing before we started. Great national anthem. Of course, we had to take breaks - not for TV timeouts, but for cars driving my, necessitating us moving our nets.

Curious what your take is on THE BRINK on HBO. It's a broad satire, but Tim Robbins looks like he's having a ball. It's my second-favorite sitcom on right now behind VEEP.

Steve Mc said...

Friday question. When writing a pilot which has many regular characters (whether a 1 hr drama like Mad Men or a sitcom like The Office), do you submit a separate sheet introducing each character? If so, how much do you write about each?

Mark Moretti said...

Ken, love your blog, but it's “O' Canada" not “Oh Canada."

Mark Moretti said...

“O" not “O'". Next time I'll make use of “Preview."

Roger Owen Green said...

BTW, Rhea Perlman is good in the movie I'll See You in My Dreams, which I saw tonight.

Jay Walker said...

Ken as a disc jockey during the 70's- late 90's and production guy today, one of the things I was told early on was the value of "leaving them hungry" whether it was an air check pitch for a job or an advertising campaign to promote a product. In other words give them enough information to whet their appetite for what ever it was I was trying to sell, myself or a product to entice the receiver of the pitch into an "action" mode... Does that philosophy hold true in script presentations?

Albert Giesbrecht said...

I'm Canadian, and I have to admit I got a kick when I first saw the episode. FYI "For Strong Winds" is the unoffical Canadian National Anthem.

Albert Giesbrecht said...

Four Strong Winds.

Greg Ehrbar said...

Hitchcock was adept at shoving the viewers' emotions up, down, right and left. In the Lane Price attempted suicide in the Jaguar, the viewer feel horrible that they are also compelled to laugh at the car stalling (sorry for the spoiler). The laugh does break the tension, and in a way, allows the next emotion to sneak up us even more.

Norman Lear shows sometimes did it marvelously, sometimes not so much.

Greg Ehrbar said...

Ken! Please revise my last clumsy comments! This is the corrected one:

Hitchcock was adept at shoving the viewers' emotions up, down, right and left. On MAD MEN, when the Lane Price attempted suicide in the Jaguar, the viewer feel horrible that they are also compelled to laugh at the car stalling (sorry for the spoiler). The laugh does break the tension, and in a way, allows the next emotion to sneak up us even more.

Norman Lear shows sometimes did it marvelously, sometimes not so much.

DetroitGuy said...

The "All In The Family" episode when Edith was raped is a perfect example. And Edith's death (though that might have been "Archie Bunker's Place."

David P said...

Canada's unofficial national anthem is Northwest Passage, by Stan Rogers.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TVY8LoM47xI

Diane D. said...

That was beautiful, David P! I had never heard of Stan Rogers, so I went on to listen to an album on Youtube called The Very Best of Stan Rogers. He's wonderful!