Saturday, September 26, 2015

Should you keep a joke that only three people in America will get?

Here's a question I'm often asked:  Should you put obscure jokes in your script?  I wrote a post on this almost five years ago so it's time to re-post it.  I mention that upfront because obscure jokes often are very topical and in five years contemporary references become historical ones.  So keep that in mind as you read.  But the points are still valid.  Or at least, I still agree with them. 

Comedy writing legend Jerry Belson once pitched a very obscure joke during a CHEERS rewrite. One of the Charles Brothers said, “Jerry, only three people in America are going to get that” to which Jerry said, “That’s good enough for me!”

A common question that all comedy writers ask from time to time is whether a particular reference is too obscure to get a laugh. The downside of course is that the joke bombs; the good side is that if it works it really works because the reference is so out of leftfield.

On MASH we called them “Three percenters”. We would make mention of an arcane actor from the ‘40s knowing most people would have no idea who he is (or was). But our thinking was this: a) we crammed so many jokes into an episode that if you didn’t get it, another one was coming two seconds later, b) we sprinkled in very few of these, and c) they added to the ambience and helped set the time period (much the same way as vintage wardrobe and hairstyles do).

I notice “Three percenters” from time to time on COMMUNITY. There will be quick pop culture references or lines of dialog from movies slipped in. Not everyone will get them. My sense is the producers know that and don’t care. They’re writing for a very specific audience. But here’s the key: specific but large.

Or at least large enough.  HOT IN CLEVELAND is designed for baby boomers.  TV LAND doesn't expect as large an audience as NBC but they do want a specific demographic.   And if you're 55 and have trouble with COMMUNITY and not get that an episode is spoofing RESERVOIR DOGS, you'll so welcome a show that makes a Twiggy joke.   

As always, it comes down to “know your target audience”. If you’re writing a spec it’s easier with an existing show. By watching astutely you can determine the level of their references. A Charlie Sheen joke might work on 30 ROCK but I wouldn’t do one on MIKE & MOLLY.



But what happens when you’re writing a pilot?  All bets are off.  Now there are no guidelines. Should you do that Sarah Clarke/TWILIGHT gag?   In general I would say this: agents, managers, executives – the people who will be reading your pilot – are by and large in their thirties. I think that gives you a lot of leeway – way more than you had when they were all in their forties and fifties. They probably know who Sarah Clarke is and they certainly know what TWILIGHT is.  So I wouldn’t self-censor yourself too much. Yes, you always run the risk that a reader might not get a reference and feel you’re belittling them (doing a joke that’s over their head), and to load your script with obtuse gags is insane, but comedy is about taking chances. So go for it. Maybe Jerry Belson was right. If the three people that get the joke are agents you’re submitting to, that is good enough for you.

33 comments:

VP81955 said...

A Charlie Sheen joke might work on 30 ROCK but I wouldn’t do one on MIKE & MOLLY.

Unless you really wanted to get in good with Chuck Lorre.

RyderDA said...

Friday Question: Do you agree with the Netflix data? http://www.theverge.com/2015/9/23/9381509/netflix-hooked-tv-episode-analysis

Bill Avena said...

With today's bright young audience, every joke is going to go over their heads unless it refers to video games, the latest action movie, or Melty Cheese snacks. Or so Herodotus quipped.

Kosmo13 said...

Over the decades I've observed a change in perspective / attitude about "references," not just in entertainment but in society in general. In the 60's, 70's and 80's, if person A made a cultural or historical reference that person B didn't get, that was a negative reflection on person B. It was incumbent on person B to educate themselves about the missed reference so it would become part of their own mental database, too.

Since about the 1990's, if person A makes a cultural or historical reference that person B doesn't get, that's perceived as a negative reflection on Person A. There's something wrong with Person A for being "too smart."

Just another symptom of the decline of human civilization.

tavm said...

Being a child of the '70s spending much of my time watching reruns of various shows/films from decades before, there were many references to old movie stars/recording artists in Warner Bros. cartoons that I either got or didn't. I wouldn't know Joe Penner or Rosemary Lane, but I'd know when Humphrey Bogart or Edward G. Robinson were being spoofed. I knew Babbett and Catsello were based on Abbott & Costello in the early Tweety cartoons. Or that "The Mosquitos" on "Gilligan's Island" were a spoof of The Beatles! But I guess as musical and entertainment tastes change and the younger set just wants what's meant for them, I find myself dismissing any reference to what they like so maybe I'm now one of those people who would now say, "Get off my lawn!" if I ever met them in a less-than-ideal situation. Then again, I could still pass for a 20-year-old if I wanted to...

Mike said...

@Kosmo13: "This is one of the big hurdles that defeat artists in Hollywood: they aren’t allowed to assume that anybody knows anything, and they become discouraged and corrupt when they discover that studio thinking is not necessarily wrong in its estimate of the mass audience.
Right there is one of the differences between the American and, say, the British cultures. In Britain, an editor will permit a writer to make an allusion if he, the editor, understands it. In America, an editor might well understand it but he will want it taken out, for fear that the readers won’t."
Clive James on Pauline Kael.
The process of dumbing down.

There is a rationale to using references that only the target audience understand: the target recognises the programme as theirs.

Steve Bailey said...

Larry Linville once told an interviewer that he delighted in the fact that "M*A*S*H" did one-liners that intellectuals could appreciate as well as pratfalls that kids could appreciate. What's wrong with appealing to everyone?

Stephen Robinson said...

A friend once criticized FAMILY GUY as follow: "A reference is not a joke." Those are the obscure jokes that fail, but if properly structured as an actual joke, they can still work in context.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

COMMUNITY had jokes? I didn't know, they sure fooled me; I watched the show once with my dad when nothing else was on, when they went to commercial, we just glanced at each other because we had no idea what it was we just watched.

@Steve That's the problem with entertainment today, there's little to no middle ground anymore like there was back in the old days. Everything today is divided into kids only and adults only: kids only entertainment tends to be watered-down, talks down to the kids, sappy, and mind-numbing; adults only entertainment tends to be extremely raunchy, vulgar, degrading, and like the above-mentioned FAMILY GUY, less focus is put on actual storytelling, and more on what they can get away with.

Greg Ehrbar said...

Of course, you and Mr. Belson are spot-on. When it's part of the ambience, your audience, the characters and the overall humor it enhances it, as long as it isn't too overdone.

Examples off the top of my head:

• Warner Bros cartoons: Few know what the "A card" is, most young people don't recognize the caricatured legends in "What's Up Doc?" about whom Elmer Fudd says, "They'll never amount to anything." The songs that Michigan J. Frog sings are from the early 20th century, but it does not matter. It's funny.

• When Rob can't remember where the name of the church where he is to marry Laura, all he can be sure of is that it's named for a saint that is also the name of a child star, Freddie Bartholomew. Still funny, especially when one of his guesses is "Shirley Temple?"

• When Ralph Kramden checks the TV listings for something to watch with Ed Norton, they consider the (fictional) movie, "Rhythm on Ice", starring Kenny Baker, Jane Frazee, Buddy Ebsen, etc. Part of the humor is how Gleason says "Frazee". He also got lots of mileage out of the "ever-popular Mae Busch."

You also have to be ready to take them out if someone in the approval process doesn't get the reference and therefore finds it unacceptable. But it's worth a try and part of the fun of writing.

Andy Rose said...

Because they had an entire movie to ridicule and a lot of jokes to write, the folks at Mystery Science Theater 3000 used a lot of fairly obscure references. I'd guess that, even for people who grew up in the same generation as the writers, the average audience member had no idea what was being referenced at least 30% of the time. That wound up becoming one of the charms of the show, especially in the pre-Wikipedia era when you had no easy way to figure it out.

I used to think that the older Looney Tunes were "classier" because they made jokes about Bette Davis and James Cagney and other Golden Era stars, while the newer shows and movies reference Britney Spears and the like. It took me a while to realize that the people and songs and shows they were referencing were actually new back when they were making the original cartoons.

Hershele Ostropoler said...

In the words of the late (but hopefully not obscure) Sir Terry Pratchett, "a European says: I can't understand this, what's wrong with me? An American says: I can't understand this, what's wrong with him?"

Peter said...

Back when The Simpsons was still funny, which was pre-2000, they would have references to people like Pablo Neruda or Susan Sontag, which adults could appreciate whilst going over kids heads.

Now they reference Mastercard commercials and Katy Perry.

An obscure reference would be welcome in comedies now in place of the endless pop culture references. Most so called comedy scripts are lazy. Instead of jokes and wit and funny situations, hack writers just put in a hip-hop reference because they know dumb audiences will laugh based purely on recognition. Why bother to write comedy when all you have to do is have a character mention Twilight or the Hunger Games?

Thomas Mossman said...

Joel Hodgson, creator of Mystery Science Theater 3000, once said, “We never say, ‘Who’s gonna get this?’ We always say, ‘The right people will get this.’”

That's practically a creative mantra of the show, considering the abundant references to small towns and regional store chains and restaurants in the Upper Midwest. The show just reflects its' Minnesota origins.

Ike Iszany said...

I remember a three percenter from MASH. In the episode where Henry leaves they give him a suit and Trapper says "Henry, that suit is you!" and Hawkeye says "If you're Adolphe Menjou". I had to Google how to spell "Menjou" and I still don't know who he is but I always remembered that joke.

Mark said...

Woody Allen's movies are always sort of one big New York in-joke, but he had a particularly good one in "Sleeper," about how the world was destroyed when "a madman named Albert Shanker got hold of a nuclear weapon." Who the hell was Albert Shanker? The legendarily combative head of the New York City Teacher's Union in the '60s and '70s. I'm sure that line bewildered large swaths of the movie's audience, but in the New York metropolitan area, it KILLED.

Aaron Sheckley said...

I was about to remark on Joel Hodgson's comment that "the right people will get this", but I was beaten to the punch by Thomas Mossman. I do totally agree with Hodgson, though. There's nothing wrong with writing comedy from a populist point of view, but it's not the ONLY way to write. If Joel made a joke about riding the ducks at the Wisconsin Dells, and only people in Wisconsin think it's funny, so what? It's not less funny because someone in Staten Island doesn't get it. Sometimes an obscure joke or a reference can be a particularly satisfying laugh because you DO get it.

Karl said...

I don't know if MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER is a fair comparison to your average sitcom in terms of whether or not to make obscure jokes and references. For viewers of MST3K, that's part of the fun. Seeing how many of the obscurities you can pick out and identify. On MST3K, I don't think they're there so much because someone thought the joke was funny and didn't care that most people wouldn't get it. They're there more because the audience expects those kinds of jokes and references and enjoys them. Sort of like a game between MST3K and its audience.

Anonymous said...

@ Ike Iszany
Check out Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory. Worth your while.

Mike said...

Hang on! I recall Ken bitching because he didn't understand the references in the Opening Ceremony to the 2012 Olympic Games.
J'accuse!

Donald Benson said...

My father, a doctor, roared at a MASH scene where Hawkeye held up a specific piece of medical apparatus. The dialogue went something like this:
"Whatcha gonna do with that, Doc?"
"Guess."
Us non-medics sort of inferred the gag, but Dad said pretty much the same joke came up in real-life examinations.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

@Donald I remember one time as a kid when I was seeing my dentist, he asked if I would ever consider becoming a dentist when I grow up, but I told him no, as I found it, "too down in the mouth." He roared at that. Which, in and of itself, reminds me of another M*A*S*H scene:

TRAPPER: I don't know how anybody could be a dentist. Imagine, keeping your hands in a bunch of wet mouths all day.
HAWKEYE: It'll give you wrinkled fingers.

VP81955 said...

Warners wasn't the only studio which used pop-culture references in animation. One of the most memorable gags in the 1930s Fleischer Popeye cartoons for Paramount had Popeye babysitting a napping Swee'Pea and trying to keep the neighborhood as quiet as possible. A radio is broadcasting a crooner singing "Out of Nowhere" (a big hit for Paramount's Bing Crosby, although I believe Russ Columbo -- whose ill-fated romance with Carole Lombard ended when he died from a freak gunshot accident in 1934 -- also had a popular version), and Popeye is so incensed he punches the radio speaker. His punch travels through the airwaves and into the studio, where it goes up through the microphone to KO the crooner.

Mike said...

@VP81955: That's the kind of technology I'd like to use on the internet.
As I once advised someone beset by an unpleasant troll, "Until they invent the technology where you can reach down the phoneline and grab them by the throat, you just have to ignore it."

Klee said...

I think jokes only a few people (or references) worked very well in MST3K. I'm still find references they made back in the original series.

Marianne said...

It really frustrates me when shows are completely overloaded with pop culture references. Especially as the show gets older - if the reference is obscure to begin with, how will audiences respond years down the track when it's completely irrelevant? This is why timeless shows like Cheers appeals to me - it usually avoided silly topical references. One of the only times was a comment regarding the fall of the Berlin Wall - I remember thinking "Gee, I forgot this show is old!" (feels old to me, I suppose, since I'm 19).

Joseph Scarbrough said...

@Marianne How do you feel about shows that utilize pop culture references, but the production takes a year or two before the new episodes are actually on the air, and by then, the references are already outdated? I heartell that's why they produce new episodes of SOUTH PARK about a week or so before they're set to air to ensure the jokes and references are as relevant as possible.

Marianne said...

@ Joseph
I suppose it depends what you’re after as an audience member: if you want disposable entertainment and thrive on the feeling of triumph after understanding a Lady Gaga reference, then South Park is perfect! But if you want a show to resonate with an audience decades after the show was originally made, pop culture references do not help achieve that goal.

jbryant said...

@Joseph - South Park has that luxury because of their production method. Episodes of traditionally animated shows like The Simpsons, however, take much longer to produce, so there's literally no way they could include up-to-the-minute references. Of course as time goes on, these temporal issues don't mean much. If you're looking at both Simpsons and South Park 20 years from now, you won't know which seemed most topical in its time, because most all of the references will be dated.

MikeN said...

Can someone explain the logic behind Psych? The audience has no chance to understand the references they are making. Even I had no idea what was going on with the episode about the chocolate festival, where they mimicked Twin Peaks with the original cast, one of whom was already on the show as a priest, and had to be shoehorned in.

cadavra said...

One thing I try to do is couch the references as ordinary lines of dialogue, rather than as punchlines. That way, if most of the audience doesn't get it, it really won't matter. For example, when a character agreed to do something extremely difficult, she added, "I'll go get my spear and magic helmet." It's an amusing line even if you don't know that it's from WHAT'S OPERA, DOC?

Andy Rose said...

I didn't use the old Hodgson quote about MST3K because that was just a clever remark he came up with on the spot in a promotional interview, not the mantra a lot of people made it out to be. Mike Nelson (who was head writer for years before he also became host) has acknowledged that their most obscure references survived primarily because there were spots in the movies where they couldn't come up with a better joke, but still needed a gag in that position for pacing. If one writer came up with a joke relating to "Cheers" and another made a joke about Rudolf Nureyev, Mike would usually go for the "Cheers" joke.

McAlvie said...

I can see that it would be a tricky thing. I am not usually in the demographic group age-wise, but I'm well-rounded enough to get a lot of the jokes not aimed at me, and it makes me feel good that the writers might think I'm bright enough to get a joke not aimed at me. On the other hand, I think I'm just old enough to not appreciate jokes that are too trendy, even if I do get them. Sometimes you just know that a trendy joke has no shelf life and you only get it because you were standing in line at the supermarket that morning. Other times the joke works even better, from my point of view, because its a smart joke that isn't painfully trendy and requires the viewer to have a little life experience.