yesterday’s post generated a lot of discussion. Let me respond to one comment, from reader Jim, that I thought was particularly well written and insightful. Jim wrote:
The scene you described struck me, when I saw it, as belonging to that contemporary school of comedy writing that has no use (for) gags in a comedy scene. In fact, this approach to comedy avoids anything that might make the audience laugh out loud. Anything that could be clearly identified as "a gag." That's old-fashioned and hackneyed. To write this kind of scene, you never have your characters say or do anything that might come off as funny. Instead, the laughs are supposed to be inherent in the situation itself, not in how the characters react to the situation or how they deal with it. This style of comedy writing is all set-up and no payoff.
I do understand that writers want to avoid having their characters speak in zingers and one-liners. Too many sitcoms fall into that trap, and it's annoying. (My wife has been working her way through THE GOLDEN GIRLS lately, and I swear, that show needed a drummer just offstage, playing rim shots.) But, you know, it's entirely possible to have your characters saying and doing funny things, in finding funny angles to your situation, without everyone coming off like Morey Amsterdam or your script like an episode of I MARRIED JOAN.
Thanks again, Jim. Very thoughtful comment. And if you don’t mind, I’d like to use it as a springboard for today’s old retro guy’s rant.
I totally agree that filling a script with zingers makes a show feel tired and old fashioned. And trust me, there’s nothing harder to write. When you have two characters sitting at the breakfast table and there’s nothing going on but you have to give each one funny line after funny line, it’s torture. And unreal. And forced.
To me, when a writer is justifying not making a scene funny it’s just a smokescreen for lazy writing. The message I get is that he is incapable of writing a funny scene. He doesn’t have the chops to make someone laugh.
Anyone can come up with “inherent” comic situations. Comedy writers make something of those situations. Prove to me you’re really funny first and then discuss style.
Here’s what I find really perplexing? Why would anyone want to become a comedy writer if he’s embarrassed at making people laugh? If he thinks that presenting something genuinely funny is somehow beneath him, somehow compromising his principles? Why go into boxing if you’re opposed to violence? If you think sugar is bad for people why become a sous chef?
I’m sorry but to me, self-aware characters who observe situations instead of being forced to act upon them are dull and uninteresting. Irony is worse than “gags.” Equating situations with pop culture references instead of reacting with strong attitudes and emotions is a crutch.
Call me old and a hack and out of touch – that’s fine. I’m proud to be a COMEDY writer. I’m proud to have made people laugh for many years. I’m not saving lives but it’s a noble profession. I’m providing joy to millions of people. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. There’s nothing to apologize for.
There is but one truism in comedy -- regardless of the style, year, or sensibility:
PEOPLE WANT TO LAUGH
It is not:
PEOPLE WANT TO BE MILDLY AMUSED
PEOPLE WANT TO FEEL SUPERIOR TO THEIR ENTERTAINMENT