Monday, March 28, 2016

Creating a sitcom the EASY way

To create a good sitcom, you need it to be about something. Ideally, you need a theme. Millennials trying to figure things out after the Millennium. The plight of a single parent. Workplace politics. Mid-life crises. It’s not just random zany people saying and doing goofy stuff.

Good sitcoms are about relationships. Who are the characters? How can we identify with them? Why do we care? Why are they funny? How are they different from every other sitcom character we’ve seen for the last 70 years? What unique relationships are among them?

Yeah, I know – that shit can be HARD.

Creating a good situation comedy can take months, even years to craft.  Besides the script, casting is crucial. You are dependent on great actors, with chemistry, expert timing, and massive mass appeal. Directors establish a tone and look that could be make-or-break for you.

In short, the planets have to just line up. Seventeen key elements must all fall perfectly into place. It is a Herculean task combined with winning-the-lottery grade good fortune.

Or…

Do it the easy way!

Ignore all that shit. Who has time to come up with themes? Layered relationships? What a pain! Relatability? Your head hurts just thinking about it!

Instead…

Just come up with catchphrase.

“Bazinga!” Just like that – problem solved. “Aaaayy!” You know what I’m talking about. Catchphrases are “legendary.” They’re “dy-no-mite!” And if you don’t believe me you can “kiss my grits.”

One series, HAPPY ENDINGS resorted to catchphrases for almost all their dialogue. They were “uh-mazing.” I’d be “busted in la fa-ce.” They don’t even have to mean anything. “Roof stoof.” “Fosse fist, fosse fist, fosse fist.”

When I think of all those years I wasted learning to write actual jokes…

2 BROKE GIRLS has perfected the non sequitur catchphrase. No need to think up a genuinely funny line. Just throw in “vagina.”

There's only one catchphrase I've always hated.  "They've killed Kenny."  What's funny about that???

We’re at a time when sitcoms need to be instantly memorable. There are so many channels and delivery systems. How do you get your sitcom to stand out? Sure, you could go for quality, originality, and faith that in time a discerning audience will find your show. But that’s a trap. “Danger, Will Robinson.” Isn’t it smarter to just bypass all of that and come up with a silly phrase or word that viewers might adopt in their own daily speech?  And any actor can say? 

Am I looking out for you? “Who loves ya, baby?”

So anyway, last night, in a dream, I came up with what I think is the next truly great catchphrase. Don’t even think of stealing it. My team of high-priced attorneys are already working on getting it trademarked for me.

But here it is. Ready?

What?”

And not just pronounced any old way. Elongate the word and let your voice go up at the end.

Whaaaaaaaaaa—t?

I can hear some of you laughing already.

Just the word "what" can mean so many things. “I didn’t hear you.” “Could you clarify?” “Repeat that.” But my way says ALL of things along with “You’ve gotta be shitting me.” And my version has that all-important-maybe crucial comic windup, that hook. For a catchphrase to be effective an actor must be able to make a meal of it. The audience has to know this is their cue to laugh.

Take any straight line you hear on television. Respond with “Whaaaaaaaaaa-t?” You’d be surprised how often it works. And it always makes sense. (As opposed to say, “The wood has been chopped and stacked.” “Vagina!”)

Y’know, you reach a certain age where you start to worry whether your skills are starting to slip. It’s nice to know I still got it.

Now all I have to do is sit back, wait for the next development season to begin in mid-summer, and enjoy the bidding war.

You don’t believe me? Whaaaaaaa-t?

39 comments:

Pat Reeder said...

My wife has a hearing problem in one ear and often responds to me by saying, "What?" Our Amazon parrot Sammy has picked that up, and every time I say anything in his presence, he says, "Whaaaat?" in her voice. So if a catchphrase is something that's parroted constantly for no real reason, I think Sammy beat you to this one.

B.C. Christiansen said...

"Hey - wha happened?!" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Of8JOVXYU0Q

David G. Whitham said...

It was already done in Jaws:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ZJ83cPTzWs

CRL said...

'You killed Kenny!'
Crickets.

'You Killed Kenny!'
'You Bastards!'
Comedy Gold.

Michael said...

In the 1930s, a radio comedian named Jack Pearl had a character, Baron Munchausen, whose big laugh line each week was, "Vass you dere, Sharlie?" One day, as they played golf, Jack Benny suggested that he not use that line for a week or two, and then it would be funnier when he did say it. Pearl said, no, that's my bread-and-butter line, people expect it. Who remembers him now?

But Benny, for all of the cheap jokes, had a bunch of "set pieces," from the Maxwell to the guard downstairs in front of the vault to a polar bear, and he made sure not to overuse any of them. Will anybody remember "Two Broke Girls"?

daniel in cherry hill said...

Whaaaaaaa-t?

David said...

Fred Willard mastered the art of the catchphrase:

https://youtu.be/6SHRFhfeLgY

J Lee said...

David Letterman did several bits back in the mid-1980s about trying to find a new catch-phrase to foist on the American public, in reaction to the glut of them on the late 70s-early 80s sitcoms.

mmryan314 said...

Really!?

blinky said...

Dude? Dude. Dude! Duuuude.

Anonymous said...

I think we can all agree "Hey Now!" is a great catchphrase :)
-sammy

Joseph Scarbrough said...

And all of this just further goes to show what I've been saying all this time that all sitcoms today are bad. Hell, the first image on this post is exactly what I've been saying for years: all you ever see on TV today is people in bed with each other. That's all TV is about now: glorifying sex. Hell, I see Patrick Warburton (who I actually like, mind you) is already starring in a new sitcom (and didn't his old one just end?), and his wife on the show looks and dresses like a cheap whore, and their two twentysomething daughters talk about things like how they've slept with other women, and their favorite forms of birth control and such. Like I said, and it's not an exaggeration: all TV today is automatically bad.

And, of course, now comes the part where everyone else on this blog then counterattacks and tells me what an uncultured jerkass I am for thinking there should be more to television than sexual immorality, because some how, sexual immorality makes people cultured in this day and age.

Earl Boebert said...

"Plunk your magic twanger, Frogee!"

I ran around the house saying that so much my mother threatened me with loss of radio privileges if I kept it up. So I grew up to be a Froggy :-)

Mike Barer said...

I notice that on many contemporary sit-coms, once the problem is solved, the show ends with a bigger problem.

Ralph C. said...

My catchphrase..."It's time to take out the chili!"

wackiland said...

Sorry, Ken. I adore you, but the WWE (or, as some still call it, WWF) and Stone Cold Steve Austin got you beat on this one by a couple of decades. And it's still going today. Any time someone in the ring is talking for more than a few sentences, the audience will scream "What?" in unison with every split second break. Still going strong....I'd send you a link, but it's Monday morning...

Anonymous said...

Uhm, the whole "Kenny" deal isn't a catchphrase. It's a running gag. Not quite the same, methinks.

McAlvie said...

Yeah, I watched that show once and it made no sense.

I've been a bit disheartened with The Good Wife lately. I mean, I'm happy she's happy, but every episode opens up with a bed scene. I figure that means the writers have run out of ideas. Well, they've about exhausted all the permutations for who is in or out of the law firm this season, usually before the ink is dry on the contracts. It's good that this is the final season. Actually, I'll miss Christine Baranski.

Aaron Sheckley said...

Joe, I don't think you're uncultured, but I do think that you're seriously one of the most uptight guys who post on this blog, as far as sex goes. Given the choice between television ignoring sex like they did in the "Golden Age" of TV (come on, married couples who don't even share the same bed??), promoting the idea that sex was dirty and shameful, and the crude sexuality of a show like Two Broke Girls, I'll take Two Broke Girls. It's not because I like the show (it's abysmally bad comedy); it's because I'd rather see sex treated as a natural component of real life, rather than some mystical secret force that is never to be spoken of, conferred on mankind by some big JuJu in the sky. People like sex, and adult human beings shouldn't have to feel ashamed of that. And adult women shouldn't have to put up with being called cheap whores because they enjoy sex, even if their enjoyment conflicts with your viewpoint. Your outlook is just a little bit too Taliban-y for me, and I'd rather endure the existence of Two Broke Girls than return to an era where people were supposed be ashamed of the fact that sex exists. I can always turn off a show if the treatment of sex is too crude for my liking, because that's my choice. And I would rather it be MY choice what is acceptable for me to watch as an adult, rather than someone who shares your outlook deciding for me. We spent too many years in this country treating sex as if it should never be acknowledged and embraced as a very real part of life, and I would rather not return to those less than thrilling days of yesteryear.

Mr. Hanky said...

Ironically, Ken, your dream was quoting South Park!

Kyle's mom's longtime catch phrase is, "What what WHAAAT?!" with her last "Whaaat?!" delivered exactly as you described. ;-)

Anonymous said...

Ken - Do you have any memories of this, from when St.Elsewhere filmed on Cheers' set? So odd seeing Cheers characters without a laugh track. Did Cheers' writers provide Carla or Cliff's lines, or have approvals?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JhCyXui0e_Q

Donald Benson said...

I remember "Get Smart" being a font of recess catchphrases:
-- Would you believe ...
-- Sorry about that, Chief
-- Missed it by that month
-- The old [fill in blank] trick! [fill in the blank] time this month!
-- The Cone of Silence!
-- Don't tell me that [fill in blank] ... I asked you not to tell me that!
The last, if memory serves, originated on "Captain Nice", a superhero spoof by the same creative team (sans Brooks and Henry). When "Captain Nice" went off the air, the writers salvaged that joke for Maxwell Smart, who had a few seasons to go.

Fred Nerk said...

Well said Aaron Sheckley, and Jo, it appears your catchphrase is fast becoming 'what I've been saying all this time', when it turns into 'listen to me', you're in the danger zone.

VP81955 said...

The best thing about "2 Broke Girls" is that the infinitely superior "Mom"(which Friday was renewed for a fourth season) precedes it.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

@Aaron The thing of it is though, sex is similar to smoking or drinking, in that it's something that should be enjoyed responsibly, otherwise it could lead to a very destructive addiction, and yes, there is such a thing as sex addiction (if Bob Crane is an example of that). Unlike smoking and drinking, however, sex is also a very personal thing, so if you're not enjoying it responsibly, it can shatter lives when we get into territories like cheating and such. I'm aware that sixty-five years ago, you couldn't even show married couples in the same bed (and yes, I'll admit that even I find that a little too restrictive), but also back then, TV shows didn't glorify sex, unlike today, where all you see on TV is unmarried people (covering their nudity) in the same bed, and that's just wrong. I know that a lot of what's on TV is supposed to reflect real life, and that's all well and good, but it seems to me that when it comes to sex on TV, it's always shoved down our throats anymore (but then again, the uber-Conservative whackjobs out there say the same thing about homosexuality, so I guess you really can't please everybody), and that in and of itself makes responses like your where people say, "Just don't watch the show then," considerably less effective (much like when people say, "If you don't like Taylor Swift, then don't listen to her," despite her being on the radio all the fricken time). My bottom line is this: TV shows today need to focus on other things besides just sex . . . even SEINFELD had more substance than shows today, and that was (figuratively) a "show about nothing."

@Fred And that's ironic, because for the longest time, my personal catchphrase in real life has been, "Change is a dangerous thing." But as you point out, yes, I am aware I keep saying that a lot, and it's because I have been saying these things all this time . . . and I'm going to keep saying these things until TV improves . . . which, at this point, will probably be Neversville, so I'm probably keep saying these things from all this time for a long time. We had the Rural Purge in the early 70s, I think it's time we had a Cleanup Brigade for the New Tens.

Johnny Walker said...

Re: GET SMART, don't forget: "That's the second biggest [blank] I've ever seen!"

A show with broad slapstick like Get Smart works great with catchphrases. I'm so glad none of the shows I love ever resorted to such things, though... although I do remember The Simpsons cleverly acknowledging some of their catchphrases in a sequence where every character with one saying it.

DrBOP said...

Maynard G. Krebbs, (1959) the first weekly beatnik (soon to morph into hippie) visit into America's living rooms, with the perfect catch-phrase:

WOORNK!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pqzpQPDSr2s

Anonymous said...

I don't think of the Get Smart lines as catchphrases as much as running gags, especially the cone of silence. Max believed the cone of silence should be used more, in the interest of national security. Chief thought it should be used less in the interest of personal safety. Whether the viewer took the side of Max or Chief, everyone was interested in who would be proven right each time. It wasn't about being a catchphrase.

Aaron Sheckley said...

Well Joe, what's your definition of "responsibly"? Do you have a litmus test of when sex is responsible? Because a woman likes to sleep with multiple partners, but uses protection against pregnancy and STDs, is she still "irresponsible" in your eyes? Is she still that "cheap whore" that you mentioned in your earlier post? Is she irresponsible because she isn't married to the person she's having sex with? In your perfect scenario, would all sex outside of marriage be illegal? Would homosexuals be forbidden to have sex because until recently they couldn't get married?

And yes, Joe, you CAN turn off a program you find offensive, or put down a book you don't agree with. I've seen exactly one episode of Two Broke Girls and, once I realized how bad it was, I've never seen it again. I accomplished that Herculean feat by looking at the TiVo, seeing that it was on, and going "ugh, I'm not watching that crap", and then switching over to an episode of the Big Valley.

Your moral code is your own, Joe, and you can live by any code that suits you. The problem with a lot of people who share your viewpoint is that living by their own morality isn't sufficient for them; they want to impose their moral code on a whole lot of consenting adults who don't want to live that way. It's the exact reason why gay couples couldn't get married, it's why discrimination based "religious freedom" laws get created, it's the exact reason why ridiculously ineffective "abstinence only" sex education replaces actual education in schools, and it's why freely consenting women have to face up to slut shaming from people with your outlook on a regular basis. And all that pent up repression and denial is why sooooo many allegedly righteous, moral, upstanding pillars of the community who spend all their time telling people the "right" way to live end up getting caught up in some ridiculous sexual escapade. The best thing we could ever do is to demystify sex until it becomes just another natural biological function, and stop attaching such a holy significance to it. Sex is exactly what you make of it; it can either be a blissful union between two spouses, or it can be a one night tryst in a motel. Both are equally valid, as long as consent is given.

Andy Rose said...

This discussion reminds me of Arrested Development. Great show, and I enjoyed the clever callbacks and foreshadowing they threw in. But at some point, some of the callbacks turned into full-on catchphrases and running gags, and started to take over the show. (I haven't seen the 4th season on Netflix, but I hear the catchphrases continued.) It got so self-referential, some sites have put together elaborate charts to track them.

http://recurringdevelopments.com/
https://apps.npr.org/arrested-development/

-bee said...

Sorry to say this but I believe "Whaaaaa?" is already one of many catch phrases on the Simpsons.

I know, after 20+ years it gets hard to keep track of them all...

Steve Mc said...

Has there ever been a 'counter catch phrase'? A lame catch phrase that's always a response to the original lame catch phrase? I'm submitting, as the counter catch phrase to Whaaaaat?, the ever lame 'Well THAT was ---'. Possibilities are endless:
Well THAT was awkward.
Well THAT was weird.
Well THAT was unexpected.
Well THAT was lazily written.

Andrew said...

I'm surprised no one's mentioned the catchphrase from the sitcom on Extras: "Are you having a laugh? Is he having a laugh?"

Mike said...

Actually, the "Oh my god, they killed Kenny"/"You bastards!" gag has been largely absent from SOUTH PARK for a long time now. It was used frequently early on until Trey Parker and Matt Stone decided the bit had more than run its course and, with rare exceptions, retired it.

I remember when HAPPY DAYS was riding their "Sit on it" catchphrase into the ground. Every single episode it was used at least once. In some episodes, more than once. And being a Garry Marshall sitcom, every time somebody said it, the audience would scream and cheer and yell and roar and practically give the line a standing ovation. Same thing on GOOD TIMES. Jimmy Walker would yell, "Dy-no-mite!" and the audience would just come unglued.

The problem with catchphrases is that they end up staying around, not because they remain funny, but because the audience expects them. Tex Avery, as responsible as anyone for the creation of Bugs Bunny, and director of the first honest-to-god Bugs Bunny cartoon, said that Bug's, "What's up, Doc?" line got big laughs the first time the rabbit said it. After awhile, though, Avery said, the line was just there because the audience expected the rabbit to say it, not because anybody was still laughing at it.

Anonymous said...

Let's see, there

"So here's the thing."
and
"NORM!"

Anonymous said...

Aaron Sheckley, having TV fare like that be the norm, means more people will just stop watching TV entirely. It is precisely for that reason that I don't even bother showing my kids any TV shows at all, including cartoons. Why even get them used to it?

Andrew said...

Here's an example of what I mentioned earlier.
"Do the catchphrase!"
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uj_vBsZFo_8

Aaron Sheckley said...

@ anonymous:

That's your choice, and a parent should control what his kids watch; that's one of your jobs as a parent. There is an almost unlimited supply of programming available to people now that would be considered by many to be safe for kids. There's a big difference between saying "I don't like that sort of TV and neither I nor my kids are going to watch it", and "I don't like that sort of TV, so I'm going to demand that it not be created so other legal consenting adults who may not agree with my interpretation can see it". Far too many people find it easy to make that segue from "responsible parent" to "public morals watchdog".

Pseudonym said...

I don't think anyone can beat those Jimmy Perry/David Croft/Jeremy Lloyd sitcoms when it comes to catch phrases. Almost every character in every show had at least one catch phrase.

I sometimes wonder if TWO BROKE GIRLS is really just the less-ribald version of the Mrs Slocombe pussy jokes from ARE YOU BEING SERVED.