Wednesday, March 30, 2016
When jokes don't work
Part of a comedy writer’s job (a LARGE part) is fixing jokes that don’t work. It’s not enough to know that a joke fell flat. Anyone can tell you that. But repairing them takes skill. And investigative ability.
When a joke dies, the first thing you have to ascertain is why you were left with that horrible deafening silence.
The trouble is, it’s not always easy to determine why something didn’t work. And each case must be treated individually.
So let’s go through some of the usual suspects.
If there’s a set-up to a particular joke, is that set-up wrong? Set-ups need to lead the audience in one specific direction. Are you going for a “he’s so cheap” joke or a “he’s on a diet” joke? And if the punchline involves him not ordering something, the audience doesn’t know which reason why.
The problem could also be the punchline. Is it worded correctly? Is it too long? Is it too convoluted? Does the audience have to follow four or five steps to get to the joke? Is it too general? Too specific?
Or is it just not funny? Have you not found the right joke yet?
You also have to take into account the sensibility of your audience. Andrew Dice Clay should not be booked into the Vatican.
A lot of current comics won’t play college campuses anymore because the kids are too PC. There’s an old expression – “Know your house.” If you know going in that your brand of comedy isn’t going to work with a certain crowd, avoid it. Same is true with jokes.
Is the joke in question too similar to other jokes you’ve already featured in the piece? Or is it a call-back but one call-back too many?
Or – and I know this sounds like a cop out – was this just an audience that didn’t get the joke? Playwrights and actors will tell you that when you do a comedy night after night there are certain jokes that get big laughs in one performance, then nothing in the next, then a bigger laugh in the third. And you just can’t accurately predict.
Was the audience tired? See yesterday’s post.
You generally can’t blame the air-conditioning, especially if the joke before and after worked.
And then there’s the other big factor – the actor delivering the line. Did he say the joke wrong? Did he slur some words making it hard to hear? Was his timing off? Did he not hold for a laugh so no one heard him because they were still laughing at the previous joke? Was his delivery too soft? Too jarring? Too angry? Too slow? It’s always a tough call because you feel lazy just saying, “give it another chance” but often times the actor will make an adjustment and suddenly it works.
That was one of the (many) great things about David Hyde Pierce on FRASIER. If he didn’t get a laugh at a runthrough we drew a line through the joke. It was OUR fault. Not only did he make good jokes work every time, he got laughs out of straight lines. The man is a comedy GOD.
Not to sound callous, but there have been times a part was playing flat and we recast the actor. The new Thesp came in and suddenly every joke was popping.
Fortunately, I didn’t have that problem. My cast was terrific so whatever problems I'm encountering are script-related. I find the process sort of fun actually. Puzzle-solving in a way. I’m not always right and sometimes I’m replacing the same joke after every runthrough. But it’s part of the process. And every so often I reward myself. I wrestle with what’s wrong with a sticky line and eventually say, “Fuck it. I’ll just cut it.” There are few better feelings then hitting the delete key.
Tomorrow I'll go into some of the external forces that keep mirth from happening.