Wednesday, February 07, 2018

One of my big pet peeves

Are you ready? 

I’ll be getting notes on a script from a network or studio exec and she’ll say, “Sure it’s funny, but…”

I want to stop her right there and say, “Excuse me, do you have any idea how hard it is to write something that is truly funny?” The ability to craft a joke that will make 200 strangers in the audience laugh or 6 million viewers takes genuine talent. Because it’s not just “jokes”, the laughs have to be in character and move the story forward. Trust me, it is a skill that very few possess. And the time and effort that goes into fine tuning those jokes to ensure that the absolute best version is going on the air is enormous.

A number of current sitcom writers who are in development say the networks tend to ignore “the funny.” They’ll give notes like, “Don’t concentrate on the funny; give us more backstory.” Or “you can make it funnier later.” And then my favorite: “Sure it’s funny, but…”

These are COMEDIES. Situation COMEDIES. What do you mean “it’s funny BUT…”? For my money, the big problem with network comedies is that they’re just not funny. Networks should be pushing writers to make their shows FUNNIER. People don’t tune in for backstory. Dole that shit out along the way, but make the viewer laugh (however you choose to do that).

A lot of the executives in comedy development at both the network and studio level are not inherently funny people. They push likeability (which is comedy death), they lobby for more warmth, they champion formulas. You think they’d learn something from SEINFELD. When people turn on sitcoms they want to LAUGH. Sure, they want to care, but they want to laugh. In superhero movies, yeah, you can establish relationships as long as people are flying and cities are being destroyed.

So to those executives I would like to respectfully say, “Sure you have that job, but…”

20 comments :

Mike Barer said...

That is so true. Make comedies funny again.

Demos Euclid said...

That's funny but it's true.

Explains so much about the current state of mediocrity (with a rare exception here and there).

E. Yarber said...


I think the principle here is that bean-counters can't understand how much of an experienced writer's work has to come out of instinct. "Funny" doesn't come out of a formula, like the rigid three-act structure stuff in those "How to write a Screenplay" books aimed at convincing wannabes that a script can be constructed like an insurance form. Instead, the writer has to play it by ear, trying to make each step of the way a joke or at least wrinkle in itself. The end results can be as tightly constructed as a French farce or a complete shambles like a WC Fields film but that doesn't matter as long as the audience has been carried along by the sheer force of the comedy.

You usually find buzzwords like "backstory" and "likability" most pronounced in mid-level executives who want to sound like they know the "rules." Jack Benny once said that he didn't think a comedian could succeed with a college degree. That was before higher education became much more of a norm, and the point he was trying to make was that you can't make someone laugh if you're not thinking on their level but approaching the process from an abstract level where the audience is simply a target to be impressed by your superior mind.

A while back I was brought in to fix a play. I made the first act funny, then deepened the characters in the second. To my horror, the head of the company decided "This isn't a play! This is a web series, then a TV show, then a movie!" Others in the troupe suddenly got caught up in the delusion that simply because I'd written a workable script they had some million dollar concept, as though the networks would let people walk in off the street and pitch TV shows to them. They ripped out the climax of the story and told me, "We'll save that for an episode of the show." At this point they had convinced themselves that this fantasy program was a reality. I tried to insist that they were destroying the structure that made the thing work at all, but the play they were performing had become only a springboard to the media empire they were building in their minds.

In the end, there was no web series or TV show or movie, of course. The bits and pieces left on display as a play didn't even draw more than a few viewers after the first week (and a review that described the show as formless). What killed the production was thinking of it as a deal instead of an evening meant to entertain paying customers.

Tammy said...

I don't know, Ken, the suits may have a point this time (*shudder*). At least for me, when I want to laugh I watch a sketch or panel show; when I turn to fiction, it's because I'm looking for something extra. I watch SUPERSTORE not just because it's funny, but also because it has interesting things to say about race. I watch DETECTORISTS (thanks Chester for recommending it!) because it's not only funny but also touching and true to life. Yeah, SEINFELD was genious even though you couldn't care less about the characters, but how many SEINFELDs are there?

McAlvie said...

Then there's the flip side where a show is nothing but jokes. You are right, Ken, that a sitcom audience doesn't need backstory (really, backstory is death even in a book. The trick is to show, not tell.) But you do need story and character. Seinfeld broke a lot of rules while still making it work; but I have always thought that it worked because of the characters. I also think that the show only gave the appearance of being unstructured. That in itself required a lot of work.

blinky said...

Here is a Friday question.
Are you, and comedy writers in general, funny in person? Or do you treat your skill like a job, such that you don't want to give out the funny for free. In my imagination I see comedy writers being like Hawkeye or Mory Amsterdam, unstoppable joke machines. But then again I've met some comedians who were not the least bit funny in a normal situation.

Dustin Drye said...

Friday Question for you based on this:

What would advice would you give someone who is told this when they are trying to break in? I often get told my dialogue and character actions are hilarious and unexpected and they love it! Then there is a but....

I ask this as an aspiring writer who is constantly entering contests and paying for feedback. The key is to find the common threads from the feedback and seeing how you can help change their perspective. But that is hard when I get told two things frequently: The pilot and dialogue are hilarious. There isn't enough conflict. I have since corrected the second part, but some suggestions I had for a script that is essentially Friends 2018, I was told to create deep conflicts (friends feeling they are being held back by their friends, friends feeling their other friends are underachieving losers). I read this feedback and immediately wanted to ask if the person had even read the script. The show was about how FRIENDS are your family. Why would I make them hate each other? I did correct the "conflict" issue, but it did not involve creating deep seeded resentment towards each other.

Howard Hoffman said...

This was the most perfect and textbook-crafted blog post we’ve ever seen. But...

Mike Bloodworth said...

Its amazing how your blogs intertwine. You're absolutely right, Ken. Its not easy to write a funny script. Even stand-ups and improvisers who are genuinely funny people have a hard time transferring that funny to the written page. You didn't state if these shows "in development" are being pitched to broadcast networks or cable/streaming. Unfortunately, funny isn't always enough. Due to the cable influence more and more shows are looking for flawed, edgy, quirky characters; the so called "anti-hero" that require long explanations as to why they're so fucked up. Plus, as I've said before, the proliferation of the so called "dramady" has done more harm than good to television. To me, (and this is just my opinion) it's really a lazy format. That is, the shows don't have to be really funny because they're technically NOT true comedies. Conversely, the powerful, poignant moments are watered down because they're not real dramas. Competition for viewers plays a part as well. Its not like the old, only three networks, days when THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES or THE BRADY BUNCH were on the air. Everybody thinks a show needs a hook or some abstract concept to set it apart from the crowd. Being funny is almost an afterthought. Previously, I've also mentioned that many sitcoms substitute quirky for funny or just plain dumb for funny. That's not necessarily bad, but it can't be the only nail on which you hang everything. I can't watch many of today's sitcoms, even the critically praised/ratings winners because they're just not funny. Answering a "Friday Question" you said that and older, aspiring writer has the chance to make it. But after a blog like today's, it hardly seems worth the effort.
M.B.

VP81955 said...

What makes "Mom" such a superb sitcom isn't that Christy and Bonnie are likable -- heck, given their backstories, if you met them for the first time, you'd probably want to wring their necks -- but you empathize with what they've been through, and how they're trying to solve their lives (and their relationship with each other). Add the comedic talents of Anna Faris and Allison Janney, and you have gold. (But if the showrunner was a newcomer and not someone with Chuck Lorre's track record, "Mom" probably wouldn't have made it on the air.)

VincentS said...

...and I'm sure the people who give these notes couldn't write a joke or anything funny themselves if their lives depended on it.

Mondo said...

You're so right about likability being in conflict with funny. In veteran shows on the way out voluntarily or otherwise, characters tend to lose whatever their edge was that made a line out of their mouths uniquely funny. Once they've softened, they're no longer funny delivering similar lines. That's not to say characters can't evolve, but once they do, they are a different kind of funny ... if the writers are lucky.

DyHrdMET said...

Could you teach a class for network/studio executives in how to handle sitcom staffs? It may help the genre greatly.

J Lee said...

If the show-runner gets the casting right from Day 1, likeability will follow funny, because if the show makes people laugh, they will warm up to the characters. Doing it the other way around means the networks are giving viewers no justification other than the characters supposedly being likeable for them to spend 30 minutes of their time in front of their TVs -- you don't come to a sitcom first and foremost for 'likeable'. You come to it to laugh, and if the writers do that, the viewers will like the characters who are making them laugh.

Aaron said...

This makes me think of some modern reviewers who say characters like Beetlejuice or say Dr Venkman from Ghostbusters are "problematic" because, well, they're scumbags. But making those characters into some kind of noble "likable" hero types would absolutely destroy the comedy in those movies. Quirkiness and supposedly funny situations win out in favor of creating characters with flaws that naturally lead to comedy.

A guy like, say, George Costanza is not a particularly likable guy, but to me he's absolutely the funniest character on Seinfeld, one of the funniest in sitcom history... partially because he's so unlikable.

Bill in Toronto said...

Ken, from any of your careers, can you give an example or two of times anyone on the production really rose to the challenge and performed in a standout way you’d like to recognize here?

Rob D said...

"Likeability". Ugh, you are so right. Such as the vapid TGIF sitcoms of the 1990s. Especially Family Matters and Full House. Mostly cutesy kids saying precocious things? Where's the humour?

fred curtis said...

Been along time since I heard that shit ... " Dole that shit out along the way"

Thanks Ken!!!

Johnny Walker said...

What happens if you’re in Ken Levine’s Sitcom Room weekend and the people you’re in the room with think “likeablilty” is supremely important? ;-)

@J Lee I think that’s a brilliant observation. It happens in real life, too. Just look at how people rush to defend Steve Jobs or Walt Disney. Both did deplorable things but they’re forgiven because we like the people who bring us joy. (See also Bill Gates who seems like a genuinely nice person who’s devoted his life and fortune to charity — everyone still hates him because of that time they lost all their work when Windows crashed.)

cb said...

"What we need here is more naked pipe..."