Sunday, March 18, 2018

The comedy rule of 2's

If only this could get me membership in the Magic Castle.

I have this astounding ability to watch a lot of sitcoms and pitch the jokes mere seconds before the actors say them, almost verbatim. It’s an amazing skill. Houdini never could do that. Audiences are mystified.  Talk about magic. 

Of course, the truth is that after years of writing comedy I just can identify the most obvious punchlines. And there are shockingly way too many sitcoms that are guilty of this.

You might think this is a byproduct of multi-camera shows where rhythms have become stale and predictable, but single-camera shows are sometimes worse. They often resort to irony so it’s not even jokes. It’s catch-phrases or “Gee, THAT went well.”

If I can predict a joke it’s just lazy writing. Either that or the staff is just not very good. So I choose to believe it’s laziness.

What’s keeping me out of the Magic Castle is that by now you’ve seen so many sitcoms that you too can probably perform this psychic skill.

I blame the showrunners. Someone has to approve these clams. Someone has to say, “Yeah, that’s good enough.” Someone has to say, "Fine.  I've got Lakers tickets." 

On CHEERS we had the rule of 2’s. If the writing staff was working on a joke and any two writers pitched essentially the same punchline we automatically discarded it. Didn’t even matter if it was funny.  Our feeling was that if two writers could come up with the same joke so could some audience members. And so it was quickly jettisoned. There was no debate. Ever.

When you’re trying to come up with a joke sometimes your first punchline might be the obvious one. Especially if you came up with it quickly. Learn to dig deeper. Is there a better joke? Is there a fresher joke? Is there something more unexpected? Maybe even something from out in leftfield?

Because sitcom audiences are more sitcom savvy your job is much harder now than it was back when we were writing CHEERS. And yet, I bet if you watch a CHEERS today there will still be jokes that surprise you and make you laugh.

Now I realize that not every show is CHEERS or is even going for the type of humor we went for. But you can strive to be the best in your genre, whatever it is. 

I know it sounds like a real contradiction. Comedy writing is a highly competitive business and yet high-priced comedy writers often get away with being lazy. I suppose it’s a matter of personal pride. Just consider this:  The last thing you want is for me to thank you for getting into the Magic Castle.

28 comments :

Dave Kovarik said...

Your friend Mark Evanier is a member he could get you in

Steve Bailey said...

My wife and daughter are fervent TV watchers. Often I'll cross the room while they're watching a show, and I'll hear one of them say, "Oh, here's what's going to happen next." And nine times out of ten they're right, whether they're watching a sitcom or a rerun of "Law & Order." That's why I don't watch much TV anymore.

Aaron said...

I was told my a longtime comic book editor recently that "being good enough isn't good enough to break into any creative industry... you have to really impress someone. But once you're in, 'good enough' is usually more than good enough to keep working." I think she's probably right whether it's writing, drawing, music production, etc...

cd1515 said...

I could do the same thing with Jay Leno monologue jokes.
(So could anyone)

E. Yarber said...

Sometimes a limited imagination is even worse than laziness. More than once I've worked with people who will take a line I considered rather clever and SWITCH it to exactly the sort of blatantly obvious cliche you're talking about. I could build a scene toward a line like "Therefore, I propose we explore this new continent before razing it to bare soil," and find the script mysteriously changed to "Oops, I did it again."

If I complained that the new line seemed like a Mad-Libs plug-in, my collaborators would explain that my bit was too smart for the audience. I began to feel the real reason for the change was that they seemed to think the cliche was good writing BECAUSE it sounded so familiar to them. Instead of writing funny stuff, they were imitating what SOUNDED like funny writing to them, the way a non-comedian will say things really fast hoping you'll think what they're blurting out is comedy. This pretense may actually be the case with the poor writing going into some sitcoms.

Next to the Rule of 2's, I'd put the axiom that the people who need the most help with their writing are usually the least receptive to understanding what makes writing good in the first place.

VP81955 said...

Creating lines "too smart for the audience" is how audiences become smart. As long as there's a modicum of accessibility, you grasp it within the context of the situation.

michael said...

I could take the stale jokes if the plot and characters were fresh. I still watch a great deal of TV but last season I did not watch anything from the broadcast networks. Dramas are the same.

I have been watching TV since 1954 so I expect some predictability but then I see something on cable, pay TV networks or streaming that surprises me, that takes me to places I don't expect. We all have our favorites. And it is usually for the same reasons, we like the characters. We find them funny or interesting and always entertaining. But a show that can surprise us is something special.

Mike Scully said...

If writers could be immediately fired for pitching hacky crap like "That went well" or "Awkward" or "That's not a thing" or "You know I can hear you" or "Again, not a thing" or "Can still hear you" and on and on, these jokes would not find their way on to TV so often. And the promo people should also be fired because, inevitably, these are the jokes that wind up in the marketing of shows. These are just two of the ways network television is killing itself. And you're right, single cam is just as guilty as multi. It's not a genre problem, it's a shitty writing problem.

Ronnie said...

What the hell is the Magic Castle and why should anyone give a damn about getting membership in it?

Joseph Scarbrough said...

I shouldn't have looked at this at a quick glance, because I got confused over thinking you were talking about Canadian actress Maggie Castle.

Andy Rose said...

@Mike Scully: That's a great compendium of contemporary smartass comedy cliches, and though I can't really prove this, I want to say they all originated with one character: Chandler Bing on Friends. Since that show, it seems that most comedies think they need their own Chandler. They don't.

E. Yarber said...

Every year, the LA Marathon sets up an arena-level sound system right across the street from my apartment, emitting enough sonic energy to kill every roach and mouse in the building for the next twelve months. Escaping the bombardment, I walked down to Cafe 50's on Santa Monica Boulevard and had eight cups of coffee. Oddly enough, not only was a magician working the booths, but the waitress told me right out of the blue about her own visit to the Magic Castle. Seems like something is in synch today. (I also found a factory-sealed 3-disc Johnny Carson box set for $6 at the thrift store as a reward for my exile, making it worth sorting through 50 copies of 50 Shades of Grey in 50 shades of grey).

To get relevant though, this thread about lame tropes in comedy reminds me a little of the post a week or so back about keeping references accessible. While everyone was thinking in terms of movies or performers from the past, no one thought to mention the 800-pound gorilla of inaccessible references: Monty Python's Flying Circus.

I'm not considering the academic asides as much as the stream of material about then-current British TV programming. Even in the mid-70s, what were Americans supposed to think of bits about Reginald Maudling or parodies of BBC cricket commentators? Somehow the program became a gigantic hit over here strictly though a triumph of such material's execution over the audience's familiarity, something to think about when falling back on stale catch-phrases as a substitute for creativity. You can't bring any energy to "I just threw up a little," which requires less energy to devise than a yawn.

Covarr said...

In CHEERS, I feel like Coach had more than a few punchlines that weren't necessarily the "obvious punchline" in general, but were obvious for him. Like, if an expression could be interpreted in two ways, it's a safe bet that he would always pick the wrong one. I imagine that can be a tough balancing act with a character like that, where you don't want to be too predictable, but you especially don't want to be unfaithful to the character.

Ken Levine said...

E. Yarber,

The synchronicity continues. To avoid the traffic, after writing my Cafe Play I went to Cafe 50's on Santa Monica Blvd. for lunch. No magicians by that time though.

Liggie said...

My brother has the same skill, except for mystery shows and procedurals. By the time the show is half over, he's figured out the culprit, motive and method. The only show where he was totally blown away by how things would turn out, was the new "Westworld".

Me, I think only once have I figured out the culprit before the reveal. That was for a murder mystery novel, and only because the character got jittery when the walls started closing in.

The "Well, that went well" line never bothered me, because the first time I heard it was from Jeff in the brilliant Briton "Coupling". Steven Moffat gets a pass for the rare lazy joke that gets through.

CD1515, not seeing much late night, I wonder if this is a problem for all of the other hosts except James Corden, as by training he's an actor and not a comedian.

E. Yarber said...

Ken,

It would be positively spooky if we both turned up at the Ruskin Theater tonight. What are the odds?

VP81955 said...

My Facebook friend, actress Kelli Maroney ("Fast Times at Ridgemont High," "The Night of the Comet"), has been a Magic Castle member for several years, and loves it.

Charles H. Bryan said...

I once went to a matinee in a largish theater on a weekday. I was the only ticket buyer. I asked if they were still going to show the movie and they said "Oh, yeah, even if no one showed up." I bought extra concession items, sat in the middle of an empty 600 seat room, and greatly enjoyed THE NIGHT OF THE COMET. It's one of my happiest movie going experiences, so please pass along to Kelli my thanks.

Mike Doran said...

For E. Yarber:

... what were Americans supposed to think of bits about Reginald Maudling or parodies of BBC cricket commentators?

Americans weren't supposed to think anything about that.
We weren't even supposed to see Monty Python, period.

I first heard of Python in a British book called The Laughtermakers, which I happened to find in the book department of Marshall Field's in downtown Chicago - circa 1969, long before MPFC ever aired in the USA.
Not long after that, I found a vinyl LP of highlights from Python in a Chicago record store that had a wide selection of imports.
My brother and I listened to the LP, and laughed our heads off, even as we didn't understand most of the references.
A few years after that, Channel 11, the Chicago PBS station, began carrying Python on Sunday nights; our dad, who'd done some business travel in the UK, called us out to watch it, and helpfully explained some of the indigenous terms to us.
We were the lucky ones, I guess; I wonder how many Americans, seeing Python for the first time, got on-site translation.

One more thing, about that book The Laughtermakers:
It was an overall survey of British comedy from the war years up to the '60s.
Python got a whole chapter; another one was devoted to Benny Hill, whose stuff wasn't brought over here for another ten years.
Sometimes, it's nice to be ahead of the curve ...

Donald Benson said...

I remember "Get Smart" as being especially heavy on repeated gags and tags.
-- "Sorry about that, Chief."
-- "Would you believe ...?"
-- "The old (elaborate x) trick. (x) time this month!"
-- "Dis iss KAOS! Ve do not (x) here!"
-- (mention of deadly peril to be faced) "And loving it!"
-- "Don't tell me (x)!" "(x)." "I asked you not to tell me that!" (Actually originated by the same writers on "Captain Nice", but they made it a "Get Smart" running gag when "Captain Nice" tanked).

Pat Reeder said...

To Mike Doran: I had a similar experience re: Monty Python. As a kid, I read an article about them in a British music magazine and ordered "Monty Python's Big Red Book" from the UK. I live in Dallas, where KERA was the first US station ever to air the show (It's why the members still return here regularly with all live tours, and make a point of thanking Dallas). One Sunday, I looked at the TV guide in the Sunday paper and just happened to see (no advertising or fanfare whatsoever) that Monty Python's Flying Circus was going to air at 10 pm on Channel 13. I called up all my friends and told them, "You HAVE to watch this!!" The next day at school, I discovered I was the only one who had. So I lay some claim to being the first American outside of the KERA staff to be anxiously awaiting the first-ever broadcast of Monty Python. In a couple of weeks, I'm going to a showing of "Holy Grail" hosted by John Cleese, so once contracted, the condition never heals.

Ken, I agree with everything you said about lazy punchlines. My insistence on avoiding them is part of the reason why DJs thought the Comedy Wire was much superior to most other topical radio humor services. I would sometimes tell people who wanted to write for me to read Woody Allen's "Without Feathers" to get a feel for how to write a funny, unexpected ending to a sentence. Another of my favorite examples was from the Carol Burnett Show: Tim Conway in a "Eunice" sketch told a long story about a friend who was trying to outswim a school of sharks. "And he might have made it, if he hadn't been wearing his lucky ham."

Jerry Krull said...

I recently found the website Comedywire.com. You can create an account and submit jokes (punchlines) to news stories. The site was started by some pro comedy writers for Leno and Letterman years ago. I try to add lines that aren't obvious, but reading other people's lines reminds me of how bad comedy can be when only the obvious lines are written. You can submit only two punchlines per story so if I'm the first one adding a line, I'll sometimes put the obvious line out there with the phrase "I've taken out the obvious line" so no one else submits it. It's a fun site to exercise some writing skills and see what others contribute, but it can get addictive. I don't expect every line I write to land, but like in baseball, if you write a winner 3 out of 10 lines, then you're an all-star.

Jahn Ghalt said...

While still a teen, my daughter made three short films - a straight drama, a docu-drama, and a straight documentary. Mostly this was after churning out teen fiction (tens-of-thousands of words).

She once told me that she could tell her friends what was going to happen while watching movies.

I trust (hope) this is a 'writer's curse' of sorts.

Professor Longnose said...

It's amazing how often I hear the same lines used over and over again in sitcoms. Why anyone thinks "I can hear you/I'm standing right here" is funny I couldn't tell you.

Another trick is to get off a home, then have a character double down on it by saying, "That went well (sarcastically"" or "He's a little crazy" just to make sure no one missed that a joke was told.

PJ said...

E. Yarber--

I remember watching Monty Python as a child and knowing I was missing lots of the references. Even then, I knew it was funny and brilliant like nothing else I'd ever seen.

About references in shows, I was once playing trivia with a group of people. Two of us were running away with the game. One of the other players said we were winning because we were the types to look things up when we didn't understand them. I said of course I did, I HATE not knowing things! She said she might read or hear a reference she doesn't understand, tell herself she'd look it up later, and never do it.

That's just not me. If I don't know a reference, I look it up, and I enjoy looking it up and learning something new. It's okay, I know I'm a nerd.

Frasier sent me to wikipedia many, many times! As did older references in MASH.

I'm awesome at crosswords though--it helps to know lots of random factoids!

Pat Reeder said...

To Jerry Krull: I'm friends with the guys who started Comedywire.com and helped them get it rolling. It has the same name as our longtime radio service, and there was some confusion early on over the URL (I still get their emails occasionally), so that's how we got acquainted. They're good people, and it's an excellent site for anyone wanting to try his or her hand at writing topical one-liners or jokes on demand under time pressure. I was one of the first writers on there, and they've been very nice about asking me to contribute more, which I'd love to do. Not to make money; I just enjoy contributing lines, but only when I can toss one in that is from a completely different angle that what's already been contributed. Right now, I'm doing so much writing for Internet and TV, I just don't have the time, but I'd encourage others who want to learn the craft to give them a try.

Brian said...

Sam doing "Groin Injury" took me by surprise:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vg9ruee3Vos

Brian Smith said...

I'm late to the comments here, but this post reminded me of the "Cheers" joke where I thought I knew the punchline, but was surprised. From "Dog Bites Cliff," when Cliff is bemoaning a lost love (a woman who was actually manipulating him to keep him from suing her over a dog bite):

Cliff: "I guess we were a pair of lovers who were never meant to be. Like Romeo and Juliet, Rhett and Scarlett...Heathcliff and Cathy."

The type of punchline I expected from Woody, and that I think most people were expecting because the audience has already started laughing at "Heathcliff and Cathy": "Wait...that cat and that girl on the comics page are in LOVE?"

The punchline we actually got: "Heath, Cliff and Cathy? Isn't that THREE people, Mr. Clavin?"