Wednesday, December 05, 2018

A piano wouldn't help

A couple of weeks ago in the Improv workshop I attend we did an exercise that well… produced very few laughs (I’m being charitable). One of the class members had done this exercise years before in a different venue to better results. Back then they had a piano accompanying them, waited longer between punchlines, and had different sight lines. He suggested that not having those elements may have contributed to the lack of laughter. Okay, he might have a point.

But there was something else to consider. And in this case, in my best professional judgment, it was this other factor that truly explained it. 

We all SUCKED.  

It just wasn’t our night, not with that exercise. Sometimes that happens. Sometimes you have a hot night and everybody is hilarious. And then there are nights when it’s a struggle. That night was a Herculean struggle.

I bring this up because comedy writers are always wrestling with this dilemma. When something doesn’t work it’s our job to determine why and how to fix it. And it’s easy to say, “The air conditioning was faulty, his tie was crooked and caused a distraction, the actor mumbled a key word, the camera didn’t frame him properly, the audience was blocked by the boom mic,” etc. Any and all of those factors could have been the problem. But I’ve learned to first ask, “Is it us? Did it not get a laugh because it’s a bad line?”

It’s only after I honestly determine that the joke should have worked do I start considering outside influences. But the bottom line is I blame myself first. And it’s all a function of being as objective as you can possibly be.

I remember the first year of CHEERS we were rewriting a script, someone came up with a joke that Glen Charles loved, and he said, “That’s the best joke of the entire season.” The next day at runthrough it bombed and when we got to that line in the rewrite he said, “Jesus. What were we thinking with that piece of shit?”

Having a piano playing underneath would not have helped that joke. Being tough on material means being tough on yourself. But it’s worth it. At least I sure hope so because that accounted for a lot of late night rewrites I’ll never get back.

8 comments :

E. Yarber said...

I once worked on a project where the director insisted we bring in a crony of his who had absolutely no aptitude for the work whatsoever. No sense of timing, no ear for dialogue, NO humor. The producers hated his material and the financial backers rather appropriately began backing away. The newcomer's response was to angrily declare how stupid everyone was for not appreciating his genius and tried to set us straight by writing long explanations of why his writing really truly worked after all if we would only take the trouble to appreciate it on the proper intellectual level. I suggested to the producer that perhaps our colleague should accompany the film at every showing and admonish the audience for not responding to his script. That would properly humble them, or something.

Cowboy Surfer said...

Watched MASH on METV last night. The "Point of View" episode.

So good, no piano needed.

A line from the episode before PoV.

Col Potter: Hey Radar, that's the Rockettes, have you ever seen the Rockettes.

Radar: Oh yeah, every 4th of July...(nice)

Mike Bloodworth said...

I know why it sucked. I wasn't there that week. Just kidding.

I've had a similar experience. One time I proposed a punchline in rehearsal that got a big laugh from everyone in the cast. Then, when we performed the sketch, nothing. The line NEVER got a laugh. This is applicable to yesterday's blog: My scene partner ad-libbed a response that got a huge laugh. From then on my original line became the set-up and his line was the punchline. It saved the sketch.
I've mentioned this before, but one time I wrote a blackout that had been getting a pretty good response. But, one night a different girl was in the scene. She had a thick accent. No one could understand the line, so on that night, the blackout bombed.

That raises an interesting question. Do different audiences react differently to the same material?
I've heard stand-ups talk about this. Some jokes work one night and not on another.

When you write a screenplay you really have no idea if a joke works until the movie is in theaters. With a sitcom a joke is heard by an audience maybe twice? (Dress rehearsal and the actual show)

But, now that you're writing plays you must have noticed that some jokes get big laughs one night and only a so-so reaction another despite an apparently identical performance. Or do they laugh at things that weren't intended to be funny? Getting back to your earlier point, even the most perfectly written script has to be affected by unexpected and/or unconscious variables. No matter how objectively critical one may be it seem that some things are left up to the Fates.
M.B.

E. Yarber said...

There's the argument, "Science can't explain everything, therefore everything goes and I think the earth is flat." Likewise writing can have uncertain results. That doesn't mean that a scientist can't realistically posit that the earth is a sphere and a writer can't raise the odds for positive results.

While individual audiences will indeed vary, one can develop a high degree of skill in determining how a generic crowd will react. Many of the classic comedians had years of stage experience that translated to their film work, and remained careful even within the new medium. It was a common practice in old Hollywood days to extensively preview movies and edit the final cut to leave space for the laughter registered by audiences. Stan Laurel always regretted seeing the long pauses in his films on television and offered to recut his work for free to suit video presentation, but the studios weren't interested in doing more than ripping the stories to shreds in order to add commercials.

Given that the Marx Brothers were recently noted as an example of ad-libbing overruling careful writing, one should note that when they signed for MGM they were more than happy to test their material on stage before filming and were meticulous in locking the dialogue down once they had found the most effective balance. They and the writers might test one adjective after another in a punch line before settling on the version they chose to use for the movie.

It's a highly intuitive ability, however, which leads a lot of beginners to assume that either it doesn't exist or they can guess where the laughs are as easily as veteran writers. Over and over, I've heard the refrain, "Just film what I wrote and you'll see it works," when it's clear up the ladder that the writing would die on screen that way. Filming is a race against the clock, so one needs to be sure of the material before reaching that point.

Stephen Marks said...

Another nice blog by Ken, but I'm a little confused as I've never done anything close to improv or sketch comedy writing. My question is did Robert Wagner murder Natalie Wood on his own or did Christopher Walken help him? Thanks.

Cedric Hohnstadt said...

A related Friday Question: Do you have any tips to help artists evaluate their work objectively?

I'm a professional illustrator/cartoonist. I sometimes get so absorbed in the details of a drawing that I can't see the forest through the trees. As I'm drawing I might think, "This is turning out pretty good" only to look at it again the next day and see all sorts of flaws and tweaks to be made. Conversely, I've sometimes struggled to create a mediocre or even terrible drawing only to look at it later and think, "Actually that turned out OK." I would assume there must be times when writers have a similar struggle.

When you are deeply focused on your work, what tips can you give to help a writer step back and see it objectively? How do you balance being absorbed in the material with keeping a detached, impartial eye?

Peter said...

Ken, I saw a tweet I thought you'd enjoy reading. It's by voice actor Maurice Lamarche, who's done shows like Futurama.

The tweet is about Trump.

"You soulless fuck. You empty, soulless, Machiavellian, Sopranos-scripted, Antichrist-adjacent fuck."

YEKIMI said...

A Friday question: Is there much difference between a TV show director and a director for commercials? I am assuming that must TV show directors aren't doing commercials and vice-versa. Sometimes it seems like a commercial director must have an absolutely gigantic budget but then I remember seeing an outtake years ago of an old guy just having to say his lines without moving any other part of his face except his lips. No matter what, the actor couldn't do it and you could just hear the director yelling "cut" every time and it got to the point where it seemed like the director was going to have a stroke. I am guessing this went on for hours.