Monday, June 10, 2019

What Constitutes a Comedy?

How funny does a project have to be to be considered a “comedy?”

It depends on the expectations and whether they are met.

If a half-hour dramedy contains a few smiles it’s fulfilled its comic responsibilities. Same laughs in a sitcom and it’s just flat and dull.

I love when producers say, “Well, we’re a comedy but we’re not really going for laughs.” Oh no? Then what the fuck are you going for? Whenever I hear producers say, “I don’t write jokes” what he’s really saying is “I can’t write jokes.”

Real comedy writing is hard.  

Romantic comedy features of the 50’s and 60’s were amusing at best. Maybe a laugh or two in a Doris Day movie but sure not BLAZING SADDLES. And yet those Doris Day films were considered acceptable comedies at the time.

Similarly, 60’s sitcoms. THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW really stood out to me because it was funny. I look back at shows I watched then like THE PATTY DUKE SHOW or THE DONNA REED SHOW and think, “Why was I watching this drivel?”

70’s sitcoms came along like ALL IN THE FAMILY, MASH, and THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW and suddenly I was actually laughing. Mel Brooks and Woody Allen churned out movies that also had that effect. Neil Simon was the toast of Broadway for figuring out that comedy plays needed to be funny.

When I write a TV show or screenplay or play I want the audience to audibly laugh. A lot. All the way through.

Since writing plays I’ve discovered this: If you get a quiet audience, even if they’re really enjoying the play, afterwards they will say it was “very entertaining,” “really fun,” “very enjoyable.” Same play/same performance but a hot crowd that laughed out loud all night -- “Hysterical!” “Brilliant!” “Amazing!”

I’m sure there are playwrights that say “When I write a comedy if I get five or six good laughs I’m happy.” Not me. I’m miserable. There’s the audience expectation (how many laughs will they require?) and then mine (why aren’t they laughing every minute?).

The yardstick is laughter. And if you’re writing a comedy and that isn’t your goal, you may write a spectacular script – just label it something else.


Roger Owen Green said...

The dramedies - Ally McBeal comes to mind - always confounded me in terms of the writers' expectation.
Oh, and the DREAMS segment of MASH was one of the least funny things I've ever seen in the 30-minute format.

Alan Christensen said...

“Why was I watching this drivel?” I'm a bit younger than Ken and I ask myself the same question, except with different shows (The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family).

Dana King said...

I don't write comedy (except in flash pieces) but I do like to inject funny scenes and lines in my books because life is like that; funny things happen. I've been thinking about this question since I read that David Milch considered DEADWOOD to be a dark comedy and watched the entire series again. I lot has to do with the audience's mindset. I always considered DEADWOOD to be noir with laughs, but with a small shift of perception I can see why Milch thought of it as a comedy. As you said, the audience is everything.

Rob D said...

Least funniest old radio show comedy: The Aldrich Family. I cannot stand it. I don’t think I’ve laughed at it once.

Steve Bailey said...

You forgot to mention the most important element. Not only are your comedies (and the others you mentioned) very funny, but their comedy is based on characterization. Hawkeye can be funny, but not in the same way that Corporal Klinger is funny. The only thing worse than a comedy with so-so laughs is a comedy where the writer will violate a character's given traits just to get a quick laugh.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

I'm curious about that myself, because I see there's a number of things these days that are labeled as "comedies," yet I fail to see how they're even remotely funny: THE OFFICE, BROOKLYN NINE-NINE, DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES, even GIRLS! But then again, we apparently are living in an era now where comedy is supposed to not make you laugh-out-loud, because it's "sophisticated" now . . . weird, I think M*A*S*H is pretty sophisticated, particularly when Gene Reynolds and Burt Metcalfe shifted the humor away from being just a straight-up anti-war satire . . . not that there was anything wrong with that, but M*A*S*H had a tendancy to be a little broad and slapstick during those years.

Eduardo Jencarelli said...

One of the funniest things I've ever seen in a TV show happened in MAD MEN, of all things - season 3, episode 6, Guy Walks into an Adversiting Agency.

Specifically, the whole sequence where the character of Guy MacKendrick suffers the lawnmower accident in the middle of an office christmas party. Horrifying, gruesome, out of left field plot twist, and yet stupendously hilarious, especially with Roger Sterling's final line.

Stephen Marks said...

Wow, I'm shocked this post isn't longer and have multiple parts from now until Thursday. So much subjectivity here I'm sure Ken has kicked off what will be a 30 plus comment count. I'm going to nitpick at Ken's post because, you know, he has an Emmy award and a legacy and I'm a nobody, but what the fuck.

The main problem I have with this post is Ken comparing Doris Day movies with "Blazing Saddles." Those Day movies were "light" comedies. They were designed to be merely amusing, not slapstick or laugh your ass off comedies, also they were from different eras. Ken not differentiating between "light" and "slapstick" or whatever the opposite of "light" is, confuses me. Come on, can you see Doris Day, Rock Hudson, Carry Grant, Tony Randall, Audrey Hepburn and David Niven sitting around a campfire eating beans and farting, then Slim Pickens comes out of his tent and Ms. Hepburn says "More beans Mr. Taggert?" "No thanks, and I think you guys have had enough!" Would I love to see that, who wouldn't?

I just don't understand Ken not mentioning different kinds of comedies. "Light", as I mentioned, "black" comedies, "slapstick", "dark", "spoofs", "farces" etc. I have no idea what "black" comedy is, to me it was always a fallback phrase that directors used when their movie tanked at the box office. "Yea, um, well, we were going for black comedy and the audience didn't get it." Yea, whatever dipshit.

Ken says when he writes a tv show he wants the audience to laugh all the way through, but what does that mean? When Ken and Mr. Issacs were involved with MASH a lot of drama started creeping in. That wonderful speech by Hawkey when he was blind, written by Ken and David, I can't see Mel Brooks, Woody Allen or Neil writing that. Can't just lump all this shit together. Maybe it was Alan Alda who pushed for more drama, I don't know.

Just yesterday I watched an episode of MASH, "Merchant of Korea", written by Ken and Mr. Issacs and it was fucking funny. It was the perfect MASH episode, it had Charles being pompous, a poker game, and a shitload of great jokes. Charles, "I'm going out for some fresh air" Hawkeye, "We'll have some sent in, deal!" This is what I expect from a MASH episode, not that POV one or BJ conflicted because he banged some nurse.

Well, I"m done, thanks Ken for giving me a vine. A Ken Levine, I guess.

Anonymous said...

Maybe it's just time for more explicit nomenclature. The Office spawned "cringe comedy". They have laughs sure, but their focus is more on inducing that cringe when the audience is introduced to the simply humiliating, creepy or eccentric behavior of the characters. Then there are the "gross out" comedies....

I remember when dramadies were first coming on the scene and the reaction of many was the same, but now we treat dramadies as a seperate category. The pledge to the audience is different in each of these groups and it might solve a lot of misunderstandings to seperate them out more clearly.


Bruce said...

Intermittent laughter is comedy "relief." Gales of laughter is comedy. It they ain't laughin', it ain't funny. And if it ain't funny, it ain't comedy.

E. Yarber said...

There have always been two foundations of comedy writing, going back to the beginning of the form. In the fifth century BC, you had the "Old Comedy" of Aristophanes, which was idea-driven, satirical, meant to draw blood. A century later saw the "New Comedy" of Menander, which was character-driven, domestic stuff about dopey dads and their sassy households, meant to be reassuring. You were meant to leave the former hating Euripides, while the latter was meant to please you with a satisfying ending where everyone got what they wanted.

There's no reason that "New Comedy" can't be jammed with laughs... Neil Simon is certainly a example of the form carried over to the present day, as is the whole concept of sitcoms. At the same time, the reassurance angle can take over and you're left with a story less interested in drawing laughs than in pacifying the audience with relentlessly non-threatening characters and material. These are technically comedies because they aren't tragedies, but you have trouble with them if your own definition of comedy has to do with inducing laughter.

Gore Vidal thought Elia Kazan brought Tennessee Williams commercial success at the expense of the playwright's peculiar sense of humor, emphasizing the melodramatic aspects of the plays rather than the author's detachment from such sentimental perspectives. Vidal describes an audience weeping at the end of A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE only to be affronted by the crass sound of someone exploding in laughter, shouting, "Now she's off to the bughouse." The insensitive boor was Williams himself.

Generally, I think unfunny "comedy" is the result of an inexperienced writer trying to mimic the FORM of humor without really being able to get inside the material. It's the same way I can drag myself through a ten page sequence of some action hero killing off ninety people in ten pages without feeling anything actually happened except someone describing a video game. Likewise I can read a setup-punchline-capper executed by a writer treating the joke like a diagram of some sort, a dry exercise with no trace of life. Plenty of writers think they can go on automatic pilot instead of having to sweat over every moment the audience will see.

E. Yarber said...

And while New Comedy can be left unfunny through the need to reassure, Old Comedy can similarly be reduced to simple gross-outs meant to imitate the intellectual shock of genuinely thoughtful satire. Both are examples of relying on form over content.

Frank Beans said...

MASH kept the funny factor balanced with seriousness from the very beginning though season 8. I believe that "Good Bye Radar" really should have been "goodbye M*A*S*H", because I cannot laugh at all at any of the remaining seasons. The show was just running on fumes.

I think the "Dreams" episode should have been the last one in the MASH line, but done better with fewer obvious on-the-nose dreams for the main characters. The dream sequences of Hawkeye, Klinger, and Col. Potter are the only ones that work for me, the others are just cheesy. A rewriting at least should have been called for.

MASH needed to end on a dramatic note, a well-earned one at that, and could have ended with due respect. Instead it just became unfunny comedy.

Mike Bloodworth said...

I've said this before, comedy is very subjective. Thank you, Stephen Marks for mentioning that.
Joseph Scarbrough brought up "Desperate Housewives." That's a show that has always perplexed me. I never considered that show a comedy. At best it was a drama with comedic elements. Although, The Emmys© and Golden Globes© thought differently. Ironically, a show like "Northern Exposure" (one of my all time faves) had far more genuine humor than D.H., yet it was considered a drama.

And sorry, Ken. There were many times when "M*A*S*H" was more drama than comedy. In fact, in the later seasons it could get downright maudlin.

As for old sitcoms that I never liked, I never thought that "Leave it to Beaver" or "Father Knows Best" were the least bit funny. Not as a little kid or as an adult. Yet, they maintain "classic" status.
P.S. Speaking of F.K.B., maybe one day you could do a poll on T.V. crushes?

VP81955 said...

Different performers have different approaches to comedy. In the early 1920s, Constance Talmadge, a major silent comic star of the time although unfortunately forgotten today, was interviewed and said she received many scripts from prospective writers, but rejected nearly all of them because they were too in the vein of slapstick a la Mabel Normand. Connie's forte was the comedy of manners, an entirely different animal; she wasn't as vivacious a comedienne as Colleen Moore or Clara Bow, but had her own appeal.

That dichotomy continued into the sound era, especially after the Production Code was firmly enforced in mid-1934 and studios had to give beauties such as Carole Lombard, Joan Blondell and Myrna Loy good, smart dialogue and characterization, not merely show off their figures in lingerie. (This came at just the right time for Myrna, whose ankles were thickening from her days as a Sid Grauman dancer in the '20s.) While Lombard and Loy had distinctly different styles -- one wishes someone had teamed them on screen, as they were friends in real life -- each developed personas just right for the new rom-com sub-genre known as "screwball." (It fell out of favor by the early '40s, as Ernst Lubitsch's unexpected film farewell for Lombard, "To Be Or Not To Be," was a dark comedy which complemented that wartime environment and was a considerable departure for the director.)

Todd Everett said...

Least funniest old radio show comedy: The Aldrich Family. I cannot stand it. I don’t think I’ve laughed at it once.

I feel the same way about James Bond films: I've watched them all, and didn't find one of them worth the ticket.

Jahn Ghalt said...

Mad Men is a deadly serious drama with comic moments.

The most "reliable" ones were all the Roger Sterling quips - showing that he was a very clever man.

Most of the comic moments were "dark" or "black" - the Sterling quip Mr. Jencarelli mentioned above was at Guy McKendrick's "expense" - albeit out of earshot.

Is it comic that Sterling himself - name on the building and agency was entirely omitted - pre-amputation - from PP&L's org chart in that episode?

The opening scene featured Don Draper and a waiter commenting in the context of a Reader's Digest article - "the ladies DO love their magazines." Given that it addressed cancer and smoking - the joke was on them - both confirmed smokers.

How about the scene where Duck Phillis is barely prevented from leaving a scatological "message" by Peggy's exclamation ("that's ROGER's chair!"). That same episode the joke's on Roger, when he drunkenly can't recall the year of a taped memoir story.

What do you call it when a character tells an actual joke?

(Greg Harris' hillbilly joke (stiching Joan's hand), the Japanese doctor joke at the Oklahoma VFW)

Come to think of it, it was darkly funny (and within earshot) when Joan tried to "escape" Greg's clutches before the hillbilly joke, trying to go to the "emergency room."

When Don Draper finds one of his bottles in the Ossining house kitchen years after moving out - that's comedic - and Betty smiled at it along with many in the audience.


On a related note - it would be very interesting to get more on Mr. Isaac's role "in the room" for Mad Men - or perhaps pick that up next time he makes a podcast appearance.

benson said...

But isn't all this because we have to put labels on things.

If you're pitching a series, if you're writing a review, whatever it might be, the piece you are talking about requires a label to describe, but when it comes right down to it, who cares what the label is. Only one question needs to be answered. Did it entertain, engage, compel?

Obviously Doris Day movies and Blazing Saddles are apples and oranges. I watched some of the TCM Doris Day salute last night. Ive seen all the movies multiple times, but it still was entertaining. So is Blazing Saddles. I don't go in to watching one of these with a clipboard and a chart to count laughs.

It either entertains or it doesn't.

therealshell said...

It wasn't supposed to be funny, was it ?

Rob D said...

@Eduardo — good call on that MAD MEN episode. And I love the clever episode title that sets up an implied joke. ( “... And He Doesn’t Walk Out”j

Lorimartian said...

Speaking of comedy and not knowing if you will review the Tony telecast last night, I just wanted to mention Gary Beach, whose passing, of which I was unaware, was included in the In Memoriam segment. My late companion and I were fortunate to see him in the role of Thenardier in a touring production of "Les Miserables." He was fantastic. Subsequently, I drove my companion to an audition for "Lend Me A Tenor," and as I waited in the car, out he comes with Gary Beach, who was also auditioning and beyond gracious. Among his many credits were Lumiere in the Broadway production of the "Beauty and the Beast" musical and, of course, the flamboyant Roger De Bris in "The Producers," for which he won the Tony and reprised the role in the film. A truly spectacular talent. RIP

Rich said...

Comedy became ill in 2004 then Chuck Lorre treated comedy like old yeller

Danny said...


If you want to see a funny Doris Day movie, check out THE THRILL OF IT ALL, from 1963, which was written by Carl Reiner and Larry Gelbart.

Filippo said...

I am not funny person, I don't know why is that. I also have a bad memory so I keep forgetting all the jokes that I hear.

But I keep hearing about some formula to write jokes that apparently some comedy writers use.
Can Ken or anyone else suggest good books on comedy writing if they exist?

E. Yarber said...

From Palimpest, by Gore Vidal:

Tennessee worked every morning on whatever was at hand. If there was no play to be finished or new dialogue to be sent round to the theater, he would open a drawer and take out the draft of a story already written and begin to rewrite it. I once found him revising a short story that had just been published. "Why," I asked, "rewrite what's already in print?" He looked at me, vaguely; then he said, "Well, obviously it's not finished." And went back to his typing.

In Paris, he gave me the story, "Rubio y Morena" to read. I didn't like it. So fix it, he said. He knew, of course, that there is no fixing someone else's story (or life), but he was curious to see what I would do. So I reversed backward-running sentences, removed repetitions, eliminated half those adjectives and adverbs that he always insisted do their work in pairs. I was proud of the result. He was deeply irritated. "What you have done is remove my style, which is all that I have."

Tennessee could not possess his own life until he had written about it. This is common. To start with, there would be, let us say,
I had long since forgotten why I called him the Glorious Bird until I came to reread his stories for a preface that I would write. The image of the bird is everywhere in his work. The bird is flight, poetry, life. The bird is time, death: "Have you ever seen the skeleton of a bird? If you have you will know how completely they are still flying." In his last story, written at seventy-one, "The Negative," he wrote of a poet who can no longer assemble a poem. "Am I a wingless bird?" he writes; and soars no longer.


The fiercely busy and tragical director Kazan was Stanislavsky to the Bird's Chekhov. Where Tennessee or Chekhov intended a comic effect, the two directors insisted on fierce passion and tears. Invariably, at the end of A Streetcar Named Desire, when the audience was barking like seals as the broken Blanche DuBois is led away, with the poignant cry, "I have always depended upon the kindness of strangers," the Bird's whoop of laughter would echo in the snuffling theater, and he would say, loudly, "Now she's off to the bughouse."

In London I acted as interpreter between the Bird and Claire Bloom when she was about to take on the role of Blanche The Bird didn't think she was right for the part, but he had agreed to the production. Claire was jittery. He offered her a cigarette. "I don't smoke," she said, grabbing the cigarette and inhaling it deeply as he lit it. "Except one, just before dinner, always in the evening," she babbled. The Bird looked at her suspiciously; then he said, "Do you have any questions about the play?"

"Yes," Claire pulled herself together. "What happens after the final curtain?"

The Bird sat back in his chair, narrowed his eyes. "No actress has ever asked me that question." He shut his eyes; thought. "She will enjoy her time in the bin. She will seduce one or to of the more comely young doctors. Then she will be let free to open an attractive boutique in the French Quarter..."

"She wins."

"Oh, yes," said the Bird. "Blanche wins." The result was splendid. Claire gained greater and greater strength as the play proceeded, and, at the end, she leaves for the bin as a coronation. Audiences cheered, not knowing how one psychological adjustment, made in the smoke of one cigarette at dusk, had changed the nature of a famous play.

Loosehead said...

Biggest laugh I ever saw, pre-Blazing Saddles, was George Lazenby saying "this never happened to the other guy", and I don't think that film was a comedy.

Ralph C. said...

I guess a show or movie has to be categorized as something, since humans need everything defined, labeled and explained. So you call something a “dramactionedy” then hoped people watch it.

Anonymous said...

Stephen Marks you said it well.

This post is downright bizarre, and I am now wondering whether Ken's blog was hacked by the Russians.

Sitcoms like "The Donna Reed Show" and "Andy Griffith Show" were never meant to have people continuously rolling in the aisles with laughter (though that's not to say they didn't at times).

Those shows are written with mixes of laughter, the everyday ups and downs of normal life, but with an optimistic ending of hope, and that everything will sort itself out OK eventually (which is in part why TV is so often better than real life).

Next thing you'll be telling me is that the only comedy on TV should be stand up Comedy Central specials (and even stand ups know that you have to have serious periods in your routine if you're on for longer than about 10 minutes).

As a comedy writer surely the way to win your character's attachment to audiences is not the yuk yuk moments, but in the scenes where the laughter is put aside for the "quieter" meaningful moments.

Greg Ehrbar said...

It should be noted here that Nick at Nite turned The Donna Reed Show into a laugh fest by creating promo spots that deliberately made a mockery of the series' wholesome nature. I recall one spot that ended with Donna weeping softly and saying, "I love cheese."

The effect was that viewers who might not have watched The Donna Reed Show now tuned in to count those hearty laughs -- not the gentle chuckles intended by the writers, but the moments deconstructed for a more cynical era. Nick at Nite did similar work with their other shows as well.

Stephen Robinson said...

I was taught ages ago in college that comedy is technically a story that ends happily. There's a specific structure. However, laughs aren't required. Some tragedies, for instance, can be hilarious: I've laughed more at GOODFELLAS than any Judd Apatow comedy (no offense to Mr. Apatow).

Ken and David wrote one of my favorite CHEERS episodes ("Don't Paint Your Chickens"). It's structured like a tragedy and ends as such, but it's laugh out loud funny. I agree with Ken that nowadays we define comedy by the amount of laughs less so than its structure.

blogward said...

Were there any gags in Game Of Thrones I should know about? Apart from the premise itself, that is.