Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Stabbing the frog

Thanks again to everyone who logged in yesterday. I’m blown away by the response and the very generous comments. Wow. I’m proud to know me. In the days ahead I will try to get to all of your questions.

First one up -- Jason Looney wondered how we analyze jokes, know when they’re bad, etc.?

The truth is we try NOT to analyze them. We have an expression – “Stabbing the frog”. Remember 10th grade science class? You’d have this cute little frog bouncing around. Then you’d stab him, dissect him, and uncover all the secrets of what makes a frog. Only problem is – the cute little guy is now dead.

Same with comedy. In a writers’ room someone will pitch a joke. We’ll all laugh. Then someone will pick it apart. Someone else will want to change a word. A discussion might ensue. Variations proposed until finally no one can remember what the hell was funny in the first place. So when a staffer starts that, another might yell out “You’re stabbing the frog!” Generally, when someone pitches a line and everyone laughs, just put it in the script like that.

Don’t stab the frog … unless it’s Michigan J.

I personally don’t believe you can analyze comedy. I know there are theories. Absurdity plus irony…or tragedy plus time…or cowboys plus beans. But it all seems ridiculous.

How do you know when a joke will work? Instinct, experience, a keenly honed sense of humor – and then you’re still wrong half the time. That’s one of the reasons why it’s good to have a partner or be in a room with other writers – feedback from people you trust is very valuable.

And there’s a reason you have table readings, runthroughs, test screenings, preview audiences. The only accurate judge of whether something’s funny is an audience.

The tough part for a writer is to be objective. During runthroughs it’s tempting to laugh. You have a stake in the material. Either you wrote it or you know that changing it will mean extra work. You have to be ruthless, leave your ego at the door, and not have tickets to the McCartney concert.

And yet it still amazes me. You’ll have a script that goes through the roof. Next week’s table reading – a steaming turd. Same geniuses that wrote last week’s show. What happened? How did we suddenly become collectively stupid?

Ultimately, you have to do what makes you laugh and hope that others will laugh as well. The scariest script my partner, David and I ever wrote was the “Bar Wars” episode of CHEERS. It was the end of a season, they needed one more script, we banged it out quickly, and turned it in. The next day a Writers Guild strike erupted unexpectedly. Shows were allowed to shoot existing scripts but not rewrite. So they filmed our first draft, word for word. We had no chance to revise it, punch up jokes that didn’t work, make trims, etc. Needless to say, the night of the filming was terrifying. It was here we were going to be exposed as frauds. Fortunately, the show went well (although there were still plenty of little things I would have improved). I was never more relieved in my life. Because if it hadn’t gone well, I was the frog that was going to get stabbed that night.


Anonymous said...

I just wanted to be the first to say...congrats on your 101st.

I really enjoy your work.

Alex Epstein said...

The frog phrase might come from EB White, something like "Analyzing comedy is like dissecting a frog. No one is much interested, and it's unhealthy for the frog."

The best analysis of what makes comedy funny came from my friend DJ McCarthey, who said the essence is to get the audience on a train heading one way and then derail the train. Make of that what you will.

doggans said...

//The best analysis of what makes comedy funny came from my friend DJ McCarthey, who said the essence is to get the audience on a train heading one way and then derail the train. Make of that what you will.//

I always enjoyed how early episodes of "Family Guy" would often set up a familiar joke or gag and then completely change the punchline. The original joke would have been amusing, but the changed joke was usually shocking and hilarious.

secretGeek said...

i always thought the frog comment came from woody allen.

i like steve martin's take on comedy where he said in a standup routine, something like:

"tonight, if i simply make you laugh, then i have succeeded. but if i make you stop and think, then i have failed."

DeweyWeber said...

Hi Ken. You're writing on the blog is funnier than just about any sitcom on the air today (except the ones you've written).

I was, and still am, a huge WINGS fan. It was always a funny, yet warm and laid-back show.

Keep writing the blog and and we'll
be reading.

(I'm still a radio dj on an Oldies station. I'll try to slide in JOHNNY GOT ANGRY for you tomorrow.)

Anonymous said...

There are only four kinds of joke, as depicted on the 'joke matrix'. There's the logical premise with illogical outcome, the illogical premise with illogical outcome, the illogical premise with logical outcome, and the logical premise with logical outcome. But that last one is actually just a fact.

aquariusacquah said...

I am doing a school project on trends of comedy and how sitcom characters work well together and I was wondering if I could conduct an interview on you, Ken Levine. Is this possible? If so I would I do something like this.