Thursday, July 13, 2006

Feedback from yesterday

First of all, thanks to all those of you who participated in the punch line exercise. Some great jokes pitched and also some jokes that fell into traps I’ll discuss.

A number of people commented on Julie W.’s, which were all fabulous. In case you missed them:

EARL: Raylene, it's good to see you, but if you didn't get your braces off yet, I gotta pass.

CURB: Hi. Charlie Sheen's place is actually two doors down. Both Mediterraneans, though. Understandable mistake - happens all the time. (as she starts to get up) You know what? Why don't you take the sheets with you? They're Italian. Very soft. (beat) And the pillowcases. (beat) And the pillows.

KING: Is my wife under the covers with you oh dear God please say yes.

FAMILY: This reminds me of the time Richard Gere paid me a thousand dollars to spend the weekend with him in a fancy hotel suite.
cut to:
Richard Gere and Peter (dressed as Julia Roberts in "Pretty Woman") in the lobby of the Regent Beverly Wilshire. Richard opens a jewelry box. Peter reaches in delicately to take the necklace. Richard snaps the box closed on his hand. But instead of laughing adorably like Julia did... PETER: "Ow! What the hell? You son of a bitch, that hurt!" RICHARD: "I'm sorry. I... I thought it would be cute. PETER: "Well, it was not, Richard. It was not."

There were other equally good lines contributed too. But all of Julie’s were fresh, funny, within the contexts of those shows, and generally had offbeat unexpected spins.

Here are a few of the traps. I point these out only to identify them so they can be avoided in the future, especially in specs.

I purposely used a hooker in the set up to establish a possible taste trap. With a sexual reference you need to deftly be funny without going over the line. Mentions of 69 and Chlamydia cross that line. If you think a reader might say “Yikes!” when he reads a joke, lose it. Same with the Jewish and ethnic jokes. There’s a fine line between outrageous and inappropriate, even for an out-there show like FAMILY GUY. One contributor pitched a Holocaust joke that NO show would EVER do. Come on. Use your better judgement.

Some people went for the obvious character traits. Earl and his list for example. If it’s the first thing you think of, stop, take a moment, and see if there is something fresher.

Some were too long. One contributor even acknowledged it. The shorter, the better.

Name mentions in general can be a trap. They date the show. That’s one of the problems with MURPHY BROWN in syndication. Willard Scott jokes and Dan Quayle jokes don’t hold up.

There were a number of jokes pitched that quite frankly I didn’t even get. Either they were convoluted or illogical or just weird. If you write a spec, have some friends read it before sending it out. If there are jokes they don’t understand don’t explain them to them. Replace them with clearer jokes.

Did you notice how much easier it was to come up with jokes for Earl and Larry rather than Doug? That’s because Earl and Larry and better defined comic characters, with very well conceived personas. Doug is sort of just, well…a guy. When creating your characters keep that in mind. Peter is easy to write for also because he’s a cartoon and not constrained by reality. But sometimes too much freedom can be worse than too little. There’s a danger of being too silly, too outrageous, too forced.

Again, thanks to all who participated. And you’re welcome to keep participating. And watch these four shows to see if they lift any of the lines pitched.


Anonymous said...

Wow. Thanks, Ken. I take it as an extremely high complement coming from a writer I've admired for years. It was fun!


Danny Stack said...

Great exercise! And that Family Guy gag is pure class. Get on that writing team now!

Anonymous said...

I crossed the line with the "number 69 on my list" and knew it the moment I submitted my punchlines.

Thanks for the fun exercise though.

Inspired by learning that Carson wrote about 5 jokes for Letterman each day until he died, my friends and I created "Joke Club." In it, we try to come up with monologue jokes tailored for every late-night host. A lot tougher than we first thought, but a great tool in helping you suss out which words can deliver the most impact.

P.S. I hadn't read any of the submissions before I submitted my own, but yeah Julie W., you nailed it.

Anonymous said...

I was anonymous, and mentioned how in awe I was of Julies' writing. I should have mentioned then, it was all the things Ken mentioned, but especially emphasis on, the characters. To me those WERE the characters come alive.

That is SO hard to do. And as Ken said, even harder NOT to do the quick easy thing (like the difference between what an impersonator/mimic would do which would be the MOST obvious character trait) but instead have them do something "real". The telltale with Julies' to me was, each moment for each series..clearly was in a bigger context. I mean, it was a moment that you felt had a past leading up to it, and a future coming out of it.

I'm no writer, but I imagine with good jokes like that you COULD probably write a whole show both back and forward in time based on them.

Sean Keegan-Landis said...

I think you misdiagnosed why it is more difficult to write a punchline for Doug than for Earl or Larry.

I don't think Doug is a less defined comic character. I think the prostitute scenario is less expected and needs to be taken more seriously in Doug's world.

Larry and Earl can weather a hooker encounter fairly nonchalantly. With Doug, the show hinges on his marriage, so the stakes seem higher. That's why I would expect a more (though not entirely) serious initial response. I think this is what makes it harder to write a funny line for Doug.

Tenspeed & Brownshoe said...

I think one of the other interesting things to come out of this exercise is to see why most sitcoms are just awful.

Julie W's lines are fresh and funny. Which means, the next show she gets on will surely be canceled.

So the next time you wonder why Hollyood is so closed off and that they don't give anyone a chance, refer back to this post. Out of the more than 30 responses, how many were actually funny?


Anonymous said...


Well, the last show I was on DID get cancelled, but it was more of a casualty of the WB/UPN merger than anything else. At least, that's what we're telling ourselves.


p.s. Ken -- this pitching season, it seems like there are a lot of spec pilots floating around. I'd love to hear your thoughts on writing pilots on spec vs. pitching. (And who should do what -- i.e. a "mid-level" person like me vs. a baby writer vs. a proven showrunner)

Anonymous said...

Hi. I'm a first time contributor to this website for this fun, but tricky little excercise. It really goes to show you how difficult it can be to come up with the perfect punchline. I come from the school of comedy in which the setup is just as if not more important than the actual punchline. I think it threw me off a little bit that the setup was visual when usually in sitcoms it's pretty much all dialogue (which is my strong point). Yeah, I like to layer my comedy a little more, with a setup, punchline, then another punchline off that punchline (similar to what Everybody Loves Raymond does...or...did). Yeah...well...Julie's were flawless.

Murph said...

I forgot to ask:

When you ate with the Mariners' broadcast crew, did Niehaus buy you a grand salami sandwich?