Saturday, October 14, 2006

Don't stab the frog

A post from the beginning of the year worth re-posting.

A reader 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...

Weren't there many "Bar Wars" episodes? Or maybe I'm confusing that with the Janet Eldridge episodes, I know there were a few of those with the same title.

Anonymous said...

For me, "stabbing the frog" means something completely different. I like your meaning, though.

JUST ME said...

You a very smart individual.

...and I only needed to stab a frog once to know I never want to do it again.

Dwacon said...

Hmm... the only way to tell if something is funny is to have an audience?

Okay... try conducting your next read-thru in an insane asylum.

No, Ken... I mean an *ACTUAL* insane asylum.

You know... one with doctors and nurses and... like Nurse Ratchet.

Although, you won't get me near one unless the nurses are named Hoolihan or Brancuzzi.

And let's not go into British humor. That's a horse of an entirely different wheelbase.

David in PS said...

Plus, it had sheep!!!

Anonymous said...

At one time I did standup comedy, and I had come up with a new routine. On open mic night, when those of us who were good enough to get the occasional weekend gig would get paid to do a double long set so that the audience didn't feel upset or angry, I did it for the other comics. They all laughed except for one.

So I went up on stage and I added the set of jokes to my routine. The reason I'm not posting them here is because they were obviously NOT funny. NOBODY laughed. Just terrible.

That night I learned the most important lesson I learned in two years of doing standup. I don't know what's funny. I think I'm funny, and, for a time, was able to convince some booking agents that I was funny. There is no relationship between being funny and knowing what's funny.

And, of course, other funny people are a terrible gauge of what's funny, too. So I'm beginning to believe that the writer's room is just not that useful. But readthroughs are.

But then, I don't write for others. So I don't know what I'm talking about.