Monday, September 24, 2007

Your punch lines, my feeback

Thanks to everyone who participated in the “YOU fill-in the punchline” contest-without-a-prize. Some thoughts about them…

But first, my announcement. I’ve been looking for a way to meet my readers – not easy to do since you’re spread out around the world. But I found a way to at least connect by phone. Next Tuesday, October 2nd from 4-5 P.D.T. I’m going to hold a teleseminar. It’s absolutely free, will accommodate the first 150 people, and did I mention it’s free? I’ll be answering your questions about writing – the kind of stuff I’ll be doing in print today, talking about specs, getting agents, tips, whatever you want.

Here’s how to sign up.

Just go to this website and register. Couldn’t be easier (I’m told).

It’s a way to talk about this goofy business informally, conversationally, and a way for me to better get to know you guys. And no salesman will call.

Update: We're already half full so if you want to participate please sign up. Thanks.

Now to the contest.

Most comedies are room written these days. So this type of challenge is what you’d face all day every day. It’s obviously easier when there are other people to bounce your ideas off of, and much more fun, but learning the skill of pitching just the right joke for specific situations is something you’ll need to know.

You guys pitched some GREAT entries, really funny, really original. Some not so great but that’s what I’m here for.

Remember the reality of your show. Peter can wake up in the Twilight Zone, Liz can’t. Earl can do voice-over, Larry can’t.

Beware of inside jokes. One had Liz saying, “Lorne, where’s the Emmy?” She’d have to break character to do that. We call this a “Room joke”. Usually there are five room jokes, and twenty disgusting sexual jokes pitched for every real one that goes into the script.

Follow instructions. After saying I wasn’t looking for scenes a few people still submitted scenes. When you’re in a rewrite room and the showrunner lays out what he’s not looking for and you pitch that, how happy do you think he’s going to be? Especially if it’s after midnight. And the Chinese food from six hours ago is sitting in his stomach like a cannonball.

There were some jokes pitched that frankly I just didn’t get. I had no idea what they meant. Not a clue for a couple of them.

Making pop references can be tricky. On the one hand they can really make a show sound hip and fresh, on the other, if the reference is too obscure you lose the audience. The exception to this is what we call “one percenters”. We know only a few people will get the reference but we don’t care and it’s not a big joke, more like a little aside. BACK TO YOU last week had a line blasting a “Mr. Robert Broder”. Bob Broder is a big TV agent. Fifteen people in America got that joke, but those of us who did loved it.

Then there’s the matter of taste problems. Yes, you can stretch the boundaries more today, especially on FAMILY GUY and CURB but there’s still a point where the audience goes “Yikes!” It’s a judgment call. In the room someone would pitch something reprehensible and we’d say, “Fine and then add the stage direction ‘the audience leaps over the railing and stones the writers’.” What if you have a joke and you’re not sure whether it’s crossed that line? Lose it. Err on the side of crowd control.

I loved how many of you realized that there wasn’t just a laugh in the line itself but also where the bed was. Earl winding up in a store window. Liz in a twin bed, Larry in a hammock, Liz on the Staten Island Ferry. Many of you found really hilarious places to put Peter. But you can do that within the FAMILY GUY world. There’s much more freedom in animation.

I’ll bet for most of you it was much easier coming up with lines for FAMILY GUY than 30 ROCK, right? You don’t have to worry about that pesky little thing called “reality”. But that’s why I would rather not read a spec animated script. I want to see if a writer can be funny when the situations and characters are real. FAMILY GUY not only allows you to actually use “room jokes”, they encourage them.

Many of the best pitches really dealt with getting underneath the characters. Larry worried about the sheets (that’s so Larry), overworked Liz saying, “If I’d been kidnapped it probably means I can sleep in”. Another Liz line I appreciated: “I’ll be your self-confidence challenged….whorish wake up call this morning.” I could hear her saying that. Larry would be more repulsed by his surroundings than Earl. Liz would be more philosophical than Larry. A lot of your pitches reflected the specifics of the characters. Good goin’.

Take caution with the Earl voice-overs. Some of them were very lonnnnnnng. Remember, the actor is on screen during all of this – doing what? A few sentences will suffice.

Along the way you guys had some great lines and observations. “Tequila is like the transporters in Star Trek minus all the accuracy”. Any number of stand-out quips.

And my favorite lines were the one that surprised me, that had a twist. All of the versions of “I knew I shouldn’t eat/drink _______ on an empty stomach” were the more expected approach. But Larry waking up in a hotel room and saying, “Yess!!” or Larry waking up next to a transvestite with a prosthetic leg and calling his wife to say, “I think I’m in New York” made me laugh. I didn’t see those punch lines coming.

All in all I would say this exercise was a rousing success. Thanks again to all who participated. I might do this again more often if the interest is there. And maybe I’ll even come up with a prize. Let me see if there’s anything I can re-gift from WINGS.


Richard Cooper said...

That WAS fun to read. Such a smörgåsbord of the swell and the swill. I think it's strange how some lines read so differently the next day, which makes me wonder how much editing goes into a script once the first draft is completed in the writers' room? Additionally, I can see how the room would give you some useful instant feedback, rather than having to wait for notes or reader comments. I think a great prize would be an autographed page from a shooting script--and it would only cost you an envelope and a postage stamp to get it to the winner. Wait, that should be the prize for the losers, so send mine immediately, please. Ha!

Unknown said...

I liked this review :-) I get the feeling that this is how The Sitcom Room is like and it's pretty motivating because you always tell the reader what to avoid and pick the lines you liked without naming the people who wrote them - they know they did but all the others who didn't get mentioned don't feel as if they did something wrong :-)

I know I'm not a comedy writer but the past two days I felt like one. Sweet :-)

"The Book of Don" said...

ken....I was wondering about budget in all of this. In the Family Guy joke room do the producers ever say "Sure, that's funny...but it'll cost too much or take too long to create the images" ???

Unknown said...

Sure they do. There's a difference between animating Peter himself just talking in front of a wall with a plant on a small table next to him (you most likely will only have to animate his mouth and maybe hands) and the opening sequence of "Blue Harvest" (the Star Wars Spoof from last Sunday).

There's always a difference when you employ different kinds of animation. You can read up on the "Make Love Not Warcraft" episode South Park did as the opening of the second part of season 10 last year. They use machinima (which means computer models based on a gaming engine I think, in this case the World of Warcraft game engine but it kind of is misleading because nowadays south park itself is created in Maya which is a 3D modeling computer-program).

It took the South Park team three weeks instead of the regular one week to do that episode because they were inexperienced in the process. The budget this way must have increased to about three times of that of the normal episode.

Anonymous said...

"It took the South Park team three weeks instead of the regular one week to do that episode because they were inexperienced in the process. The budget this way must have increased to about three times of that of the normal episode."

Well, thank god they won the Emmy.


Anonymous said...

Ken, I've no idea how this seminar thing would work, but is it possible you could offer it as an mp3 download after the event? Not being in the US I can't really phone in, but I'd love to hear your comments.

Bradford Oman said...

Interesting about the"room jokes" I'll be a man and take the hit (I submitted the "room joke" for 30 Rock about the Emmy. In writing it I knew that it totally broke Liz's character but thought it had some merit. But I definitely see what you mean about jokes only funny in the writer's room. I saw the post at the last minute and wanted to put in something, and just couldn't get the juices flowing for a well thought out punchline. Thanks for the feedback though, Ken. Much appreciated.

Noah said...

Thanks so much for doing this Ken. This was a lot of fun.

Anonymous said...

That was a good time. I'd definitely do it again. Thanks Ken!

sbehnke said...

Yeah this was fun, Ken. I'd love to do it again.

Anonymous said...

thanks, ken! this was a great exercise. thanks for giving us guidance and insight, as always. (thanks too for singling out my "tequila/star trek" earl line, and my "whorish wake-up call" liz line.) fun stuff.

Bienvenida said...

Thanks a lot for the exercise and the great feedback.

Cap'n Bob said...

Next time, how about using shows I watch: People's Court, Cops, Jeopardy!, and Eucharist For Shutins?

Rob said...

This just in.... Helen Mirren has clinched the American League West.

I refrained from writing one because my mind completely froze. I wanted to brilliant, and the only line I could think of was one for Peter Griffin.

"Holy crap! Where the hell am I."

That could explain why I work for an insurance company.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for all that. It was good fun. I'm tickled pink my prosthetic leg joke caught you by surprise.

The teleseminar sounds hard to attend as I'm not US based but I do have one or two dumb questions. Can I sign up anyway and send them in?

Anonymous said...

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Anyway for those who can not download Family guy from torrents and are looking for all Seasons of Family guy, they can download it from here -

Hope this helps others.

Anonymous said...

Great list!

You can watch southpark here for free