Sunday, April 13, 2008

Sitcom room terms

Last day to entry Ken's Komedy Kontest. Go here. 11:59 PM PDT Monday is the deadline. A lot of GREAT ones so far. And may I just say -- some of you people are bizarre. Good luck. And now back to your regularly scheduled post.

You gotta know the lingo. Sitcom writing rooms have their own terms and expressions and if you ever plan on being in one (either by choice or force) you might want to know a few of them. This is the first in a series of posts explaining some of these terms. You’ll also be able to really impress the chicks Friday nights at Bennigan’s.

Callbacks -- Doing a joke based on something already mentioned in the scene.

Hey May – Supposedly from Carl Reiner and the old DICK VAN DYKE SHOW. It’s an act break so great that a husband yells to his wife in the kichen: “Hey, May, you gotta get in here!”

Swinging in on a rope -- A side character enters the screen, delivers a joke, then leaves. We used to do that a lot with Carla on CHEERS. Sam and Diane are having a discussion. She swings in, takes a shot at Diane, and keeps moving.

Button – Final joke of a scene.

Blow -- Same as button but sounds more “street”.

Pipe – Exposition. We had a character on ALMOST PERFECT whose basic function was to come into the room and deliver pipe. So we named her Piper.

Clam -- Overused joke.

Sheboygan – A joke too over-the-top.

B story -- A subplot. Often ensemble shows resort to these to give cast members not involved in the main story something to do in the show and keep them off the writers' backs.

Beats – events that occur in a scene.

House number -- Supposedly from the Norman Lear days. Pitching an idea or joke that’s more of an example than the actual pitch you intend to go in the script. You use it to preface your pitch. It’s a good disclaimer in case everyone in the room thinks it’s a stupid idea and you’re an idiot.

Savers -- Damage control jokes right after your real joke pitch dies a horrible death. It was Johnny Carson's best friend.

Captain Obvious -- Pointing out a problem that even the craft services guy could identify.

Grammar police -- Writers whose only contribution in rewrites is correcting grammar. You want to dangle their participle over a lake of snapping alligators.

Proofer’s Challenge – Some technicality you come across during a rewrite that’s not worth everyone’s time to settle. What food should be on the table? What was the year of that Superbowl? It’s left to the person proofing that night.

Throwing a bone -- Giving an actor a joke because he doesn’t have much to do in a scene or you don’t think he’s very good but have to service him anyway. Usually it's the actor the network forced you to take.

More terms in the next few weeks. But this should get you through the first drink at Bennigan’s.


Bitter Animator said...

Pipe, eh? Obvious exposition has a habit of throwing me right out of a story. Hey, remember when we did that thing we did? And so on.

What's the best way to hide exposition?

By Ken Levine said...

Hide it in a joke. Dole it out slowly. Try not to do it all at once. Even when we used "Piper" we still gave her laughs.

Chris L said...

I like the exposition in Back to the Future. It goes on for at least half an hour, somehow stays entertaining and funny, and everything that is said or done is recalled later.

Willy B. Good said...

If Traci Lords is in Bennigans Friday can someone throw a few funny bones at her for me.


Jon88 said...

I've never met anyone more proud of their inability to spell or use proper grammar than writers. And on behalf of all of us who make at least part of our living as proofreaders, I thank you.

Anonymous said...

Wait, so there are women who hang out at Bennigan's who are into writers? Why am I just now hearing about this?

April said...

I heard a great saver on Colbert Report the other night. He made a joke about San Francisco being an easy city to burn. The audience groaned, and Stephen came right back with, "too soon? Really?"

Matt said...

Where does "Sheboygan" come from?

Also, I'm confused how some of these are used in a sentence. Like, how exactly does "House number" fit in? "This is just a house number, but..." or something like that?

Annie said...

Rats. Now I have to find someplace else to hang out besides Bennigan's. Thanks for blowin' my cover, Ken. ;p

Anonymous said...

Come to think of it, last time I was in a Bennigan's on a Friday night and used sentences that included "Swinging on a rope," "blow," "pipe," "clam," and "throwing a bone," I was maced three times and kneed in the groin twice before the police arrived.

Anonymous said...

Usually it's the actor the network forced you to take.

Names. I want names.

Carla's ropeswings were some of my favorite lines on Cheers. As was Cliff's rejoinder to one them, after Carla came up to the bar, took a shot at him, and walked away.

"Can't we put a bell on her?"

Yes, I am a huge Cheers geek. And proud of it.

DougJ said...

I have a variation on pipe:

a Jessica Seinfeld - exposition hidden in a joke you ripped off from another writer.

Anonymous said...

Here are three more from my days in such rooms...

"This Week Joke" -- That's a joke that's topical and if may be hilarious but it probably won't be by the time show is rerun.

"Out" -- A line or event that feels like the end of a scene so that it can be the end of a scene, as in "We need an out here."

"A card" -- This was a cruel practice at some sitcoms of the seventies. Some writer would say something that was so stupid that even he or she would realize its inanity. Someone would yell, "That's a card" and then they'd roll a 3 by 7 card into a typewriter (this was back when we had typewriters), type out the quote and then the person who uttered the line would have to sign the card, after which it would be pinned up on the wall. Some writers were known to sneak in a few days later and quietly remove their card from the wall if they could do so without being noticed.

And I'll probably think of other ones.

Anonymous said...

Oops. I meant a 3 by 5 card. Maybe that should be a card.

Annie said...

jbryant - that was you? Sorry. But you seemed to enjoy being kneed. That's why I stopped.

Anonymous said...

Yes, annie, you tease - that was me. If you want to pick up where we left off, you can find my number on the curb outside Bennigans. I had just enough time to write it in blood before the cops hauled me off.

Anonymous said...

I thought "Grammar police" were the traffic cops keeping an eye on Kelsey after he crashed his Viper...

Anonymous said...

The watching of reruns of "Cheers" when me feel about Ted Danson about the boston bar.

Anonymous said...

Say what now?

Anonymous said...

Personally, I always made a distinction between a button and a blow. A button is a line that might provoke enough of a giggle from the audience to get you out of a scene (and allow the producers to tiptoe back into the shadows).

A blow, on the other hand, is a huge joke, provoking major laughter. Obviously, blows are harder to generate. Many shows don't even try for them.

Another room term is "Here we are in sunny Spain", applied to lines in which one character tells another character something they both know, but the audience doesn't, and presented in a particularly bald way. There's a lot of that going on in John Adams: "Well, Mr. Jefferson, we're all here to sign a declaration of our independence from England," etc.