Sunday, July 05, 2009

Writing tip: Beating jokes

When is something funny enough? That’s a little hard to say since every example is different and every case is subjective. But as a general rule, whenever I write a joke I ask myself two questions.

Is it funny?

What would be funnier?

Just getting a yes on the first question is no easy task. And by funny I mean FUNNY. Not wry, not amusing, not lol, not smiley face, but something that will make people actually laugh. And not just people – strangers. It’s hard. It’s why they used to pay the big money.

So when you feel your joke has passed the rigorous mirth test it’s tempting to take a moment, pat yourself on the back for being a comic genius, and move on to the next triumph That’s what most comedy writers do.

Don’t be one of them. Ask the second question. How can you make the joke funnier? What’s a more offbeat reference that achieves the same result? What’s fresher? Is there a better set up? Is the wording just perfect? Or is there just a better line altogether?

Small example of a joke just to give you a sense of my thought process. When Manny Ramirez was suspended for violating baseball’s drug policy I was asked if I was surprised. My first thought was, “At this point I wouldn’t be surprised if Mother Teresa was a dope dealer.” The incongruity of Mother Teresa selling drugs seemed funny. But “is there something better than dope dealer? What I came up with is this: “I wouldn’t be surprised if Mother Teresa was a gun runner.” That seemed to suggest a funnier image, Mother Teresa haggling with terrorists over AK-47’s.

At some point of course you've got to land on a joke and go with it otherwise you can spend the next fifty years trying to get Liz Lemon out of a room. But don't just automatically settle for the first thing you come up with. That sounds obvious but you'd be surprised how many writers do.

A better example is the hilarious current release THE HANGOVER. How many bachelor party gone-bad-in-Vegas screenplays do you think there’ve been? A thousand? Ten? Four idiots getting shitfaced and in trouble in sin city is comic gold. But I bet none of those scripts had tigers, chickens, missing babies, and Mike Tyson. Okay, well most of them didn’t have Mike Tyson. But you catch my drift. Reach.

There’s an expression in the writing room – “Can we beat this joke?” Don’t settle. ESPECIALLY if you’re writing a spec script.

Eventually you’ll train yourself to automatically think that second question. It could be the subtle difference between good and “you’re hired”.

27 comments :

jbryant said...

If you had wanted to stick with the drug dealer angle, would it have been funnier to answer, “At this point I wouldn’t be surprised if Mother Teresa was his dealer.”

Upside: The line ties in more directly with Ramirez and his situation.

Downside: Mother Teresa has been dead for a number of years.

willie b said...

Here's a Friday question:
Why are most sticom writers scared of marriage and babies? After all, aren't many of them married with children (to drop a name)? One of the interesting things I've noticed about the American "Office" is that they set up Pam and Jim with every typical sitcom breakup situation -- and the payoff is that they stay together anyway. To me, this makes sense...95% of the world meet, marry and have kids, and some truly funny stuff happens along the way. But sitcom writers never take the lead couple down this route, as if it will destroy the delicate balance of television or something. Heck, "The Dick Van Dyke Show" was five years of home AND work comedy! I'd love to see a show where a couple meet, marry and have kids, just like the rest of us, and are funny while doing it.

Matt said...

"But don't just automatically settle for the first thing you come up with. That sounds obvious but you'd be surprised how many writers do."

Do you honestly think we'd be surprised at how many writers there are that settle for the first thing they come up with? I've watched enough episodes of "According to Jim" (maybe two of them) and seen the commercials for "The Bill Engvall Show" among others to imagine that there are plenty of shows that are cranked out with no second thoughts given to their quality. And late-night monologues are the worst. After 8 years of Bush-is-stupid jokes and 15 years of Bill and Monica jokes, they should realize there is no fresh way to do them. And they don't even try. As soon as you hear the word wind, you know you're going to hear the word blow, and you know Bill Clinton is next.
I'm surprised when I do see that effort has gone into a sitcom's writing.
As far as Mother Teresa, I would keep the reference closer to the church, as in, "I wouldn't be surprised if she were [let's not forsake the subjunctive] spiking Communion wine." I always think it's funnier if it stays closer to reality. Not that there's anything wrong with non-sequiter (if that's the right term). I love Monty Python. A matter of taste I'm sure.

Eileen Heisler said...

Wow... beating a joke. That sounds like a lot of work.

John Pearley Huffman said...

Is there anything that doesn't improve with multiple beatings?

Mitchel said...

The fact is funny is hard. It takes talent. If it was just hard work I believe most shows would be funny. Writing staffs work very hard. And LONG hours. They aren't settling. They're doing the best they can. Often they are oblivious to how average the work is.
I often tell people if they think they can do better, show us.

Anonymous said...

I can always look to Futurama to provide examples of the border between something that uses understanding of character to deliver absurd wit (and one laughs at it) and the delivery of joke after joke (also possible to laugh) - like in one scene Leela has hallucinated everyone singing a musical number, when she then rubs her eyes and sees the situation normal again, she asks them directly, did you just sing and dance, each one answers no, Bender caps it by saying first "no", and then followed after the right amount of space with - "I'm not allowed to. Court Orders"

It just comes from nowhere in the scene, yet it sounds natural to the character and adds the right amount of twist to a sequence that is otherwise just consists of evident responses to a question we all know the answer to. And best is, everything in the scene just continues to move forward.

IF it were Family Guy, that scene would be followed by a painful "flashback" to show you what he means, hammering it over the head. If it were alot of sitcoms the line would be hammered into a "joke" form, either a character would then ask further about it, or make some extra comment to hammer it on the head, or the line would have been removed from the script, as isn't part of a full-fledged joke.

property said...

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You are doing very well job! keep it up.

playfull said...

Question?

Does it cause friction in the writing room if a writer comes up with a gag and another writer tops/improves it?

Especially if someone makes a habit of improving other's gags?

Manny Ramirez said...

Thanks Mr. L. IMHO The issue with 'dope dealer' is that it's a bit dated, a teensy bit Bob Hopey, and also a stretch to associate with Mother Teresa. The gun runner reference is more unexpected, wilder, but strangely more appropriate as a calumny for a dead nun - and it has less of a judgmental angle to it.

There are only four kinds of joke.

Illogical setup > logical result (eg most of The Far Side, 'far-fetched' comedy, Third Rock sort of thing)

Illogical setup > illogical result (you know, Hellzapoppin stuff)

Logical setup > illogical result (Thirty Rock, more overtly satirical stuff (see what I did?))

Logical setup > Logical result. (Three out of four ain't bad)

Tony said...

The sadly deceased Alan Coren (a consistently hilarious British (print) writer for over 40 years) gave some advice that tacks nicely onto the end of Ken's. Something like:

Don't write the first thing that comes into your head: everyone will write that.

Don't write the 2nd thing that comes into your head: all the smart kids will write that.

The third thing you think of will (hopefully) be unique.

emily said...

"You are doing very well job!"

I didn't realize outsourced tech support guys were into this blog.

Anonymous said...

A HANGOVER question:

Is the success of THE HANGOVER good news or bad news for MY vegas bachelor party script? My premise is completely different, btw. Only the setting is the same.

TVBlogster said...

Just to expound on what "willie b" said above: In terms of writers being scared of marriage and babies, you'd be surprised by commentary from "Office" fan sites that suggest it's the audience who is scared of the Halpert pregnancy and the writers' motive. Viewers note they've been burned by baby plot lines from other sitcoms, and fear if written into the show, it signals the end of the series. After all, according to the negative pundits, baby + marriage between the two top characters = no more ideas in the writer's room, and eventually, no more show.

They don't trust the writers. Once a heart warming comedy with smarts, "The Office" has become broader in comedic style, manufacturing cringe worthy moments rather than allowing them to flourish organically. Also, the multiple episodes commissioned by NBC Universal, plus the newly famous cast's outside film obligations, rendered a tight production schedule, and may have left the door open for errors and carelessness on continuity issues, especially this past season. All this has weakened the faith of the faithful viewers. So, they hate the idea of a Halpert kid.

I've been disappointed in the writers, but I understand the challenges they face with viewers and the network's demands. They can pull this off. Just the fact they've kept Jim and Pam together without the silly drama of a break up, is a sign the writers know what they're doing.

Bill Peschel said...

Scott Adams has another way of approaching humor. In his "The Joy of Work," he lists Six Dimensions of Humour with a picking a "Two of Six" rule: Cuteness, Meanness, Bizarreness, Recognisability, Naughtiness, Cleverness.

The goal is to try to get at least two into a strip. If he can get four, he hits Comedy Gold.

For example, one of my favorites is this one:

Panel 1: Alice complains to Wally over making popcorn in the microwave ("the smell makes me insane").

Panel 2: Wally: "I use to smell to mask my body odors. Pick your poison."

Panel 3: Dilbert: "Refueling the Hindenberg?" Wally: "Why are people so mean?"

This combines Recognisability (lingering popcorn smell), Bizarreness (masking body odors), Cleverness ("Hindenburg") and Meanness ("Why are people so mean?")

Ken, I've encountered your advice before. The Disney Imagineers call it "plusing," as in taking an idea and adding to it, making it better. Works very well, but very difficult to keep doing.

wondermut17 said...

Actually, this makes me feel better. I sometimes get criticized for taking jokes to far and for trying to do something people won't recognize.

But then I did write a script where a character has an Iron Man type suit that's used to make espresso...

I'm sure there's a middle ground.

Tim W. said...

willie b,

Sitcom writers, I don't think, are scared of marriage and babies. There are still plenty of sitcoms that take place in the revolve around marriage and family. The key there is that the premise of the sitcom revolves around marriage and family. When you introduce a new element to a sitcom, you change the premise and often times, the show suffers because of it.

Murphy Brown had a problem after she had a baby and suddenly had to focus more on her home life. Since the show's premise was a single woman who returns to work after checking into the Betty Ford Clinic and how she deals with her new co-workers, throwing in a baby changed it completely.

How much time do you give the baby, does the type of humour change because of it? Etc.

A marriage and baby add an entirely new dynamic to a show, and it's the show is successful, it can alter a very delicate balance.

When a successful shows adds an entirely new dynamic, it can often mean death to the show

- Rosanne's family wins the lottery, so they are no longer a working class family, which was the premise of the show. Did anyone even watch the last season?

- On Coach, Coach became a pro coach and moved to Florida. It lasted one more year.

- On Who's the Boss, as soon as the two leads became romantically involved, it changed the premise and died.

- Mork and Mindy had a kid who looked like a old guy.

- On Frazier, Niles and Daphne get together, which takes away a huge dynamic of the show. It was never the same after that (sorry, Ken)

Those are just a few random examples that came to mind. It's the changing of a dynamic that has the danger to upset a successful show's delicate balance that has made it a hit.

John said...

I would have waited until Manny came back for his Triple-A stint, and then had all the male and female fans at the games in Albuquerque cheering him on look like a bunch of hyper-ripped, musclebound freaks (the joke being when someone asks if the fans' Hulk/Thing look is due to steroids, they're told, no, it's due to nuclear radiation -- these are the Albuquerque Isotopes, you know).

Matt said...

Tim W.,

I have to disagree about Frazier. It changed after Niles and Daphne got together, but it was still just as good. First off, they had spent all those years where everyone BUT Daphne knew Niles liked her. Then they spent a season where only Daphne knew of Niles' feelings. That was so original. Then they kept finding ways to keep them apart. That's another of the reasons that kept me watching that show. Of course, the writers had given themselves an advantage in that they had established that farce was a common element of the show. I always felt the writing on Frazier was of the highest quality.

Chris said...

I have written a humor column for four and half years for newspapers in Kansas. The only time I got an e-mail chastising me for making fun of someone it was a Mother Teresa joke.

BigTed said...

It got a laugh?

All right, that's it for me! Goodnight
everybody!

Kirk Jusko said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post. I love reading the blog. Really good and insightful.

YEKIMI said...

The remake should have been called "The Faking of Pelham 1-2-3"

Daniel said...

This was one of the reasons why "The Gods Must Be Crazy Part 2" had me laughing so hard I nearly peed my pants. At every turn there was something hilariously unexpected.

God Is My Codependent said...

In one of Alan Jay Lerner's books he recalls writing for a radio show as a beginner. He handed in a script and was given it back with the comment, "The boss says to punch it up." He didn't know what that meant, so he asked. They guy said, "It means make it funnier." And Lerner said, "You mean they thought I could make it funnier and didn't?"

Nakabunot Kay said...

I am not a comedy writer. I am more into term paper writing and my tone is always serious and educational. I admire comedy writers because it is hard to create a joke that is really funny. You are right. Never because the second question must be answered with a yes too:)