Monday, April 04, 2011

Should you keep a joke that only three people in America will get?

Comedy writing legend Jerry Belson once pitched a very obscure joke during a CHEERS rewrite. One of the Charles Brothers said, “Jerry, only three people in America are going to get that” to which Jerry said, “That’s good enough for me!”

A common question that all comedy writers ask from time to time is whether a particular reference is too obscure to get a laugh. The downside of course is that the joke bombs; the good side is that if it works it really works because the reference is so out of leftfield.

On MASH we called them “Three percenters”. We would make mention of an arcane actor from the ‘40s knowing most people would have no idea who he is (or was). But our thinking was this: a) we crammed so many jokes into an episode that if you didn’t get it, another one was coming two seconds later, b) we sprinkled in very few of these, and c) they added to the ambience and helped set the time period (much the same way as vintage wardrobe and hairstyles do).

I notice “Three percenters” from time to time on COMMUNITY. There will be quick pop culture references or lines of dialog from movies slipped in. Not everyone will get them. My sense is the producers know that and don’t care. They’re writing for a very specific audience. But here’s the key: specific but large.

Or at least large enough.  HOT IN CLEVELAND is designed for baby boomers.  TV LAND doesn't expect as large an audience as NBC but they do want a specific demographic.   And if you're 55 and have trouble with COMMUNITY and not get that an episode is spoofing RESERVOIR DOGS, you'll so welcome a show that makes a Twiggy joke.   

As always, it comes down to “know your target audience”. If you’re writing a spec it’s easier with an existing show. By watching astutely you can determine the level of their references. A Charlie Sheen joke might work on 30 ROCK but I wouldn’t do one on MIKE & MOLLY.

But what happens when you’re writing a pilot?  All bets are off.  Now there are no guidelines. Should you do that Sarah Clarke/TWILIGHT gag?   In general I would say this: agents, managers, executives – the people who will be reading your pilot – are by and large in their thirties. I think that gives you a lot of leeway – way more than you had when they were all in their forties and fifties. They probably know who Sarah Clarke is and they certainly know what TWILIGHT is.  So I wouldn’t self-censor yourself too much. Yes, you always run the risk that a reader might not get a reference and feel you’re belittling them (doing a joke that’s over their head), and to load your script with obtuse gags is insane, but comedy is about taking chances. So go for it. Maybe Jerry Belson was right. If the three people that get the joke are agents you’re submitting to, that is good enough for you.


Anonymous said...

I think my favorite joke in that vein from M*A*S*H was from an early episode written by Gelbart and Marks: "As Ralph Bellamy said, 'If I can't get the girl, at least give me more money.'"

Anthony said...

(That Ralph Bellamy comment wasn't meant to be anonymous. I just chose the wrong radio button.)

Dan J said...

LISA SIMPSON: Only one person in a million would get that joke!

COMIC BOOK GUY: Yes, we call that the “Dennis Miller Quotient”.

morgan said...

What are the percentage of people that get the references on Archer?
They had an almost direct shot for shot of Magnum PI last week or a few weeks ago William S. Burroughs' wife was referenced.
I love those kinds of jokes.

Do you consider call-backs to the series own mythology to be in this genre or a seperate thing altogether?

Tim said...

Last week on "30 ROCK", Liz Lemon asked "Olive turns into Barham?". I wonder how many people had a clue what she meant.

doggans said...

In the immortal words of Mystery Science Theater 3000 creator Joel Hodgson, "We don't ask 'who's going to get this', we say 'the right people will get this.'"

Of course, MST3K had about 20 jokes a minute, so they had a lot of leeway for jokes that not everyone would get. P

Ian Sokoliwski said...

Ah, good, I'm glad MST3K has already been mentioned. Reading this, I was instantly reminded of how funny I would find it whenever they would make a Swimming To Cambodia reference, and then immediately wonder who the heck other than me is ever gonna get this joke?

Keith said...

Yeah, I love 3%ers. I have a document I call "obscure reference routine" where I put all the jokes that no one will get. One day I'll do them on open mic night and see how the audience reacts. I could be the Ceausescu of comedy.

Tom said...

You may have addressed this before, so apologies if I missed it... Referring to vintage hairstyles got me thinking about something I always wondered while watching MASH: Was it a conscious decision especially in later seasons to have some characters (BJ and Hawkeye jump to mind) not even bother with 1950s hairstyles, while other characters (Potter...) did? I always figured it was either because the actors didn't want to get haircuts or because the show was trying to underscore being "really" about Vietnam, not Korea? Or some combination? Or some other reason?
Thanks very much.

All readers: buy Ken's book, it's great.

Jim, Cheers Fan said...

Some of my favorite Frasier episodes were the ones with Frasier's evil, ruthless agent, Bebe (Another inside joke?), but I did think the agent jokes were a little inside-baseball. It was one thing for Frasier and Roz to be making jokes about agents as evil, but it always struck me as a little odd when Martin or Niles joined in, as if civilians had as much experience with agents as they (we) do with lawyers or used car salesmen.

"Film at eleven!"

Joseph Scarbrough said...

I often use "in-jokes" in my writing, or art, that really one one specific person will get, but why do I do it anyway? Because I'm a nut, lol.

Though personally, I don't agree with the specific audience thing: I try to write for everybody, kids and adults, and it is NOT hard to be genuinely funny without being nasty and vulgar like a lot of comedies are today... and that's actually what a LOT of audiences want, more shows like the old days.

John E. Williams said...

I will never forget being a kid and watching Trapper and Hawkeye say goodbye to Col. Blake:

Trapper: Henry, that suit is you.
Hawkeye: If you're Adolph Menjou.

Alda's timing was so impeccable on that line that I laughed without knowing who Adolph Menjou was. I figured it had to be some movie star who dressed a certain way, and that was enough to find the joke funny. So in some cases a viewer doesn't necessarily have to have the full background of the gag; sometimes delivery does the job.

Phillip B said...

Introduction of Dave Letterman, sometime in the 1980s:

"And now the man who believes it is unfair to compare Art Fleming and Alex Trebek, because there have been so many changes in the game...."

Johnny Walker said...

I don't know how you'd classify this line, but it's one that always makes me smile because I get both references. (From Buffy.)

XANDER: "I have a hard time imagining Nick and Nora Fury hiding out from their relatives in the bathroom."

Is that a 3%er hidden amongst a mainstream joke? Or is it a 1%er because not many people would get both references? One thing's for sure, Buffy had smart writing.

Rockets and Turtles said...


Here is a Friday question. Sorry if this has been asked before: After a pilot is taped, what is the next step? In other words, do the networks decide whether to air the pilot and/or order some more episodes or whether to order a whole season of episodes?


Jim S said...

This reminds me of the Bugs Bunnies I used to watch as a kid. At 3 p.m. Channel 5 in New York would broadcast three Looney Tunes. This was circa 1971-1972, do most of the episodes were 20-30 years old.

Bugs had a lot of jokes that were contemporary at the time of their creation - Humphrey Borgart showing up as his character from Treasure of Sierra Madre - while Bugs is trying to get a penguin to the South Pole - or Bugs doing a Liberace "I wish my brother George was here" joke. Even without getting the direct reference, seeing a bum always show up and ask for money, no matter where Bugs was, is funny.

For years, I would watch old movies and say, "oh, that's where that joke came from. Bugs wasn't just talking funny, he was doing an Edward G. Robinson imitation."

When I did get the jokes (my mom loved watching those old black and white movies from her youth, now it would TCM Classic Movies with us kids.)

So I don't have a problem with those jokes. But there is a danger that they aren't that funny now, and boy they won't be funny at all 10 years from now.

RockGolf said...

Is there a danger with 3%er jokes that they will replace the original in the cultural norm? For example, the brilliant 3rd season episode where Maggie escapes the Ayn Rand pre-school is probably now much more famous than the movie (The Great Escape) that it spoofed.
Airplane is infinitely better known than the original Flight Into Danger that it was based on.
Young Frankenstein is probably more popular than the originals. I'm sure half the references in that film went over my head.

l.a.guy said...

Fox ran a Simpsons episode from 1992 last night Lisa's First Word. At one point they show a young Homer bragging that he had already started a college fund for Lisa at Lincoln Savings. I thought even in 1992 that would have been pretty obscure and these days you'd have to be fairly old to get the joke. It made me wonder how funny "The Simpsons" will be in 50 years versus the way "The Dick Van Dyke Show" holds up after 50 years. It seems like the early sit-coms relied on more universal and physical comedy.

Steve said...

Thanks for this. It gives me a category for one of my favorites from Frasier. As I recollect Niles and Frasier were discussing some philosophical point and one of them capped the discussion with, "Well, enough Schop talk!"

On the Simpsons and the Great Escape, I have never felt older than when as a senior lawyer we were hosting summer interns and discussion turned to the Ayn Rand episode and one of the baby's tossing a ball to Maggie as she was sent to the cooler (timeout) "just like Steve McQueen." To which one of the interns responded "Steve who?"

Eduardo Jencarelli said...

This reminds me of an old Simpsons episode where Marge compares Grampa to Judge Reinhold. Her mom says she has no idea who that is.

I don't know anything about Judge Reinhold. Oddly enough, I always laugh at that joke.

There was an even more recent obscure joke on the same show. A very obscure Star Wars reference, where Homer brings up tertiary Star Wars character. Only a real Star Wars geek (myself included) would get it.

John said...

If you’re writing a spec it’s easier with an existing show. By watching astutely you can determine the level of their references. A Charlie Sheen joke might work on 30 ROCK but I wouldn’t do one on MIKE & MOLLY.

I'd figure Chuck Lorre's probably filled MIKE & MOLLY with Charlie Sheen jokes all by himself for next season by now.

benson said...

Reading about the DVD show, Carl Reiner always preached not to put contemporary references in. (Though they did deviate from that rule a few times, "the Redcoats (Beatles) are coming" episode being maybe the most obvious example.

YEKIMI said...

And can't forgot the old "Bullwinkle Show" or "Rocky & Bullwinkle" [or whatever title they decided to call it]. Bullwinkle always had a few good zingers that obviously were meant for the older teens and adult viewers of the show that wouldn't have registered at all with the younger set.

chalmers said...

This “Hollywood Squares” Twiggy joke always makes me laugh:

Peter Marshall (to Paul Lynde): Paul, Twiggy recently said that her bust size grown by one inch. How many inches is it now?

Paul Lynde: One.

Cap'n Bob said...

Yeah, MASH hair styles were about as fifties as Beatle moptops. Reminds me of Raquel Welch's styled locks in One Million B.C. In fact, I always thought actors who didn't try to look right for their movie's time frame were lazy and/or vain.

BigTed said...

"Reservoir Dogs" came out almost two decades ago -- maybe 55-year-olds are the ONLY ones who'll get the reference.

(They're certainly the only ones who can remember why Chevy Chase was ever famous.)

Lynn MacDonald said...

The thing that's awesome though is when there's an obscure reference and you totally get it! I like to think I'm one of the 3% or even higher than that!

Pat Reeder said...

One of the hallmarks of our daily radio comedy service is that it's filled with obscure references. As a pop culture buff, history nut and author of the book "Hollywood Hi-Fi," I have a ridiculous amount of useless information filed away in my brain, and I've got to do something with it. I usually don't base an actual one-liner on a really obscure one, but I might sneak them into a headline or subhead. I always assume that maybe only one out of all our clients will get it, but that one will find it really cool.

That happened last month when I worked a hidden reference to the song "Vehicle" into an almanac item on the Ides of March. I heard back from exactly one radio host who caught it, but he thought it was hilarious and was proud of himself for catching it, and that's good enough for me. There are plenty of other more obvious lines for the less informed.

BTW, nothing irritates me more than some hipster doofus who rolls his eyes and dismisses someone as old and unhip for knowing something that happened before he was born. I can't stand people who wear ignorance as a badge of honor. I was a James Thurber fan at 10, a silent movie expert by 12, and a World War II buff by 15. I share the same philosophy as the original incarnation of the Credibility Gap: "Ignorance of your culture is NOT considered 'cool.'"

Robert Skill said...

Cap'n Bob: Raquel Welch was notorious back in the day for always using her own hairdresser and costume designer for every film, with results that often clashed with the overall look of the film. This was most obvious in her occasional period films. I remember a review of THE THREE MUSKETEERS that praised the accuracy with which it captured the period--stating, for example, that Richard Chamberlain looked as if he had just stepped out of a Cavalier painting--with the exception of Welch, who was described as looking as if she were going to a costume party as Bo Peep.

Lou H. said...

It's interesting that the shows cited here that are heavy on the obscure jokes aren't filmed in front of live audiences. 30 ROCK, COMMUNITY, animated shows. Does having a live audience put any pressure on the writers to use broader jokes?

Buttermilk Sky said...

"Reservoir Dogs"? I thought it was a parody of "My Dinner With Andre." What's that, a one percenter?

Kevin Arbouet said...

What does Sarah Clarke and Twilight have to do with each other?

Johnny Walker said...

"My Dinner With Andre"? What about "My Breakfast With Blassie"? Anyone remember THAT?

Tallulah Morehead said...

To me, any joke that will be gotten by more than 3% of the audience is just pandering to mass-tastes. It's whoring. I pride myself in writing only jokes that only three people will get. This is why three people loved my book.

My God, Sarah Palin is to the right of Adolph Monjou!

Nixon told more lies than Loretta Young introducing her "adopted" daughter.

Don't shoot that rat! It's just Elia Kazan writing down names!

Mr. Blackwell was about as butch as Ramon Navarro on a good day. I've seen more masculine garments in Liberace's bathroom hamper.

George Bush is about as literate as Samuel Goldwyn.

It was murder! He fed her a Katherine Hepburn movie ground up in his drink. You could tell by the odor of bitter almonds.

Don't get any or most of those jokes? Screw you!

Cheers darlings!

Anonymous said...

David Lee here. There is a difference--a big one--between obscure references (3 per centers) and topical references to pop culture or current events.

A joke about Adolf Menjou is an obscure reference that only a few might get. It requires a level knowledge about some subject that the majority may not share.

A joke about Charlie Sheen today is a topical reference. It is a time sensitive joke that requires a level of knowledge that most people share.

An "in joke" is basically one that only the writers or those close to the show would get, like naming the hooker character
after your secretary.

On FRASIER we loved a few threepers. On the other hand, we assiduously avoided topical references. Or tried to. Not only because they always seemed a little easy, but because they don't play well, if at all, in syndication. Loved MURPHY BROWN when it was on, but it would be a prime example.

Anonymous said...

There is a shock website called Lemon Party. It's a picture of three old men in a threesome.

Buck Henry was on 30 Rock as Liz Lemons father, Dick Lemon. At dinner he demanded that he got to pay for everyones meal. He proclaimed, "You can't have a Lemon Party without old Dick!"

D. McEwan said...

David my darling, that Adolph Monjou joke was as topilcal as it could get when Adolphe finished testifying as a friendly witness before HUAC in 1947, denouncing Hollywood as being full of commies. Murphy Brown would have roasted him alive.

Is there a cut-off point when a dated topical reference, like Monjou being an in-the-1947 news commie-baiter and Joe McCarthy-booster, and when it becomes an "obscure reference"? I'm not being snarky, I just don't see any difference, let alone a"big" one, an between a Monjou joke in 2011 and a Charlie Sheen joke in 2057.

'Cause I have a trunk full of great Nixon jokes I wrote for radio between 1968 and 1974 that are going begging.

Anonymous said...

What does that post have to do with Nina Myers?

AAllen said...

I have a love/hate relationship with 30 Rock because I feel most of the jokes go over my head. I really hate it, though, when they don't play by their own rules and seem to dumb down a joke that should be smarter. For instance, there was a plot about Jenna wanting to do a Janice Joplin bio pic, but they couldn't get the rights to her music. So they performed a song called "Gimme Another Piece of Your Lung" which they thought would pass by the notice of the rights holder. Same tune, and same lyrics, except that the word "lung" replaced "heart." Maybe the joke was that some of the characters were too dumb to get that this slight change would clear the song, but the rest of the jokes on the show are otherwise so smart that this bit was out of character.

Anonymous said...

My dear, dear D. McEwen

The big difference is that it is currently 2011 and not 2057. A Sheen joke in 45 years, with any luck, will be an obscure reference. If the stars are really on our side it will be 3 years.

The Menjou joke would have been topical in 1947. But when it was actually written, about 30 years later, it was an obscure reference that perhaps only a few would have gotten. A "threeper."

And of course MURPHY BROWN would have skewered him. That's what they did. My only point was topical references don't play well in syndication. Trust me, I have a Jimmy Carter/rabbit joke floating around on JEFFERSONS reruns that was oh so hilarious at the time, but now causes even me to scratch my head.

I don't have big objections to any of the three types of jokes if they work.
I was just saying that there are distinct differences between them.

John A M said...

Some people seem to feel they are superior when they catch an obscure reference or joke. So what? You watch a lot of TV. Nice job.