Wednesday, March 13, 2013

How to get laughs without writing jokes

Most people think that to be a good comedy writer you have to be a good joke writer. That’s not true. Joke writing is a nice talent to have.  But would you believe there are ways of writing hysterically funny scenes without a single “joke?”

How? It’s in the structure. It’s in the comic premise that you set up. Give your character a goal. And then pile on ways that make it harder and harder for him to achieve it. Guilt, circumstances, temptation, pride, embarrassment, ego, time restrictions – these factors can be the comedy writer’s best friends. The more frustration you can build for a character the better.  And sometimes really loading it up can make it funnier. 

The truth is it’s hard to write jokes. Especially when there’s not much happening. But if you design a solid comic premise the lines will flow and the laughs will come.

Let me give you an example. Bob wants to call off his wedding to his fiancé, Jen.

First, a portion of the scenes with jokes:



BOB: Hi, Jen. Sorry, I’m late. Traffic was ridiculous. I should have kept the car home and taken a turtle.

JEN: Y’know, we have a subway here in Los Angeles.

BOB: We do? Where?

JEN: That’s the problem. No one knows where it is. If Bin Laden rode the LA subway he’d still be alive today.

BOB: So, anyway, I wanted to talk to you about something.

JEN: Must be important if you’re taking me here. Look at these prices. I needed to take out a second mortgage just to look at the menu.

BOB: I think we’re okay as long as we don’t order the Endangered Special of the Night.

JEN: That would be Nicole Kidman.  So what do you want to talk to me about?

BOB: Oh, it can probably wait until we order and I clear it with my accountant. Are waiters endangered here too? I haven’t seen one yet.

JEN: Bob, are you hands shaking?

BOB: Oh, that happens all the time.

JEN: Really?  That's not good for a surgeon.

You get the idea. Now the same scene beginning sans jokes:



BOB: Hi. Sorry, I’m late.

JEN: That’s okay. I’m so crazy about you you could be an hour late and I wouldn’t care. God, I love you so much.

BOB: Yeah, right, well…

JEN: Y’know what I was doing while waiting for you?

BOB: No.

JEN: Giving a lot of thought to that … thing you said you always wanted a woman to do to you during sex?

BOB: Yeah?

JEN: The one I said no girl would ever agree to. Well, if it would make you happy and give you that much pleasure then let’s do it tonight when we get home.

BOB: Really? You’d do that for me?

JEN: Yes, my little perv.  I wouldn’t do it for just anyone, that’s for sure. But my future husband, okay. Oh, and I went on birth control pills. I know, it’s against my religious beliefs, but you hate using a condom. So you said on the phone you wanted to talk to me about something?

BOB; I did?  Uh… yeah. Right.

JEN: Oh, before I forget. We sent out the invitations.

BOB: You did? I thought we were going to wait until we signed the contract with the Sheraton.

JEN: Right. I forgot to tell you. We’re not doing it at the Sheraton. We’re holding the wedding at the Ritz-Carlton. Daddy said, he’s only got one daughter, and this should be the happiest day of her life, and what’s the point of having money if you can’t spend it on something really joyous? So he sold his boat, signed the contract, and gave them a non-refundable five thousand dollar down payment. Y'know, you're the first boy my parents ever liked.  They used to say I didn't know how to pick 'em, but you sure proved them wrong.  Oh, and your mom wants me to wear the ring that's been in your family for two hundred years.  I'm the daughter she never had, she says. 

BOB: She always hated my former girlfriends too.

JEN: Speaking of relatives, now that we have a bigger venue daddy invited all the relatives. You know they all think he’s kind of a schlub and this will be a chance for him to really show off. They’ll be coming in from all over the world. Even my grandma, who’s 92 is flying in from Russia. She can hardly move but she insists on being here. She said -- and this is so sweet – her life has been so hard and filled with so much tragedy, but seeing me walk down the aisle will give her a contentment and piece of mind that will make everything – even the loss of her husband and seizing of her house and disappearance of her daughter, two daughters actually -- seem okay. It will all be worth it to see me married. Are you okay? You look a little green?

Which scene would you rather watch?

Lots of elements go into good comedy besides jokes – structure, performance, timing. The key is creating good characters and putting them in fun situations. Who cares how you get the laugh?


The Curmudgeon said...

Which scene would you rather watch?

I'd like both, please.

Sam said...

Let's not forget the absurdity of Bob wanting to break it off with Jen. She sounds awesome.

RockGolf said...

The only thing that would make the first example worse is if Bob's neighbor walked up to the table, said "Hey, guys!" and we wait 15 seconds for the audience to stop hooting and clapping.

Brian O. said...

Was Seth MacFarlane's Oscar performance an example of piling on challenges and frustration in lieu of jokes?

Suppose if one tuned in for failure it was a success on one level. For most of America I'm guessing neither approach worked (neither done well).

Terry said...

This reminds me very much of the Cheers episode where Cliff and Norm agreed to videotape some major event for a family and they forgot to put a tape in the camera and the event just kept getting bigger and more emotionally significant as the night went on (son returning from overseas, grandma getting up out of her wheelchair, etc). It was hilarious.

Mac said...

Very interesting. Reminds me of that great Frasier where all he wants is somewhere quiet to read his book. And can you get me Jen's phone number? Bob is a dick if he lets her go.

Will Fitzgerald said...

Thanks Ken.

This was really helpful advice to get today.

canda said...

It doesn't hurt if you have a great physical comedian like Cosby or Dick Van Dyke, or someone who's reactions are priceless - Jack Benny, Bea Arthur and Bob Newhart. Then you need the star to have no jokes.

This is what I find missing in most comedies on the air now, where everyone has to say "clever" things, or instead of emotion you have mockumentary.

Tom Quigley said...

One of the great premises (maybe the most important premise) of comedy that unfortunately goes undiscovered by people who don't understand good comedy writing is that something always goes wrong, and the comic results are what unexpectedly happens in response. If you watch any of the great sitcoms over the decades, from I LOVE LUCY to FRASIER, you begin to realize that there are probably many fewer "joke" jokes than there are seemingly everyday situations which ultimately go awry and in doing so, elicit a laugh. Real life is not one joke after another, and a good sitcom or comic sketch which portrays life in a humorous way won't be either.

Eitan said...

I've always been more of a "comedy from structure/character" guy. I've actually started pushing myself to include a few more jokes in my scripts. All character stuff is great but it's a harder sell when you're starting out. So much of the comedy comes out during the performance. But an all-joke script is painful to read.

In short, you have to balance the two (and not write such hacky-jokes).

Josh said...

One show that does the latter example very well is Enlightened. It's a 'dramady' that gets pretty intense at times, but I find myself laughing harder at it than Modern Family. Such an underrated show, much better than Girls which is good but over-hyped.

Andy Ihnatko said...

How hard is it to coordinate a funny scene without jokes? It seems like something you can't do until the second season, when you feel like you know what your actors are capable of.

And does the studio trust you to write a script that (in a sense) says "Niles is alone in Frasier's apartment while he waits for his date to show. Over the next wordless three minutes, he encounters and instigates a series of mishaps as he tries to remove a spot from his trousers. It's David Hyde Pierce, so it'll be hysterically funny"?

It's interesting to think about how you guys put a joke together when it's clearly going to happen on the stage instead of on the page.

I was channel surfing the other day and encountered a wordless scene that just didn't work. Man signs for a package at the apartment, not realizing it contains his fiancee's heirloom wedding gown, which she's eagerly been expecting. Mishaps ensue. All through this wordless bit, I was only thinking

"But there's just, like, one strip of tape holding the box closed. Why is it so hard to open?" and

"What kind of idiot opens a box by stabbing a foot-long knife straight down into it and sawing up and down?" and

"It looks like just minor damage. Why did he throw it out a fifth-story window when he heard his fiancee at the door?"

Etc. I guess it might have worked if the box had looked hard to open, if he'd tried to open it carefully but suffered a mishap, if the dress had been truly many things to work out between the writer and the prop people, the actor, the director...

Janice said...

Andy, I saw the same episode of "Rules of Engagement" and felt exactly as you did - it was so horribly done. When I think back 50 years to when Laura opened the package meant for Rob (I nearly wrote "when Laura opened Rob's package"...) only to have a boat inflate, I have to wonder what passes as "funny" these days.

Wayne said...

What an eye-opener.

Ken, let me ask, what scene took longer to write?

I bet the gagfest scene might be actually harder to write -- and it'd get less laughs.

By Ken Levine said...

The "joke" scene took twice as long to write. Maybe more.

Beef Supreme said...

I thought both were funny, and I like both styles depending on the mood. But here's my main reason for long term preferring the second style.

I was watching the latest "Big Bang Theory" episode last night, where the guys went to a high school to talk about getting girls interested in engineering careers. Anyway, Leonard says a fairly standard (for the show) one-liner, and it elicits laughter (intentional, he says it as a joke) from the class.

Which made me think - when you do a joke-heavy show, is it an annoying rule that none of the characters on the show are rarely allowed to laugh? BBT or "2 Broke Girls" for recent examples, the characters are constantly cracking jokes to each other (intended for the audience), but nobody around them laughs (because they're not supposed to, because they're on a TV show).

I think it gives kind of a weird feeling to the whole show, and the "jokeless" comedies as a result often feel more real and substantial just because the characters, even in the most improbable situations, at least act in ways more realistic than the characters in "all jokes" shows.

404 said...

I always think of a sketch I saw on a mid-90s episode of SNL--Will Ferrel was still in the cast at this point, and while the quality had slipped a alot imo, it still had some good weeks. The premise of this bit was a drill instructor trying to put recruits through inspection (yelling, Sir! Yes Sir! etc) but at the same time the instructor is having relationship troubles. It ends up with the recruits giving him advice, but still in line, yelling, afraid to break ranks ,etc. The premise was so hysterical to me that the scene couldn't help but be funny. There probably wasn't a "joke" in the whole scene, but yet 15 years later that's the SNL sketch from that time period I remember the most. Well, that and "cow bell," of course.

capcha word: Dayance: something they do to music in Texas.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Beef Supreme: I don't know about 2BG but on BBT often the characters aren't being funny to each other. Most of the time, Sheldon is irritating to the others and just funny to us; Howard's mother is funny to us but not to him, etc.

Which reminds me that as a teenager I discovered the short stories of Ring Lardner, which I reread many times; I always thought they were absolute classics of the kind of comedy that relies not at all on jokes but on the fact that the character is utterly unconscious of what they're really saying or how it appears to an outside observer.


XJill said...

Well, I will admit that I laughed out loud at the Bin Laden joke! Interesting reads.

FYI Ken - have you seen that Cheers has made it to the quarterfinals on Vulture? You're up against Roseanne (thought you'd appreciate that...)

Any thoughts on this Veronica Mars kickstarter situation?

Stephen Robinson said...

What I like about the second scene is its verisimilitude. It *could* happen in real life. You've just turned the dial slightly. And we've all been in situations in which we *felt* like this was occurring. However, we've never felt like we're having lunch with Shecky Green (who is still alive, btw). As Ken said, the first scene took longer to write. So even if the characters happen to be comedy writers of the same caliber as Mr. Levine, it's still hard to believe they are capable of coming up with so many off-the-cuff one liners.

I also don't mind one-liners or jokes if they happen organically. Years ago, someone asked me what I thought the funniest show on TV was and I answered "Law & Order." They thought I was being a smart-ass but Det. Briscoe and DA Schiff could make me laugh out loud far more than the wisecracking neighbor on a sitcom.

This reminds me of how some sitcoms (Married... with Children, for example) would have characters who no longer served any purpose other than to show up and tell jokes. After MWC's first season, there was no plausible reason for Steve and Marcy to spend time with the Bundys and often the writer would forget why they came by. They just knocked, traded insults, and left.

Stephen Robinson said...

Interesting that people think the Jen of the second scene is a catch. I actually get why Bob wants to break it off with her: She changes major aspects of the wedding without consulting him, and what she "offers" Bob sexually ("perverse" sexual acts and going on the pill) are based in his agreeing to marry her rather than a decision they've made together.

Michael said...

Irving Fein was the manager for Jack Benny and then for George Burns, and he wrote a nice biography of Benny. He told the story that the first week he worked for him, when Benny was still doing radio, Ronald Colman and his wife Benita were the guests. There's a scene where Ronnie comes in and you hear Benita eating an apple. He says, "I just saw Phil Harris and his band," and she replies, "Please, Ronnie, not while I'm eating." The audience roared. Fein said he learned then how Benny loved to dissect a joke. He was talking about how they had spent 10 years setting up that joke--all of the jokes about Harris and his band carousing and so on, so that the line itself really wasn't funny, but from knowing this very strait-laced and fine Englishwoman and what the band members were supposed to be like, it caused screams. And I think that must have been like a graduate seminar in comedy, but it also was a great example of how the characters and the situation make the laugh, not the line.

DrBOP said...

Mistah Levine, on March 28 at 4pm your time a Canadian talk show called "Q" will be livestreaming from NYC. I'm thinking you may want to catch it in that the guests are going to be Alan Alda, David Cross from Arrested Development, and Cyndi Lauper. I know the first two guests might be a stretch, but I KNOW how big a Cyndi fan you are, so there you go.
Livestream at

Anonymous said...

"He was talking about how they had spent 10 years setting up that joke"

If it took 10 years to write that joke, does that mean Jack Benny is a genius, or a moron?


Kevin Rubio said...

I soooooo want your take on the Veronica mars 'kickstarter'.

Sarah said...

In the second scene, Jen is prattling on and on and on. Two 120-plus word speeches without interruption. So I've got this question in my head now: How do you make this work as comedy? Do you expect to have pauses in there where the audience will laugh? Lots of cross-cuts that show Ben getting more and more nervous? I can see how it works on paper but not how it will work on camera. Thanks.

Mike Barer said...

Your post makes a lot of sense, because television comedy has evolve over the years to emcompace (sp)humor, sadness and warm heartedness.

Charles H. Bryan said...

This reminds me of something I heard Bill Prady say on the Nerdist Writers Panel podcast -- he was referring to the All in the Family scene where Archie and Mike argue about whether to put on both socks and then both shoes or to put the sock and shoe on one foot and then sock and shoe on the other foot. There aren't any "jokes" in that scene, just two people thinking very differently and arguing about the most mundane act imaginable, because arguing is what they do.

The button on the scene is when Mike finally asks Archie if he should just start over to make Archie happy and Archie says "There's no time for that!"

Thanks, Ken. Samples like this are very helpful, although I agree with another poster -- the Bin Laden line got a genuine laugh.

dan said...

I get this completely, but keeping thinking about the end game. If the idea is he was going to break it off but changes his mind. But I see these shows and they make the scene hurdles so high that the idea of breaking up seems unachivable. And they cut away. Next scene, they're broken up. Is that a valid point, that the scene isn't about breaking up, but the awkwardness of it?

chuckcd said...

The first one. Jen never shuts up.

RCP said...

Though I love a good one-liner, the second version, where the humor builds.

Guess I took too many psychology classes: I kept thinking that Jen, sensing Bob's growing reluctance, is railroading him into marriage - and that Bob, though he feels terrible, needs to be true to himself and not sacrifice his life for the feelings of others - and that both deserve to be married to people they love and who love them back. Imagine how hilarious my writing must be...

jbryant said...

One thing that might be worth noting is that Jen is a totally different character in each scene. So while I vastly prefer the writing in the second scene, it might be that if the story is about the impending nuptials of a couple of wisenheimers, the first scene would be more in character. Still wouldn't be as funny as the second one though, IMO.

Johnny Walker said...

Ha! I certainly laughed a lot more at the second one. I think that's one of the reasons I love THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW so much -- the humour comes out of the people and the situations, and not out of snappy dialogue.

If ALL you have is one-liners, I don't think there's much to enjoy (unless the dialogue is absolutely crackling).

George said...

I have a Friday Question for you. If writers job is to provide the dialog and to leave the stage direction to the director, then how does a scene which is mostly mime (like this Niles Fire) come about? Do the writers describe the details of the action in the script, or do they put down "Niles tries to iron his pants and sets fire to the couch" and leave the rest to others?

Helena said...

Great post. And as I just signed up for a sitcom writing course at UCLA while also knowing that my greatest weakness would be the joke writing, this is very reassuring - thank you!