Tuesday, April 16, 2013

How can anything be funny today?

Imagine being a comedy writer, being in the writers’ room along with the rest of the staff, rewriting a script that will be filmed tomorrow, and you get word of the Boston explosions.

Try being funny after that.

That’s what numerous rooms all over town faced yesterday in the wake of that senseless cowardice attack.

If it was not imperative that the script had to be finished that afternoon, I suspect most staffs adjourned for the day.

And if the script was to be filmed today, the showrunner explored pushing it a day. How much would that cost and would the studio okay it?

In some cases, as incredible as it may seem, the writers had no choice but to go right back to work.

And they had to produce. They had to be funny.

Even the writers who were able to take part of yesterday off are back at it today. How funny do you feel 24 hours after the tragedy?

This is the hardest part of this job. There are times when the last thing in the world you want to do is come up with jokes. And all of a sudden, the script you’re writing seems incredibly trivial. Still, you’re expected to not only deliver on demand but at the highest level. No one is going to give you a break in late May when the episode airs because the restaurant scene was written during Boston.

Television comedy writers are sometimes maligned for having easy jobs. We just hang out, crack jokes, and get well-paid. We also have to be funny when we’re sick and funny when we’re heartsick. I don't point this out to seem valiant.  It sucks!

Trust me, we feel like shit having to produce comedy on a day like yesterday or even today. We feel like ghouls. We all see the sick irony in what we’re being asked to do. But we do it the best we can.

And then we  all go to therapy.

My deepest condolences and sincerest prayers to the victims of yesterday’s unconscionable catastrophe.


Zappa said...

Interesting post, I also believe that at this point if you can't be funny when these things happy.. you'll end up screaming. Without seeming ghoulish I was actually wondering about you at one point during all this. What I mean is I guess a "friday question." I remember an episode of WKRP after the Who concert gone awry. The question being.. if this had happened while Cheers was still on the air, would you address it on such a show or just wait it out and regroup later? Do you take the chance of taking the audience totally out of the vibe while you're filming or is there a cathartic obligation to mention what happened just down the the kayfabe street?

Greg said...

It's horrific what happened in Boston. That goes without saying. And it's horrible to have to create comedy under such conditions. But it is my wish that comedy writers are able to see what they are giving the world, even as they try to fight past the guilt they might be feeling in the moment for what they might feel seems trivial in the grand scheme of things.

But it is not.

The laughter they create is a blessing. The happiness it creates is imperative for mankind’s survival, for our compassion, and for our understanding -- even if its origin lies in stenchy plume of a fart gag. Bringing laughter into the world is one of the greatest gifts one can bring to the party. I commend all comedy writers who do this day in and day out.

Mike Barer said...

It reminds me of the SNL when Lorne Michaels asked then Mayor Guillianni if the show can be funny.

Carol said...

Like Greg said, we need funny. Maybe it's not on par with the all the people who rushed into the chaos to help those who were injured, but these writers are giving us a world to come back to.

Knowing we're still able to laugh at ridiculous situations helps us remember that we can face tragedy and survive.

RJ Hope said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
RJ Hope said...

Thank you, Ken.

As a Boston native, it was tough day. A couple of my friends ran the marathon, and thankfully, they're okay.

It was especially heartbreaking when a 8 year old boy looses his life just innocently watching such a big annual event like the Boston Marathon.

It's hard to find any time of humor. My heart is full of melancholy. Angry thoughts fill my find.

The humor did come, but not by me.

I was watching the news last night. It about 10pm. I heard light footfalls on the stairs. My 5 year old daughter enters the living room and just jumps on me, wrapping he arms around my neck.

She gently says in a very low tone: "Daddy I love you".

I had to fight from crying because doing so would upset her. I attempted to change the channel to something a little less frightening then the news.

As I was doing so, my ham of a child, let go a rather loud bout of flatulence.

Staring me straight in the eye, she had the gumption to say: "Daddy say excuse me when you fart."

And in that moment, I laughed, she laughed. Though a small goofy minute, it was that small flicker of light in the darkness of this day.

Writing comedy is hard in the best of circumstances. I don't envy those who have to have a script ready shoot right away.

Thanks for the post, Ken. And for those of you who are able to help in any way. Please do. It is greatly appreciated.

Kevin In Choconut Center said...

I felt much the same way doing my show on-air this morning. I took a 50-50 approach by being somber as well as playing slower music in the first hour, then being more upbeat in the second hour. But that second hour I was crying in between songs, still.

Anonymous said...

I like the comments about laughter and completely agree with them. I find attacks against unarmed civilians to be completely unacceptable; whether they happen in Boston,

or anywhere else in the world.


Alan Tomlinson

Pat Reeder said...

It's even worse when you do what we do: write topical comedy for radio morning shows. You not only have to contend with the personal depression and emotion of the event, but also with the fact that even if you want to write about ANYTHING else, it's hard to find it because the news is wall-to-wall coverage of the tragedy.

We were doing the Comedy Wire when 9/11 happened, and we had to figure out how to go on. It wasn't easy. We thought we might be out of business. For the first week or so, we knew our clients wouldn't be able to be funny. So we tried to think of what would be useful to them, and converted the service into a news clearing house, with the latest info, links to the best commentary, etc. Then we gradually starting mixing back in humorous, innocuous feature stories and one-liners, about half and half, for our clients in other countries and those who felt they could safely return to what they'd been hired for: being funny. Then we eventually worked back to full topical humor.

After 9/11, there were lots of articles about how Dave and Jay and Jon would handle 9/11. I'll tell you how: they went off the air for a month. Radio people didn't have that luxury. We had to send out a service on 9/12 (coincidentally, my birthday, and what a happy one it was). I was proud that I got several notes from clients telling me that they were at a complete loss, and that we saved them by giving them a blueprint to follow that worked.

So now, I know what to do when the news is dominated by some senseless tragedy. But goddammit, why do I have to do it so often these days?

Mac said...

That's a thought. Of course in the grand scheme of things comedy's vital to our well-being, but it must be mighty difficult to find the funny on a day like that.

Mike Barer said...

I imagine that would be real tough to write for the Daily Show, where the news is the comedy or something like that.

John said...

The pilot episode for "Bewitched" was scheduled for filming on Nov. 22, 1963.

Obviously, it was postponed, but they still had to come back and do the show to sell to the network only a few days later (though I suppose a single-camera show is better for a bad situation like this than a three-camera show with a studio audiences, because at least you don't have to also make the audience try to forget the horrific real-life events).

Breadbaker said...

I remember on 9/11, after having spent the day watching coverage, and let's face it, after awhile there was nothing new to show or talk about, I found there was a funny movie on Fox Movie Channel, so I tuned into it, only to find that Fox had preempted Fox Movie Channel coverage and replaced it with Fox News Channel coverage of 9/11. I needed something else to watch, something to get my mind off what I'd seen live and on tape, and all I could see were the tapes.

I wish they'd shown the movie.

benson said...

Along the same lines, I believe the "Happy Birthday and too many more" episode of Dick Van Dyke was being rehearsed when JFK was assassinated. The show had a ton of kid extras for Richie's birthday party. Sheldon Leonard, etc, decided to film without an audience figuring the audience wouldn't be in the mood to laugh.

By Ken Levine said...


A BECKER episode my partner and I wrote was in rehearsal the day of 9/11. Usually we shot shows in front of an audience but decided not to do that with this one. It was filmed several days after 9/11 and I can tell you it was very tough for the actors. I can also say they did an extraordinary job.

Ron Rettig said...

But comedy helps heal the heartbreak and being busy keeps one's mind off the horrors. Hopefully the sitcom writers forced to the writers' room can take comfort in the knowledge.
I remember going to see "It's A Mad. . . World" with my reserved ticket at the Hollywood Cinerama Dome the day after JFK assassination to relieve the stress.

Phillip B said...

The first really funny 9/11 joke I can recall was from the Onion. Their paper had a picture of the Twin Towers falling with a huge headline in caps - "HOLY SHIT" - and a piece which made relatively gentle jokes about how people were reacting, not the event itself.

This morning the headline of their piece is "Authorities: Sadly, There Are Many People Who Could Have Done This"

And their piece is as sad as it might be funny...

McAlvie said...

After 9/11, Alan Jackson wrote "Where Where You When the World Stopped Turning" which included the line, "and turn on 'I Love Lucy' reruns ..."

God bless the people who make us laugh, because they keep us going.

Corey said...

I agree with you 100%. But, we all went back to work. It's an unfortunate part of any job; working when you least want to. G-d only knows the big picture. Let's pray for the lost souls, injured people and do our best in this situation... to go on living.

Mansfield said...

When the Challenger space shuttle exploded, I had been out of the country for half a year. A few weeks later, an American I worked with received a letter from his teenage brother with a joke. What do NASA's inititals stand for? Need another seven astronauts. It cheered me up that back home there were still jokes in incredibly poor taste being generated out of tragedy.

Charles H. Bryan said...

Last night, I watched NBC's 10 PM Special Report. There was Matt Lauer, and I couldn't help but think "I wonder if he's thinking 'At least for tonight, I'm not the most hated man on the Eastern Seaboard.'" Ann Curry did a report that looked like she had recorded it with a handheld camera duct-taped to the opposite edge of her office desk while she talked to a guy on Skype while she silently fumed that Matt Lauer was sharing an hour of airtime with her. By this point, I was expecting Al Roker to pop in and tell me about the weather for the investigation, but NBC surprised me (and by that I mean didn't surprise me) by bringing in Tom Brokaw, the peacock's preferred program punctuation. He reminded me that, yes, he's old, and yes, he still can't pronounce the 18th letter of the alphabet and, yes, he really still is all they've got.

Even in the worst of circumstances, I like to know that I can always laugh at NBC.

Liggie said...

I remember WKRP IN CONCINNATI did an episode after the Who concert there where attendees died. Except for three or four one-liners, they played it as a straight drama, with the characters expressing sadness, outrage, etc.

Wayne said...

Did you know the last day of shooting for the pilot for Gilligan's Island was November 22, 1963?
And it was shot in Hawaii, so with the 5 hour time difference, 12:30 pm Dallas is 7:30 am Hawaii.
So they had to work all day!
You thought you had a sad wrap party.

Eric said...

Ken - a quick thought - if there's a televised benefit concert or something similar for the survivors and to help those maimed by this awful attack, could you get a few of the gang together to record a Cheers sketch?

Marc Wielage said...

There's a tradition of sitcoms having to go on, even in the face of terrible tragedy. I seem to recall that John Kennedy's assassination happened in the middle of the "Gilligan's Island" pilot, and the actors and crew were really shaken by it.

I think it's worse for the live audiences in the sitcom studio than the performers or the crew. I seem to recall working on a show right after 9/11, and the producers opted to shoot a show without an audience, and they just did a lot of pickups and fixed it all in post. Not one of their better episodes.

D. McEwan said...

Years ago, I was taking an improv workshop from the late Bill Hudnut. Now Bill was a great guy, but he paid little if any attention to the news or to politics. We had a class the evening of the day which began with the Challenger Space Shuttle explosion. Neeedless to say, class was a shambles. No one was funny. Not one laugh all evening, and these were highly talented comic actors, many well known now.

But Bill, being always out of touch with, and unconcerned with, the news (Bill's idea of a newspaper was The Hollywood Reporter), didn't understand why class had tanked. As we were walking out, he said to me: "Boy, class was rotten tonight. No one was funny."

I said: "Well, national disasters can have that effect on people."

Bill asked: "What national disaster?"

I replied: "Ah, the space shuttle blowing up today."

Bill said: "Really? They're upset about that? I mean, I heard something about it, but why would it affect class?"

I had to tell him: "Bill, most of America started their day today watching a handful of brave astronauts get blown to smithereens on live TV. Suddenly witnessing a number of innocent, admirable people destroyed in front of you, with no warning, upsets most everyone."

Bill just could not wrap his brain around why we couldn't just shut "Something that happened on TV" out of our heads at the door and be our usually zany selves. It was on TV, so it wasn't real, even though it was.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Pat Reeder: Actually, it so happened that Dave had a *planned* dark week the week of 9/11, and then he came back the following week with cold opens and much subdued shows (including an impassioned, non-comedy monologue about the attacks), gradually ramping up over a week or two.


R's Woman said...

I agree with Corey - we all go back to work and most often have no choice.

But for folks like those at the Daily Show and Colbert Report who have to go back to work and produce a show less than 24 hours later for an audience that needs a laugh... it's admirable what they're able to do.

Jon Stewart, and especially Stephen Colbert, were fantastic tonight.

Ron said...

I know it can be hard to write jokes and be funny right after something like this but really there are many people who have to go on doing tougher things after this. For example the firefighters and police in the aftermath of this. The soldiers who lose comrades after an IED attack or any number of the people who help after natural disasters.

I know that is writers didn't sign up to do any of those things, and I know that your experience isn't of those things so you can't write about them. I understand all that. Still when I read this all I could think was that you write jokes for a living. That must be nice.

I understand I am being unfair, and I might even enjoyed this a little later on in the week. Still, right now I don't really care about the comedy writers who have to try to be funny despite this. Not when there are people who have to do much more important work through all this.

You suck it up and do your job amd if it isn't the best episode ever, or pilot or movie so what. That is what we all do, but don't forget your job is a job many want and you are getting to do it. (You can question the wisdom of wanting the job but not the fact that many want to do it.)

I really enjoy this blog and I like much of the writing and I understand nothing bad was meant by this. I guess right now if I read something about this event by a comedy writer is the cliche post. The post that reflects on how lucky our lives are not to be tested by tragedy and how difficult it might be even for trained people to deal with these types of situations. If not that then maybe a simple thoughts and prayers or something instead of this post. I know it was not meant this way but to me it came off as "look at us we were hurt by the tragedy too."

Brian Phillips said...

I remember that after 9/11, the stand-up comic J. Anthony Brown of the Tom Joyner Morning Show was asked whether he was reticent to perform after such a tragedy and he said, "I couldn't WAIT to get back out there."

Pat Reeder said...

Wendy: You're right, Dave was back a week later. The others took longer.

But we in radio had to be back on the air at 6 a.m. Sept. 12.

Buttermilk Sky said...

"Sullivan's Travels," written and directed by the great Preston Sturges. If you don't know it, rent it now.

Anonymous said...

I recall reading about one of Bob Hope's staff writers who had to go out to Bob's house in Palm Springs after JFK had been killed and on the drive out there he was crying but coming up with joke after joke, some about the assassination, others just random. And they were FUNNY. He said he figured it was his way of trying to cope with the situation as best his brain could.

Everyone reacts to tragedy differently and it infuriates me when people browbeat others for 'acting inappropriately' ie not wailing and beating one's breast and soaking one's shirt with tears, but laughing. I've had to break up two fights at funerals because of this.