Tuesday, September 03, 2013

My thoughts on your punchlines

Great job everybody. Thanks for coming up with punchlines for this joke:

Danny was so afraid of commitment that...

And I hope you had fun. Today I’m going to go through some of them. And to ensure anonymity I’ve hidden all the comments from the original post. So if I critique yours, no one will be the wiser.

I’m not going to point out all the ones that hit the mark (and there were quite a few) nor am I going to critique every one that I felt still needed work. I’ve received close to 300. There were some that I absolutely didn’t get. I wouldn’t know how to respond. They’re insane. And I say that with the disclaimer that I might just be dumb and missed the joke.  But yikes.

A couple of other disclaimers: every rule has an exception, especially in comedy. So nothing I suggest should be set in stone.

The point of this exercise is not to be critical. It’s to illustrate the rigors that comedy writers put jokes through. In writing rooms there are frequently long discussion about jokes – why they work, why they don’t, what’s wrong, how can we make them better? At times we can be real sticklers (read: assholes). But comedy often requires precision. Adding a word, changing the order of two words, substituting a more specific or funnier word – these are the tools we deal with.

We’ll often say a joke “doesn’t track” if the punchline doesn’t match the requirement of the set-up. We’ll flag jokes as being “on the nose.” These are jokes that fulfill the requirement but don’t have a comic spin. Danny is so afraid of commitment he refuses to get married. It tracks just fine, but where is the funny?

And then there are jokes that are too “convoluted.” They require the audience to connect three or four steps to get to the laugh. Audiences don’t like working that hard. You want them to hear it, get it, and laugh.

So as I go through these please take the suggestions in the spirit they were meant -- to help you get a better sense of what comedy writers go through and how to write better jokes.

WARNING: This is a long post. Much longer than usual. So grab a sandwich and make a day of it. Or just skim.
...he put his number on the Do Not Call List, then called up telemarketers to apologize.

Making a commitment requires an active choice. In this one Danny makes a commitment but then has second thoughts. So it’s more that Danny is indecisive. See the difference? Sometimes you’ll pitch a joke and for some reason it just won’t feel right. It seems to hit all the parameters but there’s something nagging. Go back and see if the joke addresses the exact definition.

He woke every morning, knowing that today was going to be, possibly, the best day or worst day ever. Or tomorrow.

Again, there’s nothing for him to actually commit to.

That he still does not have a favorite Beatle.

Funny and specific example of how he still can't make a commitment for fifty years.

...he used "Call Me. Maybe." as his pick-up line.

This could be interpreted as the person he’s trying to pick up is the one with commitment problems.

...that the Save The Date Card for his wedding was a perpetual calendar.

Weddings are a good area because they involve a strong commitment. This is clear and funny.

Danny was so afraid of commitment that his umbilical cord was a bungee.

Sharp joke with a funny image.

...he didn't come out of his mother until he was six years old...not quite sure about that life thing.

You don’t have to explain the joke. (not sure about this life thing) Let it stand on its own. This exercise remember, comes from Andy Goldberg’s improv class. We were all asked to fill in the blank. This was mine.  It's very similar to this last one.

Danny was so afraid of commitment he stayed in the womb for two years.

A number of you guys beat it with funnier punchlines.

...he took pruning shears to his ring finger.

Ouch. You run the risk that people will blanche instead of laugh.

....he decided to divorce all five of his wives.

This is what we call a joke on a joke. He has five wives (which already shows he has a fear of commitment) and then takes an extra step. It’s usually cleaner if he if the joke settles on one concept. I say “usually” because sometimes it works.

...he lived out of rental cars.

This implies he can’t commit to a home or a car. I think it works. Why? Because it’s so short. And it satisfies another requirement of the joke. Danny was SO afraid of commitment. It’s not enough he drove around only in rental cars; he lived in them. Now back to the bigamist. You could argue that divorcing them all addressed the SO afraid part of the joke. But I would suggest a better example is he was so afraid of commitment he had ten wives or twenty.

He moved to Utah for more choices.

That’s more in the ballpark. Utah and bigamy are good areas for this joke.

...on first dates he'd park the car and leave the engine running.

You leave yourself open to other possibilities as to why he leaves the engine running. He might be worried that his date won’t want to make out with him in which case he’d want to quickly leave. If he goes up to the hills with his date to make out but can never decide where to park, that’s closer.

...that when his girlfriend asked him to move in, he not only faked his own death, but hers as well.

Okay, this is one of those jokes that’s completely illogical (how do you fake someone else’s death?) but is so extreme and the concept is so funny that it sort of works. Sometimes in a writing room someone will pitch a joke, everybody laughs, and then someone else says “Yeah, but it makes no sense.” Everyone made some connection that made them laugh so in cases like that I usually go with the joke. This might be one of those.

...he wouldn't even listen to U2.

I’m confused. Are you saying that everybody listens to U2 or is the name U2 somehow significant in the punchline?  Or am I just out of touch?

...he left the movie theatre before Harry met Sally.

Not sure what this means. He is so afraid of commitment he can’t bear to watch other people who are afraid of commitment?

…he only dates hermaphrodites.

Short, funny, absurd, specific.  Yes!

he’d only date twins.

Even shorter. Well done.

Danny was so afraid of commitment he signed a pre-nup with his inflatable girlfriend.


Danny was so afraid of commitment that he RENTED the first season of the Partridge Family.

Most people rent television shows. And why the PARTRIDGE FAMILY? Since the person in the joke is Danny, is that supposed to tie into the PARTRIDGE FAMILY reference (Danny Bonaduce being a member of the cast)?

His favorite song is the minute waltz...

This would work if the joke was Danny was so impatient that

He lives in Four Corners...

Bingo. Short. Clear. Funny.

Danny was so afraid of commitment he wrote his love letters in pencil.

Good but could be funnier. Go to the extreme. How about this one from another reader?

his wedding vows were written with invisible ink.

This is typical procedure in a writers room. One person suggests an area and the search begins for the best version.

...that he told his lady to keep her legs crossed

Not sure how that applies. He’s afraid of getting her pregnant?

Danny was so afraid of commitment that he brought a plus one to his own wedding.

This is a thinker. It’s a little convoluted.  To hedge his bet he brought another date?  It could also mean he brought a friend for moral support. 

Danny was so afraid of commitment that it drove him crazy...enough to be committed to an asylum.

This is on the nose. It answers the question but needs a comic spin. This just told you the consequences.

Danny was so afraid of commitment that he died alone. Sad and alone.

Same thing… although I wonder if the writer was even trying to make people laugh.

... he avoided women by moving into a San Francisco rowhouse with a creepy hair-fetishist wannabe rockstar and an even creepier cartoon-voice imitator.

Way too long and I suspect these references are inside jokes about people I should know but don’t. Long winding payoffs usually don’t work as well as short punchy ones.

...his marriage license had an expiration date.

Marriages are a good area. Nice.

Danny was so afraid of commitment that he married a Kardashian.

Yes. Off beat and specific. The Kardashians' penchant for brief marriages is so well known that this reference scores.

... he wouldn't even do things half-assed.

This would work if Danny was so lazy or such a bad worker that…

...that he asked Congress to authorize his actions.

Using the joke to make a political statement. Certainly valid.

... he defied gravity

I know I’m being a stickler, but avoiding commitment is an active choice and unless he has a superpower, defying gravity is not.

...he signed up on the one-way trip to Mars.

Danny sounds pretty committed to me if he’ll do that. And why a one-way ticket? And why Mars? Not clear.

....he only listened to "unfinished" symphonies.


Danny was so afraid of commitment that he kept a goat in his bedroom.

I don’t get it. A goat eats things. How does that apply?

He started writing his first novel on an Etch a Sketch.

That works.

Danny was so afraid of commitment that even listening to the song 'Mustang Sally' brought him out in hives.

I’m completely befuddled. And usually when a writer is asked to explain his joke, there’s a 99.9999% chance it’s not going in the script. Ed. Weinberger used to do that when he was showrunning.  He'd challenge a writer who just pitched a joke.   "Why is that funny?" he'd bark and the poor writer would have to answer in front of the whole room.  This resulted in numerous emergency calls to therapists.

Danny was so afraid of commitment he only dated nonagenarians.

Okay. To protect himself Danny only dates people who are going to die soon.  People have to know who nonagenarians are but it’s valid. Is there a clearer version? He only dates girls from assisted living facilities. Here’s an alternate version someone posted:

Danny was so afraid of commitment that he decided to only date amnesiacs.

That seems a little sharper. Here’s another try on the old age theme:

Danny was so afraid of commitment that he only dated girls from the terminal ward.

Needs a comic spin.

Danny was so afraid of commitment he finished his sentences with semi-colons;

Funny and off beat. Nice one.

...he carried his groceries in his coat pockets cause he couldn't make the call between paper or plastic

Sets up a funny image of a guy walking around with groceries bulging out of everywhere. If you can picture the joke that's generally a very good thing.

... his imaginary friend was an imaginary acquaintance.


...took his mother to speed dating.

A thinker but a funny concept. Bringing your mom to speed dating ensures no one will go out with you. If I was a showrunner I think I’d say let’s try it but have something else in the bullpen.

...that he moved to Japan, joined the Yakuza and then proceeded to violate their code ethics by screwing up the Starbucks order, showing up in blue jeans before casual Friday, not replacing the toner cartridge, etc. which lead to having the tip of his pinky finger and eventually his ring finger amputated, which meant he could not wear a wedding ring, which wouldn't really keep him from getting married so never mind.

Possibly a tad convoluted? Whattaya think?

Danny was so afraid of commitment that he called himself Anny.

In this case he’s just committing to a different name. If he was so afraid of commitment he couldn’t answer to any name that would be more on target. See the difference?

He became bulimic.

Oddly absurd. I like it.

Danny was so afraid of commitment he's still trying to decide whether or not to watch the pilot of VIVA LAUGHLIN.

Convoluted. We have to know what VIVA LAUGHLIN is. We have to know that it’s a show that hasn’t been on the air for quite a few years. That’s a lot to know and put together for one joke. And Danny’s lucky by the way that he missed that pilot.

Danny was so afraid of commitment, his longest relationship was with his divorce lawyer.


Danny is so afraid of commitment that he makes Sarah Palin look like Cal Ripkin Jr.

We gotta know who Cal Ripkin Jr. is and what he represents – he holds the consecutive game streak in baseball. And we have to know who Sarah Palin is and for purposes of this joke, know she’s flighty. Then we have to put the two together in the intended context. Way too convoluted.

He rented a burial plot.


Thanks again to everyone who participated.  It's amazing how many different punchlines there can be for one joke.  The last tip I'll share:  if you're stuck, go down a different road.  We sometimes get myopic trying to find a payoff in one area.  Let yourself be free.  Seek alternate options.  Pretty soon you may surprise yourself and instead of saying, "What can I come up with?" you're saying, "Which of these do I like best?"   Of course, then you might turn into Danny. 


Matthew Stott said...

"Danny was so afraid of commitment that even listening to the song 'Mustang Sally' brought him out in hives."

It's a song from the film 'The Commitments!' Obviously went too niche. :)

Medium Mac said...

This was fun! So many funny jokes. Can we do this again sometime, Ken? Please?

Johnny Walker said...

"Danny was so afraid of commitment that it drove him crazy...enough to be committed to an asylum.

This is on the nose. It answers the question but needs a comic spin. This just told you the consequences."

I'm surprised you didn't mention Jay Kogen's witty take on the same idea:

Danny was so afraid of commitment that he burned down the asylum.

Hamid said...

Hey! One of mine made the list!! Thank you, Ken!

(Mine was: Danny was so afraid of commitment that he decided to only date amnesiacs.)

Anonymous said...

Danny was so afraid of commitment that...nevermind.

Does that work?

Anonymous said...

Johnny Walker, I think because that one was mentioned a couple of times.

Scooter Schechtman said...

I liked the bulimia one. Implied vomit is the comedy writer's friend!

Dan Ball said...


Thanks for reviewing all these! That's a lot of work for Labor Day. I thought you'd pick five of them and critique those. Instead, you did a good chunk of them. It's like you really like us or something.

If I'd known the rigors you'd put my punchy through, I wouldn't have submitted at all. I just don't think I can handle people saying my jokes are, as you put it, "Funny!"

In all complete and utter seriousness, it's funny to study what makes jokes work or not work. One misplaced/miscast word can derail the whole damn thing.

A friend once told me there used to be a hole-in-the-wall restaurant/bar/club that all the comedians back in the 50s would hit up and they'd bounce jokes off each other. They'd never laugh at these jokes, they'd just listen and tell their buddy whether it worked or not. Has anyone heard of that?

Before I first started learning comedy, I didn't think it was that complex and that it was all about the setup and punchline. Once you see the same idea used side-by-side in a good way and in a bad way, it clicks.

I was hoping my first punchline would be critiqued since I put more thought into it. "Danny was so afraid of commitment that he couldn't bring himself to finish writing this punchli"

I didn't think a straight wording of the joke would do. "Couldn't bring himself" made the joke funnier, when "didn't" would've worked but been so-so. Also, ending the punchline at the 'i' just sounded funnier and I thought it worked because it was so close to being finished, but the fear of commitment snuffed it out at the last possible moment. Maybe that works and maybe it doesn't?

DBA said...

Ken, the one way ticket to Mars is a real thing. The planned expedition can't guarantee they'll be able to bring people back, so people wanting to go would have to agree to a one-way ticket. I agree it doesn't really work for this punchline since it's a major commitment, but just fyi, that's why "one-way".

Dan Ball said...


It does and it doesn't work. It does because it's true to the setup. It doesn't because it doesn't really have a funny spin on it.

I don't know if Ken would agree, but I could see this working if it came from a certain kind of character...like Eeyore. But it probably wouldn't make the cut because of that condition.

mark king said...

Danny was so afraid of commitment that... in acting class he had to slick back his hair - he couldn't commit to the part.

Mork said...

The U2 joke was mine; it was another "The Commitments" joke. 'Cause they were a band from Dublin, and U2 is another band from Dublin.

Yeah, it was a stretch, but in a competition like this, you've gotta try something to stand out from the crowd...

Kirk from Kansas City said...

"... he avoided women by moving into a San Francisco rowhouse with a creepy hair-fetishist wannabe rockstar and an even creepier cartoon-voice imitator."

It took me a while to figure it out, but that's a reference to Full House.

Brian Phillips said...

Thanks for this post. Very insightful, but I have a question about a writer's room concern regarding cultural references. You liked the Kardashian reference, but (and this is a long shot), suppose the show is syndicated. Will people get it five years from now? "Murphy Brown" was, by nature, swamped with political references and as such, is not repeated. How many kids will crack up at an "Iron John" parody now?

Bill Taub said...

I got a Bingo!!! I got a Bingo!!! Glad you were able to choose, I liked them all -- Danny.

gottacook said...

Mork: Really? I thought it was because the best-known U2 songs include "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" and "I Can't Live With or Without You."

Nick said...

a little late, but..

Danny was so afraid of committment that he wouldn't buy a forever stamp.

Pappy Boyington said...

Wow, sooooo many! By the way, I think the GOAT ref probably should've been SHEEP...wasn't mine, I'm just guessing; at least that makes a little more sense.

Listened to the first hour of the radio show last night. Congrats for being able to talk for an hour, almost an hour, continuously! I was beginning to think nobody was going to call and obviously, I wasn't - and I didn't! When you finally got a call, I was greatly relieved. So I went to bed. But I assume you're still talking!

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Pappy: yes, goat, sheep, chickens...any animal where the woman he brings home would go, "Not doing this more than once." (That one was mine.)

I, too, really liked the wedding vows written in invisible ink, although the pedant in me thinks the poster might have meant *disappearing* ink, not invisible ink.


bill said...

Danny was so afraid of commitment he only went into public restrooms marked "Us".

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Re the womb thing: I think that may be funnier if you're male. If you could be the woman carrying the baby for two to six years, all you can think of is how ghastly that would actually be.


Igor said...

Thanks, Ken.

Mork - I LOVED the U2 line.

So much so that I almost just stopped and didn't write any. But now it seems I liked it for the "wrong" reason.

OK, here's how it hit me: The name "U2" conjures up the concept of "you two", as in "a couple", which in turn leads to the notion of commitment.

Plus, even before it made sense to me, it felt funny. And since it did feel funny, I was committed (!) to letting my brain do a cycle or two to figure out what it meant. (Even if, as it turned out, I was wrong - at least as to your intent.)

But, hey, it gave ME a laugh. So as a blog writer once said to Robin Williams...

Moving on. Now, would that line work for any comedian? No. But for some, yeh.

And overall, for me anyway, with some of the lines I read (and some that I wrote), I did it with a sense of a particular (type of) comedian saying it - from Henny Youngman to Stephen Wright.

And I liked the shaggy-dog Yakuza entry because, again, it had this funny sense to it from the start, so I was willing to go along for the ride.

(Caveat: I liked Jamie Brockett's "Legend of the USS Titanic - http://youtu.be/4XFYMjkFYPg)

RCP said...

"Adding a word, changing the order of two words, substituting a more specific or funnier word – these are the tools we deal with."

This happened with the Etch a Sketch joke. That was my original choice, then after Googling Etch a Sketch, I discovered that it was used for drawing, not writing. I was thinking of that pad with a clear sheet over it - you'd write on the pad, then lift the sheet to make the words disappear. I don't know if anyone under 50 would remember it. I then chose 'invisible ink' but - as Wendy G. has pointed out about another joke - 'disappearing ink' would have made more sense. After all that, I still think Etch a Sketch sounds the funniest.

I really enjoyed reading all of these - and your thoughts on them. Thanks Ken!

m stillman said...

You reacted flatteringly to my entry - which is a nice thing for me - and also speaks well for your comedic sense. You’re coming along. Keep up the good work.

But don’t let my flattery go to your head. I think you missed the boat.

One of your assessments re one entry was:

" ‘Danny was so afraid of commitment that it drove him crazy...enough to be committed to an asylum.’ This is on the nose. It answers the question but needs a comic spin. This just told you the consequences. "

No argument from me on your assessment. But this entry has one redeeming quality that an earlier entry shares. While virtually all entries employ the expected meaning of “commitment”, namely, to make a decision, both the entry you cite and the one I’m referring to do not.

Your above analysis sounds like it could be for a master-teacher class on what a perfect comic spin would be that capitalizes on subverting the expected meaning of commitment.

Your analysis could have been preamble to your talking about the earlier entry I’m referring to: “Danny was so frightened of commitment that he burned down the asylum.”

Given there were 200 plus entries to sift through; my guess is you missed reading this one. Or maybe it was that reading and commenting on so many made you so punchy that you were blind to the one with arguably the most punch.

Or maybe we just have different senses of humor. But I doubt it. I mean, say vagina a few times and I’m overcome with mirth.

Mark said...

Reading this comment section reminds me of one of my favorite Bible verses: "But he, seeking to justify himself..."

Johnny Walker said...

For what it's worth to whoever wrote it: I loved the "When Harry Met Sally" one -- it's a romantic comedy about two people getting together, after all. I thought the way the title was used very clever. Sure, it doesn't make absolute sense, but for me it's one that still works.

the same chris said...

I might have had one of the more insane ones with this:
..."Hilarity ensues?"
"Is that a question or an answer?"
"Hilarity ensues."
"Partially correct."

I pictured this as an absurd cut away joke. A character saying your setup line hesitates to fill in the blank and it cuts to an oldfashioned classroom, very stiff atmosphere. Think Monty Python. John Cleese in front of a blackboard that says "Adult Comedy Class" and below "Danny was so afraid of commitment that ____". The teacher (Cleese) reads it out loud and asks "Can anyone fill in the blank?" and one student hesitatingly answers and then the above dialogue. After it cuts back to the original characters and we just don't know how afraid Danny was.

I don't know, probably more confusing than funny, but I find it funny when people are confused!

Here's my try on a one-liner (late entrance):

...his fiance had a permanent line to the missing persons department.

(I hope that one hasn't been done before)

JCD said...

Loved this! More please!

Pat Reeder said...

Re: "Danny was so afraid of commitment that he died alone. Sad and alone."

I'm impressed! I didn't realize Louis C.K. posted on this blog!

Tommi said...

Thanks for the laughs and lessons.

A late submission: Danny was so afraid of commitment that he moved back in with his parents at 35.

GC said...

Interesting, i learned a lot. And laugh a lot too. It's too bad that we can't see them anymore. i have submitted an insane one.

Great job! It's very kind of you.

Oliver said...

I don't find any of the sitcommy jokes funny, though. I can feel the rhythms and the audience laughter, but I don't find them funny.

The only one I laughed at was: "Danny was so afraid of commitment that he died alone. Sad and alone."

That takes the tired setup and subverts your expectations. 30 Rock did a lot of these types of jokes, usually with Tracy.

Cap'n Bob said...

RCP--You're thinking of the Magic Slate. Yes, I had a couple growing up. Usually one of us kids would lose the stylus, use a pencil instead, and ruin it.

RCP said...

Thanks, Cap'n Bob. I was going to say those were "simpler times" for kids' toys, then remembered blow guns, toy pistols with gunpowder caps, killer darts, Bag 'O Broken Glass...

Anonymous said...

that he wouldn't watch a pilot written by Ken Levine.

Keith said...

I wish I would have seen this over the weekend. Oh, well, I'm going to do a few just to get it out of my system:

Danny was so afraid of commitment that his bathroom had a revolving door.

Danny was so afraid of commitment that when the ordered a tuna sandwich he'd ask for the tuna "on the side".

Danny was so afraid of commitment that even his toupee was a reversible.

Danny was so afraid of commitment that, as a kid, he only played "Duck, Duck, Duck".

Danny was so afraid of commitment that the "picture in picture" outline was burned into his television.

DBenson said...

So afraid of commitment he sent valentines with disclaimers on the back.

Anonymous said...

You left the best one out Ken Levine, you left the best one out.


Unknown said...

A mystic path led me to here this morning, and I'm really enjoying your blog. Very much enjoy reading your posts. I couldn't help myself, and hope you don't mind if I put in my two cents. It just popped into my head, and I like it:
Danny was so afraid of commitment he had to see a shrink to peel a banana.
~ Victoria Miller (and what have you got against being read by robots?)

Ellen said...

I loved reading your quick crits. Very illuminating. Thanks, Ken.

I actually thought
...he left the movie theatre before Harry met Sally
was the funniest one and an absolutely perfect joke. (And no, I didn't write it.) I'm not clear why you didn't get that one.

Still, a great exercise ...

Johnny Walker said...

Hey, waittamimute... Where's the one YOU came up with, Ken? You promised to reveal it in this post!

Cory said...

Mostly agreed with your assessments, but the funniest one, to me, was: "Danny was so afraid of commitment that he died alone. Sad and alone."

Dante Kleinberg said...

A fun exercise. Wish I'd known about it at the time.

How about...

... he declined the Apple end user agreement.

... he had his houseplants put to sleep.

... he couldn't decide on a punchline for this joke.

Nate Chastain said...

Very late on this, but it's a fun exercise.

Danny was so afraid of commitment...

...his birthday suit still had its tags.

...his bathroom was unfurnished.

...he kept a divorce lawyer on retainer.