Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Swapping jokes

Recently in a post I wrote a joke that some felt was too insensitive. Was it? You could argue either way. But I decided it was easier to just swap it out for another joke. I could have stayed with it, but in this case figured it wasn’t worth offending some people. I say “in this case” because in other instances I have kept original jokes that was controversial.

But I kept those because I thought they worked and were appropriate and those who were offended were overly sensitive. You can’t do humor without offending someone. I have never however, kept a joke because I thought it would be too hard to replace.

Professional comedy writers learn early that swapping out jokes is just a part of the game. Many young writers are very defensive. They like the joke they wrote, it took forever to come up with that joke, or both. But jokes often need to be changed. And not just because they don’t work. Actors have a problem, the network has a problem, standards & practices have a problem, legal has a problem, the scene changes and it doesn’t fit as well anymore, it’s funny but too jarring, it’s funny but makes the character seem too stupid, it’s too hard to shoot, it’s too similar to another joke, or of course – it’s too Jewish. You get the idea.

Comedy writers need to get in the habit of swapping out jokes. When my writing partner, David and I can’t agree on a line, rather than argue for forty minutes and one team member ultimately unhappy, we just throw it out and come up with something else. It’s easier, faster, and reduces a lot of unnecessary tension.

Obviously, re-writing jokes is a skill – you’re working under very specific parameters. And in time you get better at it.   How do you learn that skill?   Read on.

The way I approach it is to first think that I’m “beating” a joke, not “swapping” it. A bad habit for young writers is to think of the first joke and just go with it. Be tougher on yourself. The first joke is often the obvious one. Come up with four or five alternatives. Or ten if need be.

David and I are always looking to “beat” jokes. Once we’ve finished a script we’ll take another pass for just that purpose.   And you'd be surprised how many eleventh-hour jokes proved to be the best in the script.

There is one instance though where I advise against changing jokes. On multi-camera shows the writing staff sees run-throughs every day. By the third time they’ve heard the same joke they get tired of it. So they want to swap it out. When that happens you generally make lateral moves or negative ones. Remember that the audience hasn’t heard the original joke. So if a line gets a good laugh on the first day of rehearsal, leave it. Yes, it won’t be funny the next three days you see it, but trust that virgin ears will find it delightful.

Learning to “beat” jokes will take you a long way.  So how do you learn it? Simple. Tape a current sitcom. As an exercise determine jokes that could be beat then go at it. Some will come easily. Others will be a bitch. Don’t give up. Wrestle the bitches to the ground.

Make no mistake – television comedy writing is competitive. You want to be the one that producers swap “for.”

Best of luck.


Hamid said...

or of course – it’s too Jewish

That must've been a Mel Gibson story conference.

Wrestle the bitches to the ground.

The reader who was offended by your Zooey Deschanel picture is on her way at this very moment.

Hamid said...

By the way, Ken, I recently listened to an entertaining interview on Youtube with ESPN's Matthew Berry, who talked about his horrible experience of writing Crocodile Dundee In Los Angeles with his writing partner and the subsequent battle when the star Paul Hogan tried to steal their writing credit and claimed it was all his own script and even threatened to sue the WGA over it!

I think you'd find it very interesting, especially given your own experience with Mannequin 2. Berry is very funny and jokes about him and his partner doing the script purely for the money and that the finished movie was terrible. And interesting stories about jokes that were cut and replaced with dumb jokes, residuals, etc.

I liked Paul Hogan before I listened to this. Not anymore!!

Part 1:

Part 2:

Hamid said...

Oops, just found there's a full length version of the interview:

Joseph Scarbrough said...

"But I kept those because I thought they worked and were appropriate and those who were offended were overly sensitive. You can’t do humor without offending someone."

Oh, yes, yes, yes. The entire world has gotten too overly sensitive as of late. Can you believe that it's now actually politically incorrect to say, "Politically correct," or even, "Politicaly incorrect"? Apparently, those terms are, "Too offensive," now as well, so instead, we have to say, "Politically sensitive," and "Politically insensitive."

jeffery todd said...

I know that you have more experience but as a comedian I also know that I know more than everyone, my voice is the truth and I do not need to change for anyone.

Oh wait, I'm sorry that's politicians, I'm a comedian and I need you to like me. So sorry, please forgive me.

The Mutt said...

I have such admiration for people who can write with a partner or a team. I'm the kind of guy who lets something stew in my head until I think it's ready to put down on paper, then I think my first draft is perfect. Perfect, I tell you!

I remember writing for a comedy troupe and having an hour-long argument over whether the word "sank" was funnier than the word "sunk."

mrdj said...

I'm glad you didn't have a generic joke swapping photo for today's blog!

DBenson said...

Lesson learned in community theater: There comes a point where even a weak new joke or move will get a huge laugh from cast and crew, partly from surprise and partly because, as you note, they've heard/seen the rehearsed stuff so many times. And then in goes into a performance and dies.

Also, a laugh that sounded too physically close was suspect. It might be the orchestra members, jolted by something unexpected and/or very inside, and not the audience.

Brian Phillips said...

Has there ever been a time in which people have NOT complained that censorship and sensitivity has curtailed creativity?

Patrick M. - Atlanta said...

Speaking on being offended in comedy:
I have always agreed with the "comedy pushes boundaries" principle, but one instance had me horribly offended.

When the show "Dads" started, I gave it a few weeks. Obviously it didn't take and one of the reasons was an offensive joke. Martin Mull's character is a bit of a deadbeat and can't seem to hold a job. I'm paraphrasing, but the joke was somewhere along the lines of "I was on the Challenger team at NASA. Boy, they really mean it when they say don't push the red button".

Again, I side with comedy on just about anything, so I wasn't offended that they "went there", I was horribly offended at how bad the joke was. It's like they put it in there just to shock. I would be okay with it, but make it a good joke. As is, I tuned out.

The Mutt said...

The funniest joke I ever heard also seriously offended most everybody in the room. It was the night of the day John Lennon had been killed. The place was full of people reminiscing and drowning our sorrows.

The front door slammed open and a man came in and shouted, "Oh my God! They shot the Lennon Sisters!"

I was laughing so hard I could barely pull the people off of him who were trying to kick his ass.

BTW, that man was noted character actor Chris Ellis.

SharoneRosen said...

I feel so enlightened. When I used to write material for a couple of radio morning guys, I would always give them at least three punchlines. I'd even do that for myself when I was on the air. Sometimes you didn't know which way the set up would take you until you got there. Radio joke writing is very "by the seat of your pants" sometimes (most of the time). Ahhhh.. I do miss all that

Johnny Walker said...

Comedy writers need to get in the habit of swapping out jokes. When my writing partner, David and I can’t agree on a line, rather than argue for forty minutes and one team member ultimately unhappy, we just throw it out and come up with something else. It’s easier, faster, and reduces a lot of unnecessary tension.

It also keeps those joke-writing muscles strong and healthy :)

Mike said...

And speaking of that swapped-out joke:
Successful comedians display symptoms of psychosis, study says. The results are based on a study of how 523 comedians from the UK, USA and Australia described their own personalities and beliefs when they filled in a questionnaire measuring psychotic traits in people who are not troubled by mental illness. The Americans were used as a control group since they weren't funny.

Anonymous said...

Poor Vaughan Meader...

Pat Reeder said...

Back when I was writing humorous corporate video, I came in one day to look at the most recent edit and discovered that the junior writers under me (who were supposed to just make sure it was edited according to script) had the editor remove all the jokes. I asked them what happened. They gently explained, so as not to hurt my feelings, that after seeing it on screen, they decided it wasn't as funny as it had seemed at first. Oddly enough, they hadn't noticed this until after about the 100th time they'd seen it rerun in the editing bay.

I had the editor put up the original cut, called in the CEO, and asked him to watch it and give us his opinion. He laughed in all the right places, and I told the editor to leave it that way. I then tried to explain to the younger writers that the fact that a joke doesn't seem as funny the 100th time you hear it doesn't mean it's not funny to people who are hearing it the first time.

That's why my partner George and I used to test all our radio bits by hauling someone in from the hallway and having them listen, to get a fresh outside reaction. We told them this was a high honor that we referred to as an "M.T." We did not tell them that "M.T." stood for "Moron Test."

To SharoneRosen: I write for radio and wrote a daily radio comedy service for years. It required us to write multiple one-liners for every story. Every day, I would use several stories because when I first saw them, great lines immediately popped into my head. But in almost every case, by the time the service went out, that line was different and improved from the line I first thought of, and there was usually at least one other line we thought of later than I liked better.

Storm said...

Mike said: "...The Americans were used as a control group since they weren't funny."

Seriously. Marry me.


Hamid said...

Oscar nominations just hours away! The Oprah Army will be poised to strike if their idol doesn't get one.

Hamid said...

No nomination for Oprah. I'm happy.

Hennell said...

Hi Ken,

Related (somewhat Last minute) 'friday question' for you: I see a recent episode of HIMYM has been called racist by some viewers ( - just wondering if you could share an idea of how such a situation might happen? Surely the number of writers/producers/cast/network guys who must have signed off on this should have thought a little about possible audience reaction? You argue here that it's not worth offending people if you can just swap it for another joke, but does a funny bit trump the possibility some might be offended?

(Feel free to take the question as abstract if you'd rather keep out of the specific HIMYM situation!)