Friday, November 07, 2014

Friday Questions

Friday Questions based on my writing process and recent posts about my play (closing soon so get your tickets now):

Matt starts us off:

You have said before that you tell actors to hold for the laugh because you don't want them talking when nobody can hear. What do they do if there is no laugh?

They just keep going. The actors I have, Jules Willcox & Jason Dechert, are seasoned vets of the stage and easily roll with the punches. I am amazed at how aware they are of everything around them. They’re totally in the moment and relating to each other on stage yet after the show they’ll say “You moved to a different seat in the second act” or “there was a guy who stifled a sneeze in the third row.”

I once sat in the first row at the LA Music Center for a play and was so bored I almost fell asleep. But I had to pretend I was interested and really engaged. I didn’t want to insult the actors or hurt their feelings. The best performance in the theater that night was by me.  So far no one has fallen asleep in my play... or at least snored loudly enough to be heard. 

From Chester:

Ken, I'd be interested to know more about your process for rewriting and inserting new jokes.

I suspect it's a lot more difficult than just coming up with a funnier punchline. Wouldn't you have to go back and rework the set-up, alter references, perhaps even adjust the overall plot of the play? I imagine the ripple effect of any small change could possibly affect other things somewhere else in the script. Love to hear more.

Absolutely on all counts.

So many times when a joke doesn’t work it’s the set-up that’s at fault. Remember, there are three elements to a good joke (and if any of my USC students are reading this, write it down):

Information, set-up, punchline.

If the audience doesn’t get the reference, or the reference is ambiguous and might be misinterpreted, or even vague, then the joke is unlikely to land.

The set-up could also be too wordy or too hard to say.  I try to read my stuff aloud but sometimes things slip through.  I hear the actor struggling and know it's my bad.    

Often times if a joke doesn’t work and I can’t think of a better punchline I’ll just go in a different direction, find a different joke altogether.   This is where a partner helps.  We sometimes get too locked in to one avenue.  You have to train yourself to step back and attack the problem from an alternate direction. 

And in writing character comedy, the jokes have to express an attitude and move the story forward. So it’s not just how funny can I make this line? The joke has a function and must serve the story as well as get a laugh. And serving that story comes first. So it’s tricky sometimes.

I also try to have several running jokes throughout the piece. So if a joke comes out that is part of the running gag then I might have to make further adjustments to other lines.   The good news though, is when you hear an audience laugh at something you can often do a call-back, and that call-back might solve your need-new-joke problem. 

MikeK.Pa. has two questions:

Does laughter increase or decrease in relation to alcohol content? Assume laughs go up with the blood alcohol. Also, do you continue to tweak the play in its second week or is it now a done deal? Will there be a second act (another play) in the future?

I am not an authority on alcohol but assume one or two drinks might put a person in a more relaxed, receptive mood for comedy. But drunks rarely pick up on character humor or satire.

As a writer, I do not want my material to depend on alcohol or any other crutch. I write my jokes hoping they’ll stand up to the most sober audience.

I have tweaked the play a little after opening night but not much. Just a line here or there. It’s 90 minutes of some intricate dialogue and only two actors. At some point you just have to let them learn it and get comfortable with it. I love my actors and don’t want them to hate me by the end of the run.

What’s your Friday Question?


Jason said...

For next Friday...

What happens to the play when this run is over?

Johnny Walker said...

In all my learning about writing, I've never heard anyone break down a joke into those three parts before. Could someone (Ken?) post an example of "information", "setup" and "punchline" in terms of a sitcom?

I'm guessing it's something like this:

Norm Peterson likes beer.

Bartender: "What's going down, Mr Peterson?"

Punchline :
Norm: "My butt, that beer, and anyone who says otherwise."

(A little rough for Norm's voice, but I was just writing a quick example.)

Is that right?

Scooter Schechtman said...

No opinion about the effect of cannabis on Funny? Woody Allen delivered an opinion in "Annie Hall" but I can't take it seriously.

Scooter Schechtman said...

Sorry, I just realized you did imply you didn't want material depending on "crutches" which I guess means dope. I was too crutched up to realize it. Thanks, Buzz Killington.

Mark said...

If there are no plans for the future for the play, could you post a video for those of eager but unable to attend?

Anonymous said...

From Gary M., San Pedro, CA
November 7, 2014

My comment on Mr. Levine’s play is long in coming as my Apple Mac Pro Tower computer blew up the day after I saw the play and it’s just now been fixed. You know the drill, drive to far to an Apple Store, fight the Iphone6 crowds (yes, as of yesterday there is still a line at the Manhattan Beach Mall store, sit at Genius Bar and wait and then be made to feel like a kook by the nice guy who knows everything that you didn’t try when you troubleshot it for a week. Anyway, these are my impressions of Mr. Levine’s play A or B.

I was one of the lucky few that was there on opening night. I also was the first to arrive thinking I might be the only one but they came streaming in. As I entered a sparten lobby Mr. Levine was there and sat with me for a few minutes and was very affable and answered all my questions that a novice playgoer would ask; just how long did it take you to write the play? Did you do any re-writing (brilliant question), etc?
He was so kind not to show his boredom with me and soon some important people began to arrive and he kindly excused himself.

As to the play. I was lucky enough to be seated five rows back and in the middle, perfect seat. But what unfolded before my eyes and ears was and interesting and engrossing work that was refreshing to see but more importantly to listen to. This is a dialogue piece that early on said that one must pay attention closely as you may miss something. Funny, absolutely with references that us adults know, old and contemporary. Mr. Levine seems to have his pulse on today’s pop culture, at least more than I do. This is a great date play for adults, not for “texting junkies” as they will get some of the older references and I don’t think they can sit still that long.

The acting, incredible! I never heard a line or word “go-up” which was interesting as Mr. Levine, in answer to one of my feeble questions, said he did extensive re-writes all along. These actors are definitely very professional and not “models” using the play as a vehicle to try and get on a soap opera. The play is worth seeing if you like good acting live. Either the director or Mr. Levine or both did a bang-up job with these two.

As you may or may not know, the plot is simple. Should a young, attractive woman date her boss or not or just date him and not work for him? It shows the parallel tracts in a funny and inventive way. As a watcher and listener you had to pay attention to the words and I like that. I laughed silly at many of the joke lines so much that my stomach was a little queasy when the play was over and the buffet was served in the lobby.

One more thing. I got to meet Mr. Levine’s wife and son at the after party. What a charming lady and cute too and his son Matt looked so much like his father and was very congenial. I was impressed how Mr. Levine worked the room at the buffet. Wow that was something else, he is a pro, at writing and schmoozing.

I recommend this play highly so get a ticket fast; it only plays thru Nov. 15.

Tom said...

My review -
Great show, but the repeated offscreen bathtub faucet sound effect sounded more like somebody peeing.
See, this is why nobody pays me to write reviews.

BQ said...

As a professional alcohol researcher (no that isn’t a euphemism for being a drunk – I really am an alcohol researcher, I have a doctorate, work at a university, and conduct research on the effects of alcohol on human behavior), I have to make a comment on the question of what effect alcohol has on laughter. Unfortunately there isn’t a lot of research on the topic. I only found one paper from 1985 in which participants were given either a low dose of alcohol, high dose of alcohol, or no alcohol and exposed to humor that was either blunt slapstick type humor (Carol Burnett Show clips)or more subtle humor that requires one to think about the joke before getting it (George Carlin clips). The basic findings were that alcohol increased laughter to the slapstick humor but not to the more subtle humor. This makes sense given what we know about the pharmacological effects of alcohol on cognitive processes. It creases a mental type of myopia causing us to pay most attention to what is right in front of us. It makes us cognitively lazy. Hence the humor in a slapstick type of joke is much more salient and easier to process than one in which you have to dig into your memory and add something of your own in order to understand the joke. That study was done almost 30 years ago and since we now know more about the effects alcohol, I could make some additional hypotheses about the effects of alcohol on humor appreciation. Although alcohol is classified as a depressant, it actually only has that effect when your blood alcohol level is going down and you are sobering up. When you are getting drunk and your blood alcohol level is increasing, alcohol actually acts as a stimulant. So I would hypothesize that alcohol would only increase laughter when you are getting drunk and your blood alcohol content is rising. When you are sobering up alcohol acts as a depressant, so I would expect you would less likely to find things funny as your blood alcohol level falls. Unfortunately there isn’t much research on the effects of alcohol on positive behaviors like humor. Much more research is done on alcohol and violence, which is what I mostly study- drinking and fighting. Ironically, I then go out after work to play in an Irish band and sing songs about drinking and fighting! And sometimes it is very much like the band in the Cheers St. Patrick’s Day Bar Wars episode “….and now we’d like to do a happy go lucky song about whiskey and death!”

Vivian R. said...

Hi Ken!

I was watching Young Man With a Horn a while ago, and Lauren Bacall's character in the movie struck me as being very similar to Rachel Menken from Mad Men. That got me thinking, and I wanted to ask you a question:

Have you ever copied someone else's character accidentally? If so, what did you do? How would you go about fixing the problem?

Robert said...

...and Selfie joins Manhattan Love Story on the season's scrap heap. ABC cancelled it today. You called that one, Ken.

Matt said...

Thanks Brian,

That was very interesting.

Do you have any links to your articles, I would like to read them.

Geoffrey Vasile said...

Dear Ken, I've been perusing Kirstie Alley's autobiography on google books and being the fanboy I am, I can't help but wonder about a potential discrepancy or all-out mistake in her book. In it, she talks about Burrows being lenient about tardiness except for one time when she and Perlman were late during the filming of an episode with Joint Chiefs of Staff COLIN POWELL. While the timing is right, I only remember the episode with Admiral Crowe and the earrings. Was there another episode with Powell I missed, or did Alley and her editor just overlook that error?

By Ken Levine said...


Kirstie is wrong. It was Admiral Crowe. Colin Powell was never on CHEERS.

Ian said...

A couple of Friday questions:

1) Specific to Cheers: Why did the customers order "a beer" rather than a brand name? Was it a legal matter? Was it to avoid commercializing the show? (I'm sure Budweiser or whoever would have paid millions for Norm to drink their product.)

2) General: I've always wondered what the extras in the background are actually doing. For example, at the coffee shops in Seinfeld or Frasier, you see the background actors engaging in conversation, discussing the bill, ordering from the menu, pointing out something in a newspaper, arguing on the phone, etc. Who plans all this out? How elaborate is it, and how spontaneous? Are they even saying anything at all, or just mouthing the words?

Thanks!!! Love your blog. I've been re-watching the early episodes of Cheers on DVD, and they're just golden.

VP81955 said...

My take on "A or B":

P.S. Ken, it was wonderful meeting you. Continued success.

DwWashburn said...

Friday question -- I enjoy watching blooper or gag reels. In most comedies, whether they be single or multi camera, it seems like the actors laugh at their goofs or rib their cast mates. However in all of the gag reels I've seen for MASH, they seem angry. It seems that the cast was not loose or having fun when they were performing. Your thoughts?