Wednesday, March 30, 2016

When jokes don't work

This is kind of a theme week -- discussing why comedy misfires.  (Are theme weeks fun?  I dunno.  It's an experiment.) 

Part of a comedy writer’s job (a LARGE part) is fixing jokes that don’t work. It’s not enough to know that a joke fell flat. Anyone can tell you that. But repairing them takes skill. And investigative ability.

When a joke dies, the first thing you have to ascertain is why you were left with that horrible deafening silence.

That’s where I am now. I had a fantastic reading of my new play, GOING GOING GONE (see accompanying photos) recently and am now in the process of rewriting. Happily, the piece got lots and lots of big laughs. But there were also some jokes that clunked and need to be addressed.

The trouble is, it’s not always easy to determine why something didn’t work. And each case must be treated individually.

So let’s go through some of the usual suspects.

Does the audience have the proper information? Are you making a reference to someone or something they don’t know? Good luck getting a laugh with a Rita Pavone joke. If eight of you know who Rita Pavone is I’ll be shocked. (And for the record, no, I did not have a Rita Pavone in the play… or in anything I’ve ever written.)

If there’s a set-up to a particular joke, is that set-up wrong? Set-ups need to lead the audience in one specific direction. Are you going for a “he’s so cheap” joke or a “he’s on a diet” joke? And if the punchline involves him not ordering something, the audience doesn’t know which reason why.

The problem could also be the punchline. Is it worded correctly? Is it too long? Is it too convoluted? Does the audience have to follow four or five steps to get to the joke? Is it too general? Too specific?

Or is it just not funny? Have you not found the right joke yet?

You also have to take into account the sensibility of your audience. Andrew Dice Clay should not be booked into the Vatican.

A lot of current comics won’t play college campuses anymore because the kids are too PC. There’s an old expression – “Know your house.” If you know going in that your brand of comedy isn’t going to work with a certain crowd, avoid it. Same is true with jokes.

Is the joke in question too similar to other jokes you’ve already featured in the piece? Or is it a call-back but one call-back too many?

Or – and I know this sounds like a cop out – was this just an audience that didn’t get the joke? Playwrights and actors will tell you that when you do a comedy night after night there are certain jokes that get big laughs in one performance, then nothing in the next, then a bigger laugh in the third. And you just can’t accurately predict.

Was the audience tired? See yesterday’s post.

You generally can’t blame the air-conditioning, especially if the joke before and after worked.

And then there’s the other big factor – the actor delivering the line. Did he say the joke wrong? Did he slur some words making it hard to hear? Was his timing off? Did he not hold for a laugh so no one heard him because they were still laughing at the previous joke? Was his delivery too soft? Too jarring? Too angry? Too slow? It’s always a tough call because you feel lazy just saying, “give it another chance” but often times the actor will make an adjustment and suddenly it works.

That was one of the (many) great things about David Hyde Pierce on FRASIER. If he didn’t get a laugh at a runthrough we drew a line through the joke. It was OUR fault. Not only did he make good jokes work every time, he got laughs out of straight lines. The man is a comedy GOD.

Not to sound callous, but there have been times a part was playing flat and we recast the actor. The new Thesp came in and suddenly every joke was popping.

Fortunately, I didn’t have that problem. My cast was terrific so whatever problems I'm encountering are script-related. I find the process sort of fun actually. Puzzle-solving in a way. I’m not always right and sometimes I’m replacing the same joke after every runthrough. But it’s part of the process. And every so often I reward myself. I wrestle with what’s wrong with a sticky line and eventually say, “Fuck it. I’ll just cut it.” There are few better feelings then hitting the delete key.

Tomorrow I'll go into some of the external forces that keep mirth from happening.  


Anonymous said...

I want to testify.
Rita Pavone was a bit of a star in Germany when I was a boy.
How could I forget songs like "Arrividerci Hans" and "Wenn ich ein Junge wär"?
She also danced with Germany's most famous public prosecutor on TV.
Good times.
If the play ever comes to Germany please do insert a couple of Rita Pavone jokes.


Stephen Marks said...

Wish you could record these sessions so we could actually watch you work Ken, it'd be like watching Koufax pitch.

When I first saw the title "When jokes don't work" I thought you were writing about my unemployed ex-wife. So than I........oh wait, that joke didn't work did it? Must be the air conditioning. Fuck it, I'll cut it!

BA said...

I miss the stark ugly bombs I used to catch in sitcoms. In a 70s WKRP episode Loni Anderson said "There is that problem in the Middle East" to thunderous silence. Today there's a constant roar of laughter and rushed dialog and expert CGI laughter. I suspect you've got an unenthusiastic opinion of ANGIE TRIBECA (which I love for all it's high gloss humor, Rashida Jones and Rashida Jones).

Terrence Moss said...

so stoked to see my bud Kareem Ferguson in this.

John in Ohio said...

Re: obscure references
I read once that Dennis Miller said he wrote jokes with an increasingly narrow focus as the story went along when doing snl news. First joke for the uninformed, second for people who followed the news, third for him and one person in Aliquippa. If you got the references, the jokes generally got funnier as it went, but the studio audience seemed to get quieter as it went

Jerry said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Greg Ehrbar said...

Regarding audiences catching references, there was a memorable line on The Dick Van Dyke Show in the episode in which Rob was punching up a play for Alan Brady. Rob wrote a line with the word "Machiavellionaire," and Alan said something like, "What am I supposed to do, hand out pamphlets to the audience so they get the jokes?"

Victor Velasco said...

How could you forget Rita Pavone when the only song that got any play back in the day was "Remember Me"?

Tammy said...

Friday Question: When the opening credits feature scenes from the show next to each actor's name, who picks which scenes to use? (Seems like a fun assignment.) And do the actors have any say in it? Thanks!

Rita Pavone said...

At least Ed Sullivan knew me.

Andrew said...

Friday question(s): On a previous post you mentioned that Larry Linville didn't receive a more substantial send-off from MASH because he was going through a divorce at the time. (I found that very moving, having been through one myself.) To your observation, how do successful shows navigate these sorts of issues involving their main actors? How often do they alleviate the stress on a certain actor because they know he/she is going through a difficult time? Is there usually pressure on the actor just to suck it up, or is there sensitivity to marital difficulties and similar issues?

MikeK.Pa. said...

I remember reading SUNDAYS AT SEVEN, a biography on Jack Benny by his daughter, Joan. She related 1) that he respected and trusted his writers; and 2) would labor over every word to make sure it was the right one and would get a laugh.

Donald said...

Off-topic Ken, but in anticipation of interviewing Robin Leach, I was sent an advance screener of the Very Special television episode of CNN's "The Eighties." Great to see you as one of the commentators. You acquitted yourself with distinction.

Andy Rose said...

There are some extant recordings of Jack Benny radio rehearsals, and in those off-the-air discussions, you can definitely hear his fine sense of timing as he goes over the wording with his writers and director. And true to his reputation, he always made sure the joke was delivered by the right person... he didn't overhaul a setup just to make sure he got the funniest line.

Breadbaker said...

Thanks for explaining something to me. We enjoyed, but weren't totally blown away by, Spamalot. We saw it, by chance, the night of the Emmys, and so David Hyde Pierce's understudy handled his role while DHP was in LA for the awards. The understudy looked just like him, but I suspect what you said about how even your lesser lines would work when David was your mouthpiece applied in the opposite direction. As good as Eric Idle (and the original material put together by his Monty Python colleagues that he adapted) is--and there are few bigger fans of Monty Python than yours truly--I imagine some of the lines might have had to be honed better for the stage if he weren't rehearsing it with such an incomparable comic actor in the first instance.