Saturday, September 24, 2016

Is there laughter in the writers' room?


A lot of it.

There is a misconception that comedy writers never laugh.  Although we frequently do just nod and say, “That’s funny, put it in” there is also a ton of laughter.

Being able to laugh all day is the one saving grace of sitting in a pressure-filled room night after night after night. Well, that and junk food.

True that most of the laughs stem from jokes that don’t get in the script. No comedy writer would ever win a Humanitas Award or Peabody if any outsiders heard him for five minutes during a rewrite session. And when you consider the jokes that do get into 2 BROKE GIRLS (I caught a few minutes of an episode while on a plane recently where two characters were having sex in a dumpster), you can only imagine what didn’t get in.

You need laughter to keep the energy level up. And raunchy, totally appalling material sparks that. If you’re loose and having fun you’re more apt to come up with that great line that will get in the script. Even the California courts agreed when a disgruntled writers assistant tried to sue the staff of FRIENDS for sexual harassment. She lost. Courtney Cox vagina jokes won.

The tone of sitcom writers room differ depending on the showrunner and staff. Our first staff job, as I mentioned at one time, was on THE TONY RANDALL SHOW run by Tom Patchett & Jay Tarses. I’ve never been to a comedy club where I laughed even half as much as I did during any one rewrite night on that show. Don’t tell anybody but I would hope for bad runthroughs so the rewrite nights were longer. I was young, single, had nowhere else to go, and they had Almond Joy minis.

As a showrunner I prefer a raucous room. And I like good laughers. But that isn’t to say you have to have a boisterous atmosphere to write funny scripts. The quietest, most subdued room I’ve ever been in was FRASIER. It was like rewriting in a library. And yet look at the results. Pure magic. But there were long periods of silence. If there was a Daphne joke that didn’t work we could be there for an hour.

I have a rule. If someone pitches a joke (for the script) and it gets a big laugh in the room the joke goes in just the way it was pitched. So often someone will pitch something and someone else will suggest an alternate version. Then it gets tossed around and after awhile you don’t remember the original or why you laughed in the first place. This is called “Stabbing the Frog.” You have a bouncy little frog in Biology class. You dissect it and see what makes it tick. But now you have a dead frog. (I know one showrunner who pathologically had to change at least one or two words of every pitch so he could put his own stamp on it. Yes, he was infuriating.) So my policy – if a pitch got a huge laugh, even if its structured weirdly – it goes in as is.

So yes, there is laughter in the writers room. I would hope in drama writing rooms too, although I can’t picture a real party atmosphere in the CRIMINAL MINDS room (well, maybe now that Thomas Gibson has been booted). Laughter is a great release, a great indicator, and all you have left when the Almond Joy minis are all gone.


Rashad Khan said...

Most comedy writers who cite "The Dick Van Dyke Show" as their reason for breaking into the business say Rob, Buddy and Sally always appeared as if they were having a good time while writing for Alan Brady.

BA said...

Are there any writing sessions with a no-cell phone policy?
-old fart-

MikeN said...

There are lots of people that could claim things would be better if there were a raucous atmosphere where people made raunchy jokes. Somehow the law doesn't say,'If you don't like it, work somewhere else.'

H Johnson said...


Off topic...

Flying to the mainland today. Have great seats for Sunday's game. Wanted to be there for Mr. Scully's last Dodger Stadium broadcast.

Any advice on how we could send a lei up to the booth?

Beautiful tribute last night. Hope it's not so grand Sunday. I don't think I could take it. My eyes are still red from watching Koufax and Costner on TV yesterday.


Daniel said...

Possible Friday Question: You've mentioned several times how poorly "Murphy Brown" has aged (I've never seen it so I have no opinion on way or another). Do you think this is because it dealt so much with the topical references of the day or was it because of the way it was executed? I only ask because I have an album of Tom Lehrer songs that he wrote for the mid-1960s TV series "That Was the Week" that was which, as the title would suggest, was extremely topical to the events that happened the week each episode aired. I wasn't even born when the show aired so I have only a peripheral knowledge of some of the very specific topics he was writing his songs about and yet the songs are still unbelievably funny, often times laugh out loud funny (especially "The Vatican Rag"). Was Tom Lehrer just a better craftsman than the "Murphy Brown" writers?

Jahn Ghalt said...

Thanks Ken for linking to

The laugh that almost cost me my career

This reminds me to encourage you to write another memoir as a follow up to

The Me Generation.. by ME

Why not make this a Friday Question:

Ken, how is your outline coming along for the next volume in your Memoir Series?

It may seem contrived, but doing one book for every decade looks like a winner for me - I'd buy several copies for me and all my sufficiently aged, worthy friends.