Thursday, May 25, 2017

C'mon, sitcom writers -- you can do better

This is pretty much a follow up to yesterday’s post. Two trends in comedy tropes I see emerging from watching the trailers of the upcoming new sitcoms. Irony and the quick flip. And my problem is that both are lazy and not particularly funny.

First – the quick flip. A character says something and the opposite immediately occurs. But most times it’s so obvious that he’s setting himself up for the quick flip. “I’m a great driver!” followed immediately by a CRASH. We’ve seen this trope so often that the audience is way ahead of you. So there’s zero surprise.

And instead of funny clever lines, characters now offer underplayed ironic comments that are supposed to serve as punch lines. But they’re not. They don’t get laughs. They get smiles at best. Shouldn’t comedy writers aspire for more?

Take the new ABC Zach Braff show, ALEX INC. He’s in a development lab. Someone shows him a gadget and says: “they’re developing a robot that rocks a baby to sleep.” Next thing – the gadget fires a doll across a room where it slams against the wall. Quick flip. Then Zach says: “Coming along, fellas.” Irony.

And here’s the thing – anyone can write irony. Anyone can write the twenty alternate versions of “going great,” “keep up the good work,” “you must be proud,” etc. But a skilled comedy writer should be able to come up with stuff not everyone can think of. That’s what you pay him for. A professional should look at “coming along, fellas” and say “Oh, hell. We can beat that.”

Yeah, it’s just one joke. But it’s in the TRAILER. Shouldn’t trailers trot out the best stuff? That’s their funniest stuff?

Later in the trailer Zach says, “This is the best day of my life.” Then he’s slammed against a car and handcuffed. Quick flip. Then he says, “Handcuffs? What am I going to do? Run away?” I’ll give you one guess as to what happens next.

LA to VEGAS from Fox is not much different. A flight attendant says: “Anyone who sits here gets free beers.” A pregnant woman stands up. Flight attendant says: “Not you.” That’s not even ironic.
Later the pilot says: “If I can’t have fun with the passengers why am I here? The flight attendant’s hilarious comeback: “To fly the plane. Go do that.” So laughs are supposed to come from characters stating the obvious with attitude. Again, comedy writers can’t beat those lines?  You think the writers of ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT would settle for those lines? 

The trailer continues. The pilot is in the passenger cabin and says: “This baby’s a technological miracle.” What happens next? He punctuates that by tapping an overhead bin and an oxygen masks falls. The quick flip that fools nobody.

In ABC’s SPLITTING UP TOGETHER Jenna Fischer and Oliver Hudson star as a married couple that has split up. Oliver is living in the garage. Jennifer is in the backyard talking to her girlfriends. She says: “I need sex in my life and Martin just doesn’t.” So of course, quick flip, the next shot is a hot babe entering the yard and asking where Martin is. You could see that coming from outer space. So Jenna calmly points her in the right direction and after she leaves Jenna turns to her friends and says: “What the (bleep) was that?” Explain the laugh. What am I missing? Jenna saying fuck although it was bleeped out? Jenna acting like she didn’t know what was going on when she obviously did? Or merely that’s the funniest reaction the writers could think of? “What the fuck was that?” No one, other than the sharpest, wittiest, most inventive brilliant comedy writers could come up with something as fresh and original and hilarious as “what the fuck was that?”

One final example although there are way many more – and these are just three show. Jenna tells Oliver the doctor says their son needs to masturbate. (Ooooh, edgy) Oliver points to a picture and says: “Is that Ruth Bader Ginsburg?” Jenna: “Yeah.” Oliver’s big comeback: “I really don’t think she’d appreciate this.” Ironic and stating the obvious.

Now I know I may sound like one of those old disgruntled geezers. But comedy I wrote decades ago is still being shown and still getting laughs so at least I’m a geezer with some street cred. I’m just saying to today's sitcom writers set the bar higher. And not just for us viewers (although, please DO) but for yourselves. Because the comedy writers who are indispensable are the ones that can produce big laughs. When a hundred or two hundred other guys can pitch the same lines you’re pitching you are easily replaced. And there’s nothing funny about that… or ironic.


Peter said...

What Ken said.

It's not just TV shows though, comedy movies have the same problems and other ones too. One trope I hate is the prevalence of "jokes" which are based entirely upon knowingly self referential comments on standard movie cliches. For example, in the Ghostbusters remake, there's a scene where the four are about to go into action. The Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig characters both say at the same time "Let's go!" Then Melissa says "Sorry. I'll let you say it next time". That's not a joke and it's not funny.

In Daddy's Home, Hannibal Buress delivers major news to Will Ferrell. Ferrell says the moment should have felt more epic and asks if he could go out and come back in so that their reactions could be like a classic movie moment. Buress says no, that sounds silly. Again, we're supposed to laugh at characters deconstructing movie tropes and it's not funny.

And that's on top of my pet hates of pointless pop culture references (in Spy, Miranda Hart's character, when asked what qualifies her to be a spy, reels off a list that includes "I've read all of the Hunger Games novels". I assume we're meant to laugh at the mere mention of something we've all heard of. Not a joke, not funny and it could have been about anything well known - "I've read all of the Harry Potter novels") and lazily having white characters randomly break into talking like gangster rappers (I like Tina Fey a lot but her character in Sisters saying "oh heeell naw!" wasn't funny the first time, much less the fifteenth).

Covarr said...

The quick flip always felt, to me, like impatient foreshadowing. A great setup could be used for a good surprise much later on, but instead the writers get overeager and use it immediately. Maybe they're worried audiences will forget about the setup? Maybe a flip is an easy way to show passage of time and help make up for awkward pacing? In any case, proper foreshadowing, both of plot points and punchlines, could work a lot better. Heck, they could even do an easy punchline now and a sideways version of that same punchline later. Audiences love callback jokes.

I'm even more bothered by this trope's younger brother, which I don't see too much on network TV but I see an absolute ton on web shows, found on YouTube and the like. That is the one-off character trait punchline. "Well, you see, I have attention deficit--ooh, shiny". They'll acknowledge in dialogue something about a character, immediately prove it (as opposed to immediately doing the opposite with a quick flip), and then the character never shows any signs of that characteristic again. I feel like when writers decide to make personality traits temporarily mutable for the sake of a punchline, the least they could do is follow through on it. Otherwise, all they're doing is telling the audience that they had a joke without a home, so they just crammed it in wherever, like a square peg to a round hole, continuity be damned.

There is one variant on the quick flip that I do like: when the obviousness of what comes next is the whole point. The two friends walk out the door ready to do something stupid, and the show practically has the audience shouting at their televisions because we know this will end badly. And then we flip to them coming back in, leaving only hints as to what went wrong, and maybe a "yeah, I guess we should have seen that coming". Rather than trying to surprise the viewer with something that wouldn't surprise anyone who's ever watched a TV show before, it plays up the fact that there's no surprise at all, and that's the foundation of the joke.

VP81955 said...

Ken, congrats on your de facto Hall of Fame induction:

Hedley Lamarr said...

Speaking as a former assistant who's been on the network side of the system, I can see this being the result of the culture where as long as you put in your couple of years at a desk organizing someone's schedule, you get a creative job regardless of your knowledge about story, comedy, etc. This isn't just happening on the executive side anymore, either. I know people who have turned an agency/studio/network gig into a writers assistant gig thanks to their assistant experience, and then they get their first script assignment as part of the job and they're off to the races. The bar simply seems to be lower for entry now on both sides, and its trickling into the content.

Ben said...

I agree about the ironic lines, but I think the quick flip hasn't worn out its welcome. It's often quite funny. I haven't seen the trailer or know the context, but wouldn't an obvious (and better) joke be to steal the Ruth Bader Ginsburg photo and say something like, "If it's good enough for Dr. Smith, it's good enough for Johnny."?

Andrew said...

I've been watching season one of The Sopranos on DVD. I still can't get over what an incredible show that is. It hasn't aged at all. And so many times I'm laughing out loud. It's golden comedy writing.

For example, here's some dialogue from the episode "College":

Tony: The priest spent the night here, nothin' happened, and you're tellin' me this because--
Carmela: You might hear something, take it the wrong way. His car was out front all night.
Tony: You know what? This is too fucked up for me even to think about. What'd you guys do for 12 hours? Play, uh, "name that pope"?
Carmela: He gave me communion.
Tony: Oh, I'll bet he gave you communion.
Carmela: Excuse me?
Tony: The guy spends the night here with you, and all he does is slip you a wafer?
Carmela: That's verging on sacrilege.
Tony: Oh, I didn't mean to verge.

That shows what real writers can accomplish. And The Sopranos wasn't even a comedy. Yet these comic moments are better than almost anything else out there right now. (I have the same opinion about Breaking Bad - it was sometimes funnier than most comedies.)

Why not turn this into a FRIDAY QUESTION: Ken, what did you think about the comic elements of The Sopranos?

Anonymous said...

The doll being thrown into the wall by the robot nanny actually sounds pretty funny.

Skips the whole niggling "bathwater" issue and just goes straight to the baby.


Mark Murphy said...


I think I read or heard that what you call the "quick flip" was forbidden on any show run by Garry Marshall. I think his term for it might have "wee waah," for the sound effect that you nearly always heard years ago when the picture flipped from one scene to the other.

Greg Ehrbar said...

GIlligan says: "I'm not gonna dress up like a girl, and you can't make me!"


Gilligan is dressed up like a girl and says, "You can't make me, you can't make me!"

Chris said...

In his excellent book "Crafty TV Writing" Alex Epstein calls the quick flip a Squiggy--derived from its use on "Laverne and Shirley."

Jonny Owl said...

Ken - Curious is you've seen "Catastrophe" on Amazon and how you think it stacks up. I find it to be both funny with actual jokes and actually poignant at times. But it's also really raunchy and I know the characters are really grating to some viewers. Would love to know what you think.

Ralph C. said...

If that is the true landscape of comedy, I think I can be a comedy writer... and that's a shame for the landscape--and for the future of network comedy!

Cap'n Bob said...

As a fellow geezer, Ken, we are cursed with too many years of seeing and hearing shows. There are rarely plots or jokes we haven't seen before and they bore us. That's why I don't watch many scripted TV shows these days.

therealshell said...

A Friday question. It's Friday in Australia, isn't it ? Anyway, is it true that Brad Pitt once auditioned for Cheers ?

Loosehead said...

If you want to see "comedy" that has not been seen before, go watch "Grimsby" with Sacha Baron Cohen and Mark Strong. You'll never complain about the flip again. I can only assume Mark Strong's children must have been held hostage...

VincentS said...

One of the reasons I've stopped watching sitcoms is because, as you say, you expect their ads to show their best jokes and I kept seeing sitcom ads with jokes I could have written! Believe me, that's NOT and incentive to watch.

McAlvie said...

The quick flip isn't always lazy. The set up needs to be really good, almost subtle so that the audience doesn't see it coming a mile away. The problem arises when it's just another gag. But then comedy in general has gotten lazy and dumbed down so I wonder if they just don't know how to be funny anymore. Once upon a time, a joke was something that was crafted. Take almost any Abbott and Costello routine, but the classic "Who's on first" starts out as just mildly amusing and cannily builds to the point where the audience is rolling before the final punch line even arrives. It was so good that even familiarity didn't tarnish the laugh. You can watch that routine now and it's still funny, and there isn't so much as a whiff of profanity or rauchiness in it. Comedians and comedy writers will say now that audiences are too sophisticated rather than admit they are outclassed by a routine that's what, eighty years old? It was a routine that was riffed from vaudeville, honed and polished, wording and timing, to a fine edge that is timeless.

Douglas Trapasso said...

[So of course, quick flip, the next shot is a hot babe entering the yard and asking where Martin is. You could see that coming from outer space. So Jenna calmly points her in the right direction and after she leaves Jenna turns to her friends and says:]

"She's here to fix Martin's Wi-Fi (sigh) Third time this week.”

MikeN said...

Best jokes in the trailer...
Probably the best trailer ever was
at the car lot "Cliff deals a steal then... Hey Dr Huxtable!"
Produced one of the most watched episodes of all time, though the trailer gave the wrong impression.

Rory L. Aronsky said...

My favorite line in the LA to Vegas trailer is at the end, when the flight back to L.A. is delayed. Probably because I've seen it all and more in the four years I've lived in Vegas. Not long before I move back to sanity in Southern California (ironic, isn't it?).

The drunk girl:

"I just want to throw up in my own house."

Anonymous said...

Ben Koch:
"I agree about the ironic lines, but I think the quick flip hasn't worn out its welcome. It's often quite funny. I haven't seen the trailer or know the context, but wouldn't an obvious (and better) joke be to steal the Ruth Bader Ginsburg photo and say something like, "If it's good enough for Dr. Smith, it's good enough for Johnny."?"

No, because your suggestion is too wordy, and is a cliche, which disappoints the viewer, who loses confidence in you, and changes the channel.

Frederick Herman "Freddy" Jones said...

I agree that most sitcoms have become predictable and a mess, but I really think there's been a shift in viewing habits.

In the world of Twitter, texting, Facebook posting and short YouTube clips, the attention span has shrunk, and it's become comedy in little blurbs. There is not enough time to develop anything. No time to let a TV series evolve, and, even within an episode, there's no time to let characters grow. More importantly, there's no time allowed to let a joke evolve and develop.

So, what we get is a mess. There are no jokes with punchlines anymore. There is a setup line and a reaction. In a recent sitcom promo I watched, there was no quick flip, irony or verbal punchline at all. The "punchline" came when the writers had the character react by rolling his eyes and walking away.

It's more about being a lazy writer. It's the quick jab and then exit the scene. The problem is that the jabs don't land.

I have a Friday question and wanted to get your input...

Back in the day, was it common for a similar theme or idea to occur on different shows at the exact same time?

Three examples come to mind even though I remember more.

ONE: Character A is talking with Character B while Character C is standing behind Character A. Character C is mocking Character A to amuse Character B. However, Character A can see Character C in a window or reflective surface, so Character A says, "You know I can see you in the window, right?!?!" ... I saw this line on at least three different sitcoms, all at about the same time.

TWO: Two character are talking. One is an old pro, and one is a rookie. The rookie says, "You taught me everything you know." The mentor or boss says, "No. I said I taught you everything you know, not everything I know." ... I saw this scene on several different shows at around the same time.

THREE: Several characters are gathered and one starts to talk about another and offering up insults when the person being insulted finally said, "You know I'm standing right here, right?" ... I've seen that used a long time ago, and it's still being rehashed.

So I guess my question is, how likely is it that the same sort of set-up and punchline can be used in different shows at about the same time? Are ideas shared among writers or is it all a coincidence?

DBenson said...

"You know, I think we should teach him/her a lesson once and for all ..."
(elaborate, expensive, and unpersuasive deception)
"Gee guys, thanks. I'll never do that again ... LOOK! I'M DOING IT AGAIN!"

DBenson said...

-- The uplifting Christmas episode with a Beloved Poor Person never seen before or after ("The old pencil-selling lady? Yes, we've been buying pencils from her every day for the past decade ...")
-- The identical twin of a regular character, played by the same actor. Applause when he/she runs off and reappears in a different jacket and a hat.
-- The episode that pretends a real-life B-or-C-list celebrity is the hottest star in the world ("Now where can we hide Scott Baio from his thousands of screaming fans?")
-- The awkward backdoor pilot ("Why, it's my old school chum! What are you doing here in Manhattan?" "Just a quick stop. I'm on my way to Portland to manage a struggling comedy club owned by a gorgeous but serious widow with three wiseguy kids.")
-- The Let's Do a Show bit (when done irrationally: "We've booked a professional theater and sold hundreds of tickets. Now let's take the five amateurs who happen to work here in middle management and write and produce a show!" ... "How about that? Everybody thought our gritty drama was an uproarious comedy!")
-- We're On A Real Game Show (Great when Cliff went on "Jeopardy"; otherwise not)

Myles said...

Picture Ken saying, "I'm so tired of the quick flip jokes."

Quick flip to Ken cracking up at a quick flip joke from 2 Broke Girls."

Then, he looks at the camera and says "What?"

On a serious note this post was SPOT ON today. Everyone is such a comedy snob that they are afraid of real jokes that actually make people laugh. Smirks are the new knee slapping laughter.

Melissa C. Banczak said...

This is disappointing to read. I was hoping for at least one show to watch. I can't stand comedies from the last few years. Two broke girls garbage ( I watched that premiere having not seen any of the trailers and only laughed once. When one of the girls was stun gunned and only because I was seriously hating everything about the show) one of my favorite all time eps of a comedy is the ep of fraser when he writes the radio play. I laugh so much I choke. Every single time.

Doug said...

Totally agree with Ken. Comedy isn't really funny anymore. I've been trying to find new shows to watch (both comedy and drama) and the pickin's are slim. I do like "Santa Clarita Diet" on Netflix. I have legitimately laughed at that. The dialogue is good. Most of the time, you can just listen to it. This is nice because it is a comedy about a family--couple with a teenage daughter--and the wife becomes "undead" somehow and eats people (only bad folks). So there is a certain level of gross stuff involved--a lot in the first ep, but it's sporadic after that. So that's the first nice find in the last few years.

Diane D said...

Wow, Myles Warden! Your quick flip joke involving Ken is hilarious! Also, you wrote the most insightful comment on this subject: "Smirks are the new knee-slapping laughter." I have watched this transformation occur and felt such dismay. Those doing the smirking actually pity people who still enjoy laughing uproariously at a FRASIER episode such as the one described by Melissa Banczak (above). BTW, that is one of my favorite episodes also, and I have the same reaction you have M. Banczak! Every single time! It is pure genius.