Sunday, August 06, 2017

Now you can talk like a real sitcom writer!

You gotta know the lingo. Sitcom writing rooms have their own terms and expressions and if you ever plan on being in one (either by choice or force) you might want to know a few of them. I gave you one earlier this week, "Hey Mae!"  Here are others.

Callbacks -- Doing a joke based on something already mentioned in the scene.

Swinging in on a rope -- A side character enters the screen, delivers a joke, then leaves. We used to do that a lot with Carla on CHEERS. Sam and Diane are having a discussion. She swings in, takes a shot at Diane, and keeps moving.

Button – Final joke of a scene.

Blow -- Same as button but sounds more “street”.

Pipe – Exposition. We had a character on ALMOST PERFECT whose basic function was to come into the room and deliver pipe. So we named her Piper.   She eventually quit.

Clam -- Overused joke.

Sheboygan – A joke too over-the-top.

B story -- A subplot. Often ensemble shows resort to these to give cast members not involved in the main story something to do in the show and keep them off the writers' backs.

Beats – events that occur in a scene.

House number -- Supposedly from the Norman Lear days. Pitching an idea or joke that’s more of an example than the actual pitch you intend to go in the script. You use it to preface your pitch. It’s a good disclaimer in case everyone in the room thinks it’s a stupid idea and you’re an idiot.

Savers -- Damage control jokes right after your real joke pitch dies a horrible death. It was Johnny Carson's best friend.

Captain Obvious -- Pointing out a problem that even the craft services guy could identify.

Grammar police -- Writers whose only contribution in rewrites is correcting grammar. You want to dangle their participle over a lake of snapping alligators.

Proofer’s Challenge – Some technicality you come across during a rewrite that’s not worth everyone’s time to settle. What food should be on the table? What was the year of that Superbowl? It’s left to the person proofing that night.

Throwing a bone -- Giving an actor a joke because he doesn’t have much to do in a scene or you don’t think he’s very good but have to service him anyway. Usually it's the actor the network forced you to take.


Jeff Alexander said...

Mr. Levine: Enjoyed your column on talking like a sitcom writer. I have heard some of those terms before but never was really sure what a couple of them meant. Did know that "button" was the final joke, a way of wrapping up the scene or the episode.
This does remind me. In variety shows (Your Show of Shows and, I think, Saturday Night Live in its early days), they use to call some writers a "pilgrim," meaning that the writer "settled" too quickly on using an idea, joke or sketch. Is that term still used?

Artie said...

Love these, Ken. I don't quite understand what's going on with a "house number," though. Could you give an example?

Tony said...
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Kirk said...

The Grammar Police made me think of a Friday question. There's no omniscient third person narrating a situation comedy. The dialogue should be true to the character speaking it, not Strunk and White. Good grammar might be expected from Diane Chambers, but not necessarily Carla Tortelli. When writing dialogue, did you ever PURPOSELY have a character split an infinitive, dangle a participle, etc?

My apologies for any grammar errors contained in this comment.

Eric J said...

Artie: House numbers reminded me of the old "A man goes to prison" joke. Everyone had heard all the jokes so they numbered them. Then they'd just shouted out a number instead of telling the joke.

Michael said...

Friday question: You have mentioned a few times here on the blog and the podcast that your SNOBS pilot was ruined by the lead actor's performance. Was it a matter of him ignoring direction on how to play the role or was he trying to follow direction and just being unable to execute?

Canadian Dude said...

I've heard and used variations of the terms on the list, such as:

A HONK - a character comes through the scene to give a quick 'honk' aka a funny moment of no consequence (I wonder if this was in homage to Harpo Marx?)

A SCHLITZ-LIVER - the erroneous assumption that giving a character a funny name and using it over and over will result in hilarity

TROUT LOOK - the way an audience looks when they see or hear something that was meant to be funny but just confuses them (leaving them looking like dead trout at a fish-market). You might say "That line'll get a trout look."

LTC - when seen in a draft means "Line To Come" - usually typed when the writer knew he needed a gag there but couldn't come up with one - and then forgot about it when he submitted the script

THROAT CLEARING - a run of dialogue at the beginning of a scene that doesn't enhance the scene in any way

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Eric J: Growing up in NYC, I heard the rest of that joke as:

"22". No one laughs.

"He didn't tell it well."


Greg said...

So, Ken have you ever worked on a show that had terminology unique to that series? The I LOVE LUCY writers had some like that. Shorthand to Lucille Ball to indicate the kind of response they wanted. Some examples:

"Lightbulb" was when Lucy's face lit up when she got an idea.

"Spider" was when Lucy curled her upper lip and made that guttural sound down in her throat.

"Puddling Up" was when Lucy would start getting teary, prior to crying, or perhaps just as a ploy to sway Ricky.

"Foiled Again" is probably self explanatory.

Just curious.

Tom Glickman said...

Re: "Usually it's the actor the network forced you to take."

Please oh please tell me there is at least one secret hidden blog post that's written into your will that after you die (decades from now) you finally spill the beans on all the stuff you couldn't say when you were actually working in the industry. And tell the attorney to post it here.

Gomer's Piles said...


Don't know if you've seen this, but you often talk about radio stations hiring actual human personalities and giving that a try and looks like there's a station in Buffalo giving that a try, hiring classic old Buffalo DJs - Danny Neaverth for one, who was my morning alarm and wakeup for a decade in my Buffalo youth - and having them play locally programmed songs and news. Thought you'd be interested.

Whattya think?

Duncan Randall said...

In musical theater, a button is the single note at the end of a song, used when the audience needs to know the song is over and it's OK to clap. Same idea?

John Fox said...

Would love to know the etymology behind "Sheboygan"

Phil said...

Great post. British comedy writer Andy Riley (you may know him as a VEEP writer) maintains a similar list of comedy terms. Some of them may be peculiarly British: