Wednesday, June 20, 2018

EP77: How do you know if something is funny?

Ken discusses how top comedy writers determine whether things are funny or not, and offers some helpful tips on how to make your writing and content much funnier. It’s another behind-the-scenes look at Hollywood… and Broadway.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!


Karan G said...

To those who want us to be kind and understanding to those who support this authoritarian government, forget it. Our democracy is at stake. Personally, I want them to feel very uncomfortable with their misguided notions, or worse, their evilness. If you don’t care about little children, because they have brown skin, there is something really wrong with you. You should feel uncomfortable. I applaud all those who protest, who conduct sit-ins, who file lawsuits, etc. Those people are my heroes. We only have so many years on this planet. Those who sit quietly and accept the oppressor, allow the abuse to happen. The care of our country is in our hands. We can’t mess this up!

E. Yarber said...

I was once hired to rewrite a project where the original writer actually did try to cancel my services by telling the Producer, "My Mom liked the script."

Frederick Herman "Freddy" Jones said...


I listened to your podcast with great interest.

I was interested because of the title, “How to make your writing funnier!” It was the inclusion of the exclamation point that really sparked my excitement.

The podcast description includes the promise that it, “…offers some helpful tips on how to make your writing and content much funnier.” No exclamation point, so I figured it was serious.

As a comedy screenwriter trying to better hone their craft, I wanted some pointers and thought that this podcast was finally going to give some writing tips that mattered.

Instead, here is the takeaway:

- You like a multi-camera comedy show better than a single-camera show because an audience is there to help gauge the writing efforts.

- It’s good to not keep an audience waiting by having your script fine-tuned and ready to go. (This is common sense.)

- “Friends” used two audiences to prevent fatigue. (This is well known and many feel “Friends” was, and still is, not funny.)

- Sometimes audiences can be good and bad. (This is common sense and is certainly not a tip to make your writing much funnier.)

- Air conditioning is unbelievably important, and Letterman liked it cold. (OK, but certainly not a helpful for a script I’m working on unless you are suggesting I change the location to Antarctica.)

- My writing will be improved if I write it with the idea of filming it on a Tuesday night. (No comment.)

- Elderly people who pay less money at a play will react differently and not laugh, but it’s not because of the comedy. It’s because they are old with walkers and oxygen tanks. (The lesson? Hold the audience.)

- Certain comedy lines are bulletproof. Others are good but don’t always work. (This is common sense.)

- You have to be able to hear the actors. Actors should not mumble. (Seriously? This is a tip?)

- Comedy tastes change. “The Honeymooners” may not be funny to a modern audience, but you like it a lot. (So, we should not write a stack of “The Honeymooners” spec scripts? Helpful.)

- Have people sit around a table and read a script out loud. (This is fine if the script is written, but where are the “helpful tips on how to make your writing and content much funnier”? I thought you were supposed to have your script fine-tuned and ready to go? Where are those tips?)

- You do a horrible imitation of Neil Simon. (That was the funny part of this podcast.)

- Things that do hold up are universal, and pop culture references are dangerous. (Not in all cases. “Murphy Brown” was topical and filled with then-pop culture references and was a hit in its day. I’d accept a staff writing position on that show.)

And that was it.

Number of “tips” to help make writing and content “much” funnier: 0.

Here’s a suggestion: Call up David. Ask him if he would be interested in writing a spec episode of “Frasier” or, if you prefer, a script for “Big Wave Dave’s” and then put a recorder in the room. We could then hear as you worked through the development of an idea into a script. Make it a multi-part podcast if necessary.

Instead of common sense notions disguised as advice to help improve writing, you could actually write something and let us in on the process.

I have faith in you because you certainly seem aware of what’s going on in the world, and you have some interesting insight into what other people are thinking and what their motives are.

As for this podcast and what was promised in the teaser? Rewrite it and rework it, but please stick to the script.

Mike Barer said...

I thought the Rev Jim line was funny and I laughed out loud.

Anonymous said...

I am anonymous
If I recall their respective memoirs correctly:
Neil Simon's "F. U." Odd Couple line was a happy accident- he hadn't made the connection to the vulgar implications when he wrote it.
Harold Lloyd would test screen his silent comedy features with electronic devices that would note and measure the laughs.
The Phil Silvers Bilko series eventually eliminated live audiences and would instead screen filmed episodes for folks whose responses would be recorded and then added to the shows before broadcasting.
Van Dyke and Frazier are splendid. But, all things (or at least, cast and writing) being semi-equal, I'm not- in general- a particular fan of multi-cam or live-audience series.
They too often lead to writer/cast laziness and unprofessionalism - e.g. Garry Marshall shows/SNL recurring catch phrases and/or scene entrances for unearned cheers; SNL/Carol Burnett casts laughing/breaking character; abandonment of reality/tone to get a studio laugh.

Andy Rose said...

I just listened to a podcast interview with Darrell Vickers, the last head writer of Carson's Tonight Show (along with his partner, Andrew Nicholls). Like you, he said he could judge how good an audience was going to be by how they responded to the warmup, since Ed McMahon did the same spiel every time. But the interesting thing is he said that an audience that was absolutely ecstatic during the warmup usually wouldn't laugh very much. His theory was that they were so keyed-up just to be in the studio and see Johnny, they weren't paying attention to the setups and would miss the jokes.

Craig Gustafson said...

I just listened. Apparently, I took your advice before hearing you give it. Cool.

Two conflicting results. I've been losing a lot of ten-minute play contests (though I won one yesterday - at an Equity theater, so I'm still kinda dazed), so the other night I got together with 12 actor friends to read eight of my ten-minute plays.

1. For one of the plays, the actress reading it was the one whose voice I had in my head while writing it. And without any direction, she proceeded to read every last line exactly the way I had heard it while writing.

2. On the other hand, another actress was reading a small, throwaway part in another play. And she completely stole it through her interpretation, attacking the part in a way I had never thought of.

There were many other examples of things that worked (or didn't work), depending on what the actors brought to it.
So (for me, anyway) having scripts read out loud was a really useful experience.

Craig Gustafson said...

How to know if something is funny - side topic.

Ever wanted proof as to how crucial a great straight man is in a comedy team? Listen to this, starting at 34:54. It's Lou Costello performing "Who's on First" - without Bud Abbott. Sid Fields, a regular on "The Abbott & Costello Show" takes Abbott's place. It still gets laughs - but it's not teamwork. Costello is doing all the heavy lifting. AND Fields tries to pimp Costello, which hurts the routine because it's not the well-oiled machine it usually is.

Ralph C. said...

If something makes you laugh, it’s funny. At least to you, anyway.