Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Sometimes more is more

Here’s a follow-up to yesterday's post on set-ups.

If the goal is create a specific image in the mind of an audience member it sometimes helps to add a couple of straight lines. And that's not something you normally think of.

I think one of the problems with today’s multi-camera sitcoms is that every single line is a joke or quip and it (a) gets exhausting, (b) is not the way people really talk, and (c) prevents setting up any big laughs.

Take a couple extra seconds to sharpen a joke if need be. Here’s an example:

This is from a play I wrote. Brad & Chanel are a young couple enjoying their first romantic slow dance.


The happiest moment of my life was when I was in the 7th Grade. We had coed dancing in gym, and I got to hold this angelic girl who was way out of my league in my arms, and for just those precious few moments she was mine.

That’s so sweet.

Thank you.

Whatever happened to her?

She’s now a bounty hunter.

The bounty hunter line gets a big laugh. My guess is it would get an okay laugh if I left out this couplet:

That’s so sweet.

Thank you.

It’s five extra words. But they tell you his story affected her. The construction of this joke is to set up a very sweet innocent image of this girl and then pull the rug out with who she is now. Really create a tender moment and then burst its bubble.

Descriptive words help too. I describe her as “angelic.”

So going back to yesterday and trying to “beat” jokes (i.e. improve them), if I had constructed the joke this way:


The happiest moment of my life was when I was in the 7th Grade. We had coed dancing in gym, and I got to hold this angelic girl who was way out of my league in my arms, and for just those precious few moments she was mine.

Whatever happened to her?

She’s now a bounty hunter.

… my first thought might be, is there something funnier than bounty hunter? And of course there may be (knowing my readers you’ll have seventeen suggestions, which is great). But there’s also the possibility that bounty hunter is perfect but the set-up can be improved. You have to train yourself to not just replace punchlines.

Yes, it makes the job a little more complicated, but the really good comedy writers are craftsmen. “Why” something is funny is important.

Mixing up the rhythm so every joke isn’t the same pattern is also important.

Example: the rule of 3’s. This is a standard trope and it has worked since the beginning of time. The first two items establish a pattern and then you break it with the third. Soft music, fine wine, and handcuffs.

The trouble is if every line is a “rule of 3” then it makes no difference how funny each one individually is, the sameness of the cadence gets annoying real fast. So in writing a script you also have to consider the variety of joke constructions.

So much to think about! Yikes!

But here’s the good news: most wannabe comedy writers don’t think in these terms. Jokes don’t land and they don’t know why. If you’re a real student of comedy you will have a leg up. You and another writer might independently come up with the same basic joke, but yours works and his doesn’t.

Knowledge can be a good thing… even in comedy.


Douglas Trapasso said...

"She's up for parole next month."

Ben K. said...

--Whatever happened to her?
--Last I heard, she got married and went to work for her father. But I'll always think of her as my little Ivanka.

E. Yarber said...

Wannabes are generally impatient. They want that million-dollar screenplay deal RIGHT AWAY before someone else gets it, so they slap their work together and assume a hasty first draft may be good enough to land that Oscar they plan to put next to the beer can pyramid in their living room. Not surprisingly, their storytelling is as rushed as their writing.

I wasted a few weeks with a neurotic who relentlessly slashed any line of dialogue that didn't contain exposition, terrfified that the audience would get bored unless the characters were doing anything but explaining the plot. She was unable to understand that people tend to express themselves indirectly, and there wasn't much for a viewer to feel in having them directly state their motivation on page after page. "I am here to seduce you," isn't a very sexy line, especially if the woman is delivering it with all the timing of a baggage clerk asking for your claim ticket.

Another time I was trying to help a USC grad expand his student short into a feature film. The short was about a USC student, since quite a number of these guys want to return to campus to show everyone they got a movie deal. I've seen action dramas, caper films, apocalyptic science fiction epics and even Shakespearean adaptations that all magically climax at University Park. This guy had his hero looking for a co-ed. He was supposedly unfamiliar with the college, yet by Jingo he unerringly managed to catch her waiting outside a classroom.

I suggested to my client that if he really wanted to expand his 20-minute film, the guy should make mistakes, go to the wrong places, have unexpected adventures, all the time creating a little suspense that the pair might not find each other at all. This filmmaker felt like such detours would only waste time and lose the audience, who once again were ready to flip the channel at any moment they weren't immediately gratified, even if they were in a movie theater. "Why can't he just go where I want him to go?" he asked. I tried to explain that any character's actions have to be developed in a way that makes sense to the audience, not just plow toward a contrived destination. In the end, he broke off all contact with me and I learned from a third party that he was quite angry that I hadn't taught him anything. (Spoiler alert: the short never became a feature).

That fear of abandonment seems to be a common factor in sloppy storytelling. Some writers feel they have to hit the crowd with all peaks and no valleys, even if their writing becomes as monotonous as an assembly line. Characters can't take a moment to think about what they're saying, every line slaps a needless point into place, the action robotically heads toward a predestined conclusion. A narrative should never be about seeing how fast you can race to the ending, but being able to make the most out of every moment so that the viewer ideally begins to hope the story never ends.

blinky said...

OK wow. Great info. Thanks for these last 2 posts.
The actual mechanics of a joke have always been a mystery. This is the good stuff. More please! I promise not to bring up automated balls and strikes again.

McAlvie said...

Timing is everything, right? It seems to me that the way you've written it, there's a beat or two before the punchline, and I've seen that a lot with great comedy and comedians. They lead the audience, let them think that's the end, and *then* serve up the punchline. And I think audiences laugh harder for it. I think the "beat" sets up the punchline and gives the audience time to process.

And it's always better, whether you are writing something or talking to someone face to face, to assume people are bright enough to understand you as opposed to insulting them by dumbing everything down.

Mike Bloodworth said...

Sorry these are so obvious.

She's running for President.

She's a HE, now.

She tasted like chicken.

I wish I knew. She's got my Tupperware.

She ruined my chance of getting on the Supreme Court.

She tried to kill me. Didn't you see her on "Dateline?!"

I think I'll quit while I'm ahead.

Peter said...

Off topic but I saw Stuber, which is a fun action comedy, though loaded with too many pop culture references as is common with virtually all studio comedies. Dave Bautista is terrific. Kumail Nanjiani is funny when he's not screaming his lines. Some directors still think it's funny for a character to shout or scream maniacally. To quote a recent Honest Trailer, that's not how comedy works!

And what on earth has Mira Sorvino done to her face? I didn't even recognize her at first.

Corey said...

"One thing nice about knowledge is that they can't take it away from you" - B.B. King

Peter said...

Here's my contribution.

Whatever happened to her?

I don't know, the restraining order is still in effect.

Jahn Ghalt said...

"Bounty Hunter! Did your bondsman hire her?"

"She IS my, BONDSMAN!"

(I know, don't quit your dayjob)

blogward said...

Ken's 'bounty hunter' is brilliant because it doesn't register as the putdown you would expect for a millisecond - especially with the "How sweet" build up. Chanel's reaction would be mystification, not shock or disgust - and that's funnier.

It's also uncertain whether it'a something Brad admires or not; suggesting she's a bunny-boiling felon is a bit cheap. With "bounty hunter" you might expect Chanel, depending how insecure she is, to come back feebly with, "Oh, I've always wanted to go bounty hunting". Or, she might be having doubts about Brad. Or she might have a price on her head! What's more, it's the sort of dumb thing I would say.

Bravo, Ken.

Unknown said...

Brad: Look out! That monkey has a twitter account!

Anonymous said...

E. B. White “Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the purely scientific mind.”
So, let’s get scientific.
1. Comedy’s Rule of 3’s also has its parallels in psychology and biology: you encounter a blind date- or a germ- and after initial resistance comes acceptance, and- by night’s end- you’ve got an infection.
2. The Rule somewhat explains- putting aside the elements of timing + surprise- why we more readily laugh at jokes of friends and familiar performers: they enter our lives as strangers, we get to know them, and then by night’s end, we’re infected... with giggles!!!
2. The Rule of 3’s is also why the Stooges had to kill Ted Healy

PolyWogg said...

She now plays a monkey with a gun in repeated blog posts?

I agree though, the audience (on here) should set up a whole long list of alternative endings.

I'm going to go with...

She's now a rodeo clown.


Armando De Avila said...

Hi, Ken,

Great follow-up, thank you!

Agree again, wholeheartedly. You've mentioned this before, the idea that a comedy should have jokes (I don't agree with people when they say that wittiness and outright jokes can be outdone by funny situations, a la in The Hangover > you need jokes) but that not every single line has to be jokes. The set-up lines can be funny but when they lead up to something explosive, it's contributed to many of the belly laughs I've experienced watching Friends, Seinfeld, Cheers, Frasier.

I'm reminded of two of Kelsey Grammar's/Frasier Crane's lines, one from Cheers and one from Frasier. Both of them are just a few words but they really land and it has to do with many things, such as knowledge of the history of the character and the show but also it's the set-up.

In Cheers, Diane has jilted Sam and is standing by Frasier at the bar, essentially pontificating on how hurt Sam must be, oblivious to who she's speechifying next to, and after the speech, she says: can you imagine how hurt he must be? And Frasier says, Gee, I'll try.

In Frasier, first episode, Frasier is talking to a caller, trying to be soothing but also to give real advice about trying new things and he tells his radio audience, again after a set-up speech, that: my wife left me, which was very painful. Then she came back, which was excruciating.

And there are many more dialogical exchanges like your own example (which made me laugh out loud, also because of the incongruity of 'bounty hunter' - that goes back to yesterday's post) from those shows. Set-up is key, wording is key. There are layers and layers of things going on in these shows that I don't think the average critic truly recognizes.

I agree with others - while I like your other posts, I vote for more like this one!

Anonymous said...

So much of comedy is about the unexpected -
from puns to slapstick and beyond.

The clown slips over, and we say so what because that's what clowns are supposed to do.

A politician slips over, and it's funny because it's not what politicians normally do.

Re the bounty hunter set up and the group of 3 idea:

The first idea paints a picture, the second idea reinforces the picture,
so the third out of field comment becomes funnier because you weren't expecting it after the reinforcement.

Peter said...

We all love stories about celebrity meltdowns. Faye Dunaway has been fired from a play over her outrageous behaviour. Full details here:

Joking aside, I'm glad the producers have prioritized the wellbeing of the production crew over keeping an unhinged actress happy. Throwing a salad on the floor that had been brought to her for lunch? No one should deal with shit like that.

You'd think someone who's earned a reputation for being a nightmare to work with and isn't exactly flooded with offers would make an effort to mend her ways when she gets hired for a high profile play.

Probably the most absurd example of her antics is that she ordered the director and playwright not to look at her during rehearsals!!!

Craig Gustafson said...

For me, cadence is important as well. My "Lending a Hand" was recently published in "The Best 10 Minute Plays of 2019." When it was first performed, one of the actors tracked me down on Facebook with questions, which I was glad to answer. One question he had - "Why are they Irish?" He was worried for his character, who had lived in Chicago longer than his girlfriend, and so only had a brogue when under stress. He was afraid people would think he just couldn't do the accent.
I explained that I knew plenty of Irish and British people living in the Chicago area. It wasn't a random choice... but the real reason was that I needed the Irish lilt for one line.

The girl in the play was driving home from the vet and lost her finger in a car accident. Then her cat ate it. She wants one of her boyfriend's fingers:

KATHLEEN. You infamous worm! You give me that finger right now or so help me Hannah, I’ll never have to do with you again! You wanted to marry me! You asked for my hand and I said, “Yes, Oliver. Yes. You can have my hand.” And all I want from you is one finger!

OLIVER. Kathleen, be reasonable!

KATHLEEN. “Reasonable,” is it? You cad! If you asked me, I’d give you all my fingers! From both hands!

OLIVER. And what would I be wanting that for? You haven’t got a full set!

It just wouldn't work as well without the Irish cadence.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this Ken. Good stuff.


Armando De Avila said...

From the "Sliding Frasiers" episode of Frasier:

The gang is at a Valentine's Day dance. Kenny comes up holding a flattened top hat [and is dressed to the nines in suit and tails]

Kenny: Hello, young lovers.

He pops the hat out and puts it on.

Frasier: Oh, Kenny, look at you.

Kenny: What can I say? Under this gruff exterior beats the heart of a true romantic. I just love love.

Roz: So where's your wife?

Kenny: She had plans.

MikeN said...

Does that joke still work after Katherine Heigl played a bounty hunter?

Frank Beans said...

The FRASIER line that comes to mind is from the episode where he records his ridiculous "theme song" with a full orchestra.

Niles: "What about the idea that less is more?"

Frasier: "Ah, but if less is more, think how much more 'more' would be!"

The Moderate said...

His name is Bruce and he has a thick beard now. I'm glad he didn't at the time, because it would have tickled. I fail to see the pattern break.

mike schlesinger said...

The pilot episode of the late, lamented "The Associates" ends with a very similar set-up. Wilfred Hyde-White is telling the newbies about Margaret, a long-lost love he couldn't marry because she was too wild for him and he knew he needed to be with someone more stable. When he finishes, Alley Mills asks, "Whatever happened to your Margaret?" Hyde-White: "She's Prime Minister of England."


Sean said...

@Frank Beans: And think of how great that line is coming from Frasier's character. It goes right to the heart of a character who's so full of himself.

Ringo said...

Thank you for discussing cadence in comedy. A lot of teen comedies my kids watched were very annoying with a laugh every other line. I will also say I found the beat of Hawkeye-BJ combo-gags of MASH annoying as hell too... It was like Ba-dum-tsssh!