Wednesday, September 02, 2020

Not all laughs are equal

Recently, for a Friday Question I mentioned how many of today’s multi-cams have fake laughs after every line. It’s both artificial and incredibly annoying.

The thing is: not all jokes are expected to get the same amount of laughter.

And that’s okay.

Whenever I write a joke for a project that will go before a live audience (either a play or multi-cam sitcom episode) I always try to gauge how big of a laugh each joke will elicit. Then I decide whether what I have will reach that level.

But each joke stands on its own.  Is it a smaller joke to help set up a bigger payoff later?  Is it a cute turn of phrase to take the curse of exposition?   Is it a reference that not everyone will get but the ones who do will love it?   Do you know going in this joke would get a bigger laugh if a different cast member said it? 

If this all sounds like “Diagnosis: Comedy,” you’re right. A lot of thought and projection goes into writing funny scripts.

It’s an inexact science to be sure. And as I’ve said many times, different audiences react differently – so a joke that gets a big laugh on Friday, gets a meh reaction on Saturday. So which audience was right?  A writer has to rely on his best professional judgment. And be ready to rewrite when he’s wrong.

No one was tougher on material than Neil Simon. He rewrote his plays constantly during rehearsal and out of town tryouts. Not to always get the bigger laugh, but the right laugh.

It takes craft and experience and maybe never relying on laughter that comes out of a box.


WB Jax said...

Friday Question, Ken. At what point of episode scripting are titles usually conceived? For you and David did such titles as "Death Takes A Holiday On Ice" come easily to you and were there times when either a story editor or fellow writer suggested an alternative (perhaps better, perhaps not) title for one of your scripts?

VP81955 said...

WB Jax< every series has a different way of conjuring titles.

* "Mom" is famed for taking two distinctive phrases or subjects from that episode's script and linking them (e.g., "Kitty Litter and a Class A Felony" or "A Catheter and a Dipsy-Doodle").

* "Seinfeld" used "The ________", such as in "The Contest" or "The Opposite."

* "Friends" used "The one About ______."

* And going back to radio days, "Dragnet" used "The Big ______," though that was done for filing purposes.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Speaking of laughter, for any of you who haven't yet encountered Michael Spicer, I recommend him. You'll find he posts short video clips at (or if you're on Twitter, @mrmichaelspicer). I particularly liked this one:


Jeff Boice said...

Reminded me of a comment by Trace Beaulieu about Mystery Science Theater 3000- they would on occasion make a reference so obscure that only 10% of the audience would understand- just to make those people go "My God, how did they get inside my head?"

Michael said...

I've talked before about Jack Benny's line, that it took five years to set up a joke. A lot of it wouldn't be funny unless he or one of his cast said it. And that has been true since the dawn of comedy.

Troy McClure said...

The mention of different audiences reacting to comedy reminds me of a great joke at one of the White House Correspondents Dinners. The guest comedian, I think it might have been Conan O'Brien, talked about the tables in the room. He said if you hear the Fox News table laughing, it probably means a little girl has fallen off her bike.

Charles Bryan said...

Spicer's work is very funny and very smart. Great recommendation!

Liggie said...

I'd think you'd want to vary the power of the jokes throughout a script. A few small jokes here, a medium-sized one, a few more small ones, then a full-on belly laugh.

The only exception to this would be "Airplane!", which aimed for a big laugh every ten seconds and usually succeeded.

Liggie said...

Maybe off-topic, but here's an appreciation of "Cheers" from someone who grew up watching it:

normadesmond said...

Off topic: Just read today that Cheers in Boston is closing. Covid & the lack of tourists killed it.

No said...

Dubbed-in laughs are perhaps justified for a single-cam show like MASH, but not for a multi-cam show. Earn your laughs in front of a live audience, or you just don't deserve them. I think the actors and audience both deserve that kind of respect.

Brandon FG said...

Modern sitcoms (say, the last 15 years) have gotten pretty obnoxious with the laugh track, notably on Tyler Perry, Nickelodeon, or Disney Channel shows. You would swear some of Ken's best one-liners were being spewed, the way the "audience" reacts. Half the time, it's not even for a joke, just a general comment. BTW, watch a Youtube video of "Big Bang Theory" dialogue without the audience...some of the jokes come across as creepy.