Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Like a Jokes

There’s an expression we have in the writers room — Like a Joke.  

A “Like a joke” has the rhythms of a joke but is not funny.  It’s just a straight sentence delivered as a joke line.  “I’m so hungry I could eat a meal.”  

It’s the equivalent of playing an air guitar.  

Remember a few years ago there was a Robin Williams series, THE CRAZY ONES?  It was near the end of his life.  In his prime, Robin would just fire off hilarious jokes like a machine gun.  His ad libs were amazing.  I knew there was something wrong when in this show he delivered a steady stream of “Like a jokes.”

For some reason I hear “Like a jokes” on quite a few “dramadies.”  Maybe they think that by delivering a line in a comic rhythm it will pass for comedy.  But when I hear them I think either they’re not trying, or (more likely) they aren’t really funny.  Real comedy writers are always trying to beat jokes.  Is there something funnier?  Is there a sharper way of phrasing this?  

Now some may argue that they’re not going for a hard laugh.  They’re going for irony.  Okay, you can convince yourself of that.  But you can’t fool the audience.  If something is not funny, if something is on the nose, or tepid it will fall flat no matter how dazzling the rhythm is.  

Just something to keep in mind when you’re writing a comedy script.  When someone orders an In & Out Burger he knows if you’re trying to slip him tofu. 


Mike Barer said...

Veep had them consistently. I still loved the show.

Troy McClure said...

Most so-called comedy writers nowadays think having a character make a pop culture reference or respond to a situation with a verbal meme is the same as writing a joke. It's not, it's fucking lazy.

An entire generation of writers have absolutely no talent for writing comedy. Their only frame of reference is pop culture. At the risk of sounding bitter (yeah, OK, I'm bitter), these are the ones who have agents and get writing gigs. What's infuriating is that this is what studios now accept as the standard for comedy.

Two examples that made my blood boil. In Spiderman Far From Home, a character observing an aerial battle says it looks like the Power Rangers. Another character says "No, you're thinking of Voltron." Where's the joke?? Where is the fucking joke??! That is not funny.

Someone does something wacky and another character reacts with "Really?" That's been in a hundred films and TV shows. It's never ever funny. But hey, Generation Z think it's, like, totes hilarious.

I recently had to switch off a film after 20 minutes because it had been a nonstop barrage of pop culture references and the main character speaking entirely in millennial memes. Life is too short to sit through boring, unimaginative shit by talentless hacks.

maxdebryn said...

A film that I had to switch off after twenty minutes was the horrible Ready Player One, which entirely depends on pop culture memes. There were a few "Like a jokes" in the otherwise very serious Netflix series called DARK.

RyderDA said...

Is there ever a use for a deliberate "Like a Joke"? I can think of comedy characters that were deliberately, consciously "almost" funny (which was the core of their character) for whom "like a joke" would be a natural.

Anonymous said...

"I'm so hungry I could eat a meal" made me laugh.

Steve Bailey said...

I thought I was the only one who found Robin Williams unfunny in "The Crazy Ones." Sad to say, by the end of his life, Williams seemed less like a comic genius and more like the annoying uncle who doesn't know when to quit with the corny humor.

Craig Gustafson said...

I keep hearing a commercial for "Two Broke Girls" on the CW. Based on that ad, I would never think of watching the show. They do three jokes and they are ALL Like a Jokes. Not for a second do they say anything funny. All rhythm, no content. Presumably, the commercial uses their best material to entice people. Instead, it's repellant.

tb said...

While you're in writing class mode, maybe you should talk about wrapping up the b-story. I'm seeing a lot of rushed, under-the-credits-attempts and even ones that just leave you hanging. Are they just running out of time? Am I asking too much?

blinky said...

The New Girl is a case in point. I watched it for a few years because, well, who doesn't love Zooey Deschannel? But I don't recall them ever doing a joke. It was all about being cute or odd. "Hey look! Schmidt climbed up a tree!" or Zooey's iPhone cover has bunny ears.

Jay said...

Hey Ken,
Pointless (and fun?) Friday question/survey for you:

Name a movie you like or love that the rest of the world universally hates:
Name a movie a bad movie that you *know* is bad and yet you'd still sit down to watch it:
Name a movie you absolutely hate and would never watch again:

Here are mine:
Name a movie you like or love that the rest of the world universally hates: Speed 2: Cruise Control
Name a movie a bad movie that you *know* is bad and yet you'd still sit down to watch it: All About Steve (what can I say, I have a thing for Sandra Bullock. For me, the awfulness of the movie is actually entertaining); The Sweetest Thing (with Cameron Diaz, Christina Applegate...despite a talented cast, there is an arrogance in the "comedy" in the film that is quite something to behold)
Name a movie you absolutely hate and would never watch again: can't think of one myself

G.E. Masana said...

I feel the same way about Henny Youngman's jokes.

Thanks. I've been wanting to get that off my chest now for thirty years.

Jorge González Belmar said...

I watched all the episodes of The Crazy Ones when it came out, since I was very happy to see Robin Williams in something where he was the lead (too young to see the movies from his prime when they came out), but I did get the impression back then that it didn't have many real jokes. At least I found it charming at the time, something I can't say of the Michael J. Fox show that came out around the same time (I found it very unfunny).

I think part of why Mr. Williams was so subdued in that show is that he or the producers didn't want him to draw all the atention from the younger cast, and seeing some talk show appearances from back then where he is as quick witted as ever, I tend to believe that.

It turns out that the showrunner came from procedural dramas, and people back then thought that it didn't have real jokes because of that, but checking on Wikipedia I see it did have experienced comedy writers in the staff, so I don't really know what happened.

Headacher said...

"I'm so hungry, I could eat a meal." To me, that line could be funny depending on the character that delivers it. I immediately imagined Steve Carell's character, Michael Scott on "The Office" saying it. That character would, himself, think that what he had just said was hysterical. Carell, as Michael Scott, might then add a "Hah!" with one of the character's self-congratulatory smiles. So again, to me, that would be funny.

What irritates me much more is the current need to have every character shoot off rapid-fire, supposedly "incredibly humorous" responses - back and forth, back and forth - no matter what the topic is. Real people just simply do not speak this way. Especially children/teenagers.

(And Henny Youngman jokes? "Take my wife... Please!" That is absolute brilliance right there!")

Mike Bloodworth said...

Will Sasso's last sitcom, "United We Fall" is a perfect example of when "Like a joke" does not work.
I liked Will on "MAD TV" and other guest shots, so I thought I'd give the show a look. Virtually every line was "Like a joke." And even the lines intended as jokes didn't have a proper punchline. The show had an empty feeling and was very unsatisfying, and NOT funny!

On the other hand, "CHEERS" is an example of "Like a joke" done right. As Ken has said many times before there weren't many jokes on "CHEERS." Most of the humor came from the relationships between the characters. One of my favorite "Like a joke" lines comes from the episode, "Truce or Consequences." (One of Ken and David's) Sam wants Carla and Diane to stop sniping at each other. He leaves them alone together to work things out. Carla gets Diane drunk and she passes out. When Sam comes back He sees Diane and says, "Carla, you made her an 'Open Grave!'" It got a big laugh on the show and is one of my favorite lines of the whole series. And yet it's not a joke.

Troy McClure, blinky and I actually agree on something.
I'm scared.

Not an F.Q., but do you have any opinions on the alleged, future sitcom with Alec Baldwin and Kelsey Grammar?


Cowboy Surfer said...

Dated a girl who would always say, "all your jokes, are like, a joke"...she was from the valley

Mike Bloodworth said...

Correction: Grammer


Troy McClure said...

Robin Williams was subdued and "unfunny" in The Crazy Ones because he was already in the early stages of Lewy Body Dementia, which sapped him of his usual energy and spark.

Troy McClure said...

Regarding the new multicamera sitcom with Kelsey Grammer and Alec Baldwin, I read that it's from your friend Chris Lloyd. So it begs the question: are you and David going to work on it?

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 pure scientific mind.” ("Some Remarks on Humor," preface to White’s A Subtreasury of American Humor (1941))


1. “I’m so hungry I could eat a meal” might evoke a smile merely for the word switch, but would’ve scored more heavily if said by a character long-established as being spindly or forever dieting - e.g. Olive Oyl; radio bandleader Skinnay Ennis, or 1940s Sinatra.
Not so funny - in retrospect - if it had been said by Karen Carpenter or other anorexics or bulimics ... just as drug use jokes by comedians who subsequently overdosed now leave a bitter taste.

2. If I correctly recall the Roger Vadim Jane Fonda film - They Eat Horses, Don’t They? - French carnivores show no speed prejudice when choosing their main course, feeling comfortable gnawing either snails or thoroughbreds. So, how is the phrase/joke “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse” translated by French waiters when said by American tourists? And do the ravenous French, when talking among themselves, say “I’m so hungry, I could eat a stable?”

These are the unanswered questions I worry about when alone — which, as you might guess .....

Anthony Hoffman said...

Had trouble memorizing lines, sadly.

gottacook said...

Anonymous: Just two days ago I decided to donate my copy of the Subtreasury of American Humor; the only item I still enjoyed (after many years of not looking at it) was a short excerpt from Samuel Hoffenstein's "Poems in Praise of Practically Nothing," and there's a much larger Hoffenstein sampling in Gene Shalit's humor anthology Laughing Matters from the late 1980s - and even that book now seems 90% stale. (It does include some cartoons, though.)

mbk said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ere I Saw Elba said...

I'm with you--shows should be genuinely funny, with real jokes, not just side-eye pseudo-ironic humor and "like-a-jokes". Maybe pop-cultural reference jokes are the height of humor in junior high, now they make my skin crawl with existential dread. Really, they are usually just witless, lazy writing.

I could make an exception for the better skits on shows like SNL and other late-night comedy shows, because they are supposed to be topical. I find that kind of humor funny in the right balance with, you know, real comedic writing.

Character is the key. Once a show has a familiar premise with its audience, they can turn off the gag machine and get a lot of mileage out of situation-based and character-driven humor, which to me is the most rewarding and genuinely funny.

And now I sound like a doddering old man explaining humor--and there's nothing funny about that.

Dammit, I'm doing it again.

mbk said...

Here's George W Bush with a Like A Joke about Botswana delivered with perfect comic cadence:


Letterman loved this and showed it often.

Anonymous said...

Audrey Hepburn “Oh, I could eat a horse.”
Cary Grant “I think that’s what you ordered.”
Charade Stanley Donen Peter Stone Marc Behm (1963)

Public Domain in Youtube

Daniel said...

@RyderDA I was just watching one of the classic episodes of Friends, “The One with the Prom Video.” It’s the episode where Ross and Rachel finally become a couple, and it’s full of Like a Jokes. The thing is: in context, they’re not meant as jokes. They’re lines of dialogue that are designed to set up other lines. They’re plot exposition, or they’re straight lines. The writer just made them a little more colorful, to keep the script from sounding bland. Some of the lines even earned a laugh from the audience, because the phrasing and delivery were so skillful (and, maybe, because the structure has trained us to expect a laugh).

Jane Espenson has a blog about writing for television, “Jane in Progress,” and she’s written a number of columns about making jokes bad on purpose, usually as a way of defining character. They’re very much worth reading, as are the other entries in the blog.