Wednesday, February 10, 2021

The Comedy Litmus Test

Recently, I’ve been asked to assess short plays for several theatre festivals.  And of course, over the years, I’ve read hundreds (maybe thousands) of TV spec scripts.  

This just applies to comedies — dramas are a different animal — but most comedies aren’t funny.  They just aren’t.  Now you could say it’s subjective, and that’s very true, but in most cases (especially with short plays), I don’t even see where the laughs are supposed to be.

So I propose this exercise when you write an intended comedy.  This is what I do all the time.  

Imagine an audience watching your play.  They have to all be strangers.  No fair having your mother or boyfriend who’s dying to get laid in the front row.  Or “Uncle Myron” who laughs at everything.  

Total strangers.

They can be your target audience.  You don’t have to bus in state convicts or QAnon idiots.  No one has has to have an oxygen tank. But you can’t write a play about blacksmiths and fill the audience with a hundred blacksmiths.   Play fair.

Total strangers.

You’re allowed to assume it’s a decent crowd willing to laugh out loud.  If you have a bad crowd then nothing is funny.  NOISES OFF would die a horrible death.   So it’s an audience that will give you a fair shake if you present them with something genuinely funny.  

You’re also allowed to assume you have a good cast and director.  I said “good”, not “great.”  Some actors like David Hyde Pierce and Betty White can get laughs out of middling material.  Again, play fair.  Chances are you won’t have David Hyde Pierce.  Don't count on actors to save you. 

Now imagine your play (or spec script) playing to this audience.  And be brutally honest with yourself.  Where do you see them actually laughing?  And what kind of laugh is it?  Is it a smile more than a laugh?  Is it a hip line that only a few will appreciate?  Ideally, how many laughs are there?  Do you go three or four pages between any laughs?   Are the first five pages all set-up and no laughs until the payoffs?  Are the payoffs big enough?  

Are there opportunities for laughs that are missed?  Do you just skirt over comic possibilities?  Is there more to be mined from a certain comic moment?  

How many laughs are sufficient for you?  Are the laughs big enough?  

At this point you might be saying, “Jesus!  That’s a lot of pressure you’re putting on me,” and I would say, “YEP.”   But that’s comedy writing.  People say, “Just please yourself.  Just write what’s funny to you.”  I say: “Bullshit!”  You’re not writing for you; you’re writing for them.  

In reality, unless you have a super hot crowd (and you get those from time to time), not every laugh you imagined will be realized.  But if most don’t, or if your projected big ones don’t, then it’s time to blame yourself, not the audience.  But the good news is — if you’re being truly honest with yourself — you can accomplish that before the world sees your play.  Consider each draft a tryout week in New Haven without having to suffer through bad reviews.  

Try it.  It’s a great Litmus test.  Your comedies will improve considerably.  Or you’ll give that “drama” thing a try.  But you'll know. 

Best of luck. 


Gary Theroux said...

Wise advice from a man who knows.

Covarr said...

As far as writing what's funny to you, I think the "common advice" can be pretty decent if you invert it. Writing what's funny to you won't necessarily be funny to general audiences, but if it's NOT funny to you, it almost certainly won't be to anyone else either. "What's funny to you" might not produce good jokes, but I have to figure it'll at least prevent the "like a jokes" you wrote about last November, or "quirky" as a substitute for funny. I mean, I have to assume the writers aren't laughing at those when they write those. There's just no way, right?

Then again, I suppose that's more a problem from the executive-types who think they can research their way to comedy with focus groups and trend chasing.

Jim S said...


This reminds me of the old show biz saying that when it's the band that's laughing, it's time for the comedian to retire.

In 2009, I took your sitcom writing course and what amazed me was the jokes that did get laughs. One of the lines that always got a laugh was mine. I say this not because it was a brillant line. To this day, it amazes me that people laughed. I suggested that line as a way to get from point A to point B. It took me about three seconds to come up with it and we went on from there. The actors who performed the line did it in a way that I never conceived of. Amazing to see what other people do with your work.

Yet that line that I put no effort into got more laughs than lines the whole writing crew put their hearts and souls into. Just goes to show you that you never know what will tickle the audience's fancy. I can understand how comedians like Jerry Seinfeld will craft a joke for months before live audiences making sure that the timing and the wording is just right.

blinky said...

Speaking of comedy writing there may be a Friday question here. We just started rewatching the Dick Van Dyke show over again. I was amazed at how average the first season was compared to the last four. There was a whole lot more Richie and Laura doing the suburban family thing. It seemed a lot more like the Danny Thomas show then the Dick Van Dyke show of later years. What do you think changed after the first season to turn it into the classic that it became? They got better writers maybe?

flurb said...

The once-famous British playwright Terence Rattigan - "The Winslow Boy," "The Deep Blue Sea," "After the Dance," etc. - maintained the exact same attitude that you did here, Ken, though not specifically about comedy. He said, better than I can paraphrase, that his job was not to please just the critics, or his friends, or even the theatrical community; he had to reach everybody who walked in and sat down to watch. At the time he said this, in the late fifties, his kind of well-made play was going out of fashion, and angry John Osborne and cryptic Harold Pinter were in the ascendant - and Rattigan was ridiculed for supposedly stooping to appeal to the middlebrow Josephine. But theatre really is the original mass medium. If people don't get anything from it, they stop buying tickets, and in many parts on the country, even before the pandemic, they have, as evidenced by the dying professional regional theatre scene. A clubhouse can be a lot of fun, but a playhouse is something else.

Mike Bloodworth said...

This brings up an issue I've mentioned before. The difference between a comedy sketch and a short play. When one is writing a sketch you want as many jokes or funny lines as you can fit in. But it seems to me that plays, even a comedic play has more of an ebb and flow to it. In other words, the audience needs some breathing space between laughs. It allows the writer an opportunity to explore the relationship of the characters. Although, I could be wrong. I would also think that the format of whatever one is writing would have an influence on the type and amount of humor.
But this is all theory and not application.
Maybe in an upcoming podcast you could write something in real time. Run us through the process of how you work. And explain the differences between plays, sketches, sitcoms, screenplays, etc.


P.S. I've figured out a loophole in Ken's "Don't ask me to read your script." rule. Ask him to direct your play. He'd pretty much have to read it then.

Tim G. said...

Best picture of Natalie Wood I've ever seen. Do you have a favorite?
My Uncle Myron laughed at everything too but he was always drunk.

Troy McClure said...

Ken, did you see Lionel Hutz in the Senate yesterday? He now goes by the name Bruce Castor but he still had that old Lionel Hutz magic.

Ere I Saw Elba said...

I think the tarnished Golden Rule applies to entertainment in general: Give the audience the show that you would want to see, and let them be the judge. If they don't find it funny, live to fight another day, but don't let it bring you down too much either.

Anonymous said...

"You're not writing for you; you're writing for them."

That raises the question--Can you write comedy that you don't think is funny? Is it possible because you're trying to please the audience, your showrunner, get or keep your job? Can writers serve an audience by writing to a formula and turn out jokes to fit a template? Is "hold your nose and type" really possible, no matter how the bills are piling up?