Wednesday, February 01, 2017

How do you know if something is funny?

This is always the big question comedy writers wrestle with. How do you know if a joke is really funny? Or a scene or plot twist?

One theory is to write what YOU think is funny. And that’s fine… up to a point. You may have an offbeat comic sensibility that only a select few would find equally hilarious. Your personal sense of humor might be too dark or goofy or raunchy or erudite for broader audiences.  But if you don't think something is funny you're probably right. 

One suggestion is get a writing partner. Being able to bounce your jokes off another person is invaluable. The key here is finding a partner whose comic sense you trust. I’ve had the luxury of having a great partner, David Isaacs, for my entire career. It was always more important to me that he thought something I said was funny instead of what I thought.

Giving your script to others you trust is also helpful. But not everyone knows how to read a script. Not everyone can picture what’s on the screen based on text.  And this goes for people in the industry.  I know agents and network executives who can't read a script.   Scary, no?  Also, you need to find objective readers. Friends and family will often blow sunshine up your skirt.

When I’m writing alone, here’s what I do:

I always try to visualize an audience of complete strangers and whether or not they would laugh at this. And I try to be tough. I’ll say, “this is a smile at best” or “this might get a little chuckle.” In those cases I’ll try to beat the jokes and raise the expectations up to “possible laugh.”

Am I always right? Of course not. But I’m right more often than not. And there are more good lines in the draft because I was dogged and didn’t settle. But you never really know what works. As I’ve mentioned numerous times before, live audiences will laugh at one joke one night and another the next.

But I will say this. Maybe I’m wrong predicting a certain joke will get a laugh, but I’m almost always right predicting when a joke isn’t good enough. If I can’t picture an audience laughing at a line I wrote there’s a damn good chance it will bomb in front of a real audience. So I keep working, keep striving, keep trying to find that golden line that will hit the bullseye.

Bottom line: be tough on yourself, and for that audience in your head, don’t let it be filled with relatives of the actors or tourists who are just thrilled to be seeing a TV show, or a fraternity that stopped in thinking they were at a bachelor party.

17 comments :

Richard Y said...

"Friday 2-part Question" A popular series relocates from filming in LA to the cheaper Vancouver BC area. Is the cast and crew on their own for living accommodations (and meals) during the filming or does the production company pick up that tab?

Same with an actor who may live in LA, Denver, or NY that is brought in during the filming for a reoccurring role during the season. Is that a production company tab as well, all part of the negotiated contract?
thanks

JED said...

Just a warning, Ken. You may be making a mistake that many of us make called Survivorship Bias. You are throwing away jokes that you feel will not get a laugh but do you ever test that assumption? If you throw away an entire set of jokes and never check your feeling about them, you may be missing some good jokes.

In World War 2, they needed to figure out how to put armor in the right places on bombers going over Germany. You can't just put armor everywhere (and keep flying) so you have to pick your places. They were looking at the planes that returned and at the places that had the most holes and were going to place what little armor the plane would take and still fly in those places thinking that those places were getting the most damage. But a mathematician, Abraham Wald, showed them they were wrong. They were only looking at planes that had survived. Mr. Wald pointed out that if they put armor where they found the most holes in surviving bombers, they would be strengthening place that were already strong. He and others went on to analyze the best places to put the armor and those calculations are still used today. A very interesting write up of this can be found here:
https://youarenotsosmart.com/2013/05/23/survivorship-bias/

So, you should test out your assumptions on the jokes you think won't get a laugh - once in a while.

Matt said...

Do you ever read Annie's stuff and if so how do you handle critiquing her?

VP81955 said...

"Blow sunshine up your skirt"? Great phrase! Since I'm writing a romantic comedy where the leading lady spends roughly two-thirds of the screenplay standing 16 feet tall, I'll have to work that in somewhere.

Unknown said...

A PODCAST question: I downloaded your podcast to later listen to on a cross country flight, but every time I tried to listen to it I got the following pop-up window: Episode unavailable. This episode is temporarily unavailable from "January 25, 2017 at 9:00 PM?" Can you help those of us trying to listen to the podcast? -MW

Ken Levine said...

Unknown,

I don't know why that happened. Yours is the first such complaint. I will try to find out. Thanks for trying. A new episode drops at midnight tonight.

cd1515 said...

Friday question: how much do you think being a comedy writer helped you get into baseball?
could a guy stocking shelves at walmart who was practicing in the bleachers on the side gotten the same shot you did?

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Unknown: I've downloaded the episodes via the RSS feed for the podcast, and they've worked fine.

Ken, a Friday question: Over at his blog, Earl Pomerantz has a post up today marveling at the number of outlets current writers have to pitch to. This is a situation freelance journalists are familiar with, and standard advice to beginners is always to study the markets (magazines, newspapers) you want to sell to and tailor your pitch to them. You can still, if you do it right, resell the same story to multiple non-competing outlets if you find different angles or ways to tell it for different audiences. So I'm wondering: do today's aspiring sitcom writers need to tailor their pitches differently for HBO, AMC, CBS, etc. Do they need to do more rewriting and rethinking for different outlets than they did in the past when there were just three networks?

wg

John Nixon said...

Jeff Foxworthy, Larry The Cable Guy, Roseann Barr, Jerry Seinfeld, George Carlin, Brian Regan, Jim Gaffigan, Steven Wright...it's just about impossible to not laugh when you listen to these people. But it is pretty easy to keep a straight face when you listen to a lot of what passes for comedy. I think that if the punchline takes you in a clever, unexpected direction it helps make it funny. And if it's funny when you hear it as well as when you read it then that can confirm that it is genuinely funny too. All the people above fit that criteria. Their type of comedy is timeless. Pie-in-the-face, slapstick type stuff can be funny for a minute but doesn't seem to last. Neither does the Don Rickles type of making fun of and putting people down humor.
I used to really like the game show 'Make Me Laugh'. It was fun to try to keep a straight face.

Donald Benson said...

Probably mentioned before, but back in community theater we had what I'd call Rehearsal Jokes, that made the cast and crew laugh but died in front of an audience. At the same time, there were jokes we barely recognized as such that killed in performance.

I think a big part of it is that when you rehearse and get really familiar with a show, you forget what will hit your audience as a surprise. At the same time, a lot of Rehearsal Jokes depend on people knowing the show forwards and backwards to catch the twist.

Aaron Hazouri said...

Wendy - I am in the boat of pitching and getting feedback that the "tone isn't exactly what they're looking for" so in my case I'd say you absolutely do have to tailor your pitches. Fox is looking for different stuff than other networks which want different stuff than HBO... I'm wondering if you should write what you do naturally and find the audience for it, or change up the tone depending on who you're pitching to and hope some of what you throw actually sticks to the wall....

Alec Nickopopoulous said...

"Friday Question" - Ken, I love the podcast. What is your studio setup? Quiet garage? Professional soundproof booth at home? And what mic are you using?

Stockbridge80 said...

My personal favorite comedy of all time will always be Frasier. The wittiness of the jokes and clever comedic timing made it pure genius. Something that my family talks about constantly, because we literally keep Frasier on an almost nonstop loop via Netflix, is that the comedy sitcoms that have been attempted since the early 2000's when Friends and Frasier went off of the air, is that the writing is very lazy and pure slapstick. There is no thought into someone tripping over something or going outside the house to scream with ridiculous music in the background, accompanied by the cliched "drummer sound" when a joke is completed by the actor. That is not only, NOT funny it is genuinely annoying. Some of the most hilarious scenes from Frasier were when you realized the complete irony of what they were saying vs. their actual behavior. Kind of like real life with real people, right? The more realistic the situations are as well as the authenticity of the familial relationships, the more people will be emotionally invested in your show. I don't mean every show needs to be heart wrenching, but if there is no sentiment or "heart" to the show, it's really nothing more than a half hour of snyde comments and silly background music. I think it's worth mentioning in all of the 11 seasons of Frasier they never had that stupid background music, and it was so much more entertaining as a result. Also worth mentioning, the writers made bold choices, that paid off big time. The cast was not afraid of being politically incorrect. There is very little room for that in comedy. They made lots of gay jokes, ethnic jokes, many stereotypical jokes about us all, every race, financial station in life, rednecks, affluent people and everywhere in between. They did this with skill, and it's worth mentioning half the cast is gay, but it was delivered brilliantly. If we can't laugh at the things that make us human, what is left? I just wish people would quit with the criticism of every little joke, because it might "offend someone" and we would have better quality entertainment when the writers are allowed to be funny and creative!!

J Lee said...

There's also 'single-use funny' and 'repeatedly funny'. The former is where a joke or a visual gag is funny the first time you see it, in large part due to the shock/unexpected value of the bit. Seen in TV reruns or in multiple viewing of a movie, the gag loses most, if not all of it's punch when you know it's coming.

The latter is a gag or bit that remains funny no matter how many times you view it, and those gags are usually tied to the personality/reaction of the characters involved and how the actors play out the gag. Even when you know it's coming, the foundation of the gag and how it's executed by the people involved make it work time after time.

GlennNYC said...

Hi Ken:

I have a Friday question. I've been watching the TV show "The Good Place", which recently ended it's 13 episode first season. They've made "Extended Episodes" available on the NBC website and ON-Demand on some cable systems. It's been fun seeing extra dialogue and extra scenes which sometimes have good jokes or plot points which clarify later events. Other times, I can see why they felt the need to tighten the show up. I was wondering what you thought about it; is it a gift to the fans or does it dilute the impact of the show? Also, would you have liked the option to release Extended episodes when working on MASH, Cheers, Frasier,... or would you rather just leave well enough alone once things are final?

Thanks.

VP81955 said...

To Stockbridge80: The smart multi-camera sitcom is not dead. Please check out "Mom."

Stockbridge80 said...

Thanks, I'll check it out!