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  • Not Lovin’ It

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    May 3rd, 2010Jane EspensonComedy, On Writing

    Here’s how NOT to tell a joke. There is a currently running McDonalds commercial in which customers talk about bad situations. A man talks of “… when my luggage went to the Bahamas… And I didn’t.” Oh, the attempted joke is so painful! Jokes are about surprises. What is the surprise in the second half of that line? There is none. Of COURSE he didn’t go. If he’d gone to the Bahamas he wouldn’t have worded the first part that way! You don’t say, “My luggage went to the Bahamas and I had a great time there.” Nonsense.

    The thing that makes this really shameful, of course, is the ellipsis. The pause is a very interesting comedy device. You can only use it when what follows is really good. It’s an investment that the writer (or actor) is making in the joke. If it pays off, then if pays off bigger because of the pause. But if it fails, you lose everything. In this particular ad, the pause isn’t just a short pause either, but a long one, with the actor turning to look down, then a WIDEN TO REVEAL shot change, which shows us that the actor is standing at an almost-empty luggage carousel, and then he looks back into camera for the “And I didn’t.” That is way too much weight for almost any joke! Especially for one with the fatal flaw of not being a joke.

    I give this example to illustrate the opposite of what is called “throwing it away.” Throwing a joke away usually refers to the performance end of the deal, to delivering a joke in a casual off-handed way, without a pause or other tee-up, and without any apparent awareness of having said something funny. It can also refer to the way a joke is directed (for example, without changing the shot). And, important for our purposes, to the way a joke is written.

    One way to make sure a joke is thrown away is to make sure you leave out that ellipsis. You can also use parentheticals or stage directions to tell the actor how to deliver the line: “Casually,” “Without pause” or even “Throwing it away” can help. Since you’re probably writing a spec script, intended to be read, not performed, you don’t even have to worry that you’ll piss off the actor who doesn’t want to be told how to deliver a joke.

    I realize now that this is what my showrunner on a show called Monty meant when he told us not to put the funniest word at the end of the line, but to make sure the line continued past it. This seemed to me to go against one of the basic principals of joke writing, but now I see the value in it. He wanted casual, easy, “thrown away” funny, not needy rim-shot comedy, begging for laughs by hitting every comedy-made-easy rule.

    If you want to be funnier than McDonald’s, write actual jokes, and if you really want to be classy, throw them away.

    Lunch: beef shabu-shabu with an extra side of clear noodles.

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