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06/12/2006: When is a Joke like an Oven?
I had my kitchen remodeled last year. It was the first (and only) time I've ever taken on a project like that. Finding a designer, working with a contractor. Enduring the dust and delays. But it worked out great. The finished product is perfect.
Part of what was hard about getting started on the remodel was coming to terms with how much needed to be done. Sure, the oven door never closed completely, and it blocked the entrance to the room. But it cooked just fine, and I was convinced that moving gas lines around would be the death of us all. It just seemed like it would be easier to leave it where it was. Leaving it in place, of course, was going to put all kinds of limits on where everything else could go, so I finally had to give in. The oven moved and everything has been better ever since.
I had to be willing to let go of something that worked well – it cooked great – in order to make the whole kitchen better. This is an example of what is called "Killing your Darlings" or "Killing your Babies" in scriptwriting. You have to be willing to cut something that you KNOW works, in order to make the script as a whole better.
Cutting a good joke is really really hard. I know really experienced writers who still have to tell themselves "we'll use it in another episode" before they can cut a good joke. Even though they know it's a lie.
Here's a little joke run from my first draft of an episode of Buffy called Gingerbread. This is Xander and Oz, whose relationship was strained at this point. I wanted to give them a bit of awkward/funny interaction in which Xander is trying to make nice:
Hey, it's Buffy's birthday next week. Big eighteen. Good-bye not voting and feeling excluded, hello just plain not voting.
He holds for the laugh. There is none.
So. You got gifting plans?
Wow. Great idea.
Was that "pendant" or "pennant"?
At the time, I loved this bit. I still like the "voting" joke. Not sure I'm still in love with the "pendant" joke -- the idea was supposed to be to highlight Xander's willingness to praise Oz's idea even thought he isn't sure which word he heard. It's not terribly strong. But at the time, I adored the whole run.
I did a huge rewrite on this episode. I hadn't gotten the tone of the episode right at all. Too much joking. Not enough genuine horror. And, of course, there were always issues of script length. For one or both of those reasons, this interaction had to go. If I'd held onto it, it would've been at the expense of other material. The fridge would've stayed stuck in the corner and the cupboard space wouldn't have worked out right.
Sometimes you've gotta yank stuff out. At least, it ALL has to be on the table. If you start a rewrite with some jokes that aren't negotiable, you end up having to stretch everything else around them. And it often shows.
Lunch: Turkey scramble.