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06/16/2006: Tee Party
Know what I love? Terminology! I love that there are words for things like finials and processes like foxing. When I was in Hawaii, in a region with lots of sharp volcanic gravel called "tephra," there was nothing I liked more than throwing that word around: "Oh, I slipped on the tephra," "Did you cut yourself on the tephra?," "The camera hasn't worked right since I dropped it on the tephra"…
Television writing is a garden of terminology. One lovely concept that we haven't talked about yet is "teeing up a joke." It just means "setting up a joke," actually. You can tee a joke up a lot or a little. Here is an example of a classically teed-up joke from an old episode of Boy Meets World that I found on line. (I looked because I had a memory of this being a show that did a lot of very clear and obvious teeing up.) The teacher has just asked the student if there's any topic he wants to talk about:
Yes, actually there is a pressing social matter, which I feel equipped to discuss with confidence and alacrity.
Well then, you have the floor, Mr. Matthews.
Nah, that used me up.
The words "equipped," "confidence" and especially "alacrity" were chosen specifically to set a certain mood that is then punctured by the punchline.
As you can probably tell, it's really hard to tee a joke up very far without the audience getting ahead of you (without "tipping the joke" -- more terminology!). That's why this is not a great joke. First off, as the viewer/reader, you're suspicious because Cory's "alacrity" line doesn't have a laugh in it. So you know his next line probably will. Already you're on the look-out. And, even if you have no idea what the character of Cory Matthews was like, you know something's up when you see "alacrity." It's tonally out of line with the entire rest of the show. The only question at that point is *how* the ball will be hit off the tee.
It can be done more subtly, of course. There was a joke in an episode of Ellen once that had a frakkin' enormous tee, but that managed not to tip the joke. Anne Heche guest-starred as Karen, who was Ellen's girlfriend Laurie's ex-girlfriend (think it though). We had already established that she was enjoying making Ellen jealous of the old relationship. This is, as best I can remember, how she described an event that happened when she was with Laurie:
One day, I came home, and I found that she had filled the house with candles. Hundreds of them. It was beautiful. And there was a note that said, "one day, all these flames will burn themselves out… except the one in my heart."
And then we did it.
This punchline is more likely to catch you off-guard since there's nothing out of character or otherwise unlikely about the tee-up. It fits Karen's agenda, in that it's designed to make Ellen jealous, so you aren't tipped off to the fact that a further drop is coming.
So tee 'em up, but be careful. Assume a clever reader. If there's a straight-and-earnest line in your comedy, especially one that's a bit out of character, doesn't fit the show, doesn't fit the moment... they're gonna see the tee.
Lunch: I fried tortillas into crispy chips that I tossed into my scrambled-eggs-and-salsa.