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Home » Archives » September 2006 » Actually Not
[Previous entry: "What's an analogy like?"] [Next entry: "What color is your writers' room?"]

09/08/2006: Actually Not

I love writers' room terminology. I felt like I was part of a room for the first time when, on Dinosaurs, I said that a certain line "didn't bump me." Meaning that I wasn't bothered by a potential misunderstanding or problem with the line. It was actually heady, like speaking French in France for the first time. Like, "let's try this out and see if it really works."

"Handle" is one of my favorite writing terms, and one of the most common. It refers to those words at the beginning of a line of dialogue. Handles include, but aren't limited to:

Well, Look, Listen, Hey, Oh, Say, Um, Actually, So, Now, I mean, C'mon, Anyway, Yeah, You know, and the name of any character used when speaking to that character.

I hear that some show runners object to handles in general, and will cut all of them out. I heard today about an editor who did the same thing when cutting episodes. But usually, handles are freely employed, with certain limits.

The most common thing to look out for is adjacent use of the same handle. It's not uncommon for a room filled with comedy writers to look up at the screen and realize that the last four lines of dialogue all started with "Well." Keep an eye out for this as you write your script. Mix it up.

There is another, more subtle problem with some handles. I just had this pointed out to me today, in fact, and I think it’s so interesting, I have to tell you. Look at this exchange:

I think I've lost weight, don’t you?

Actually, I think you might've found it again.

(Remember, this is demonstration comedy, not actual comedy.)

Certain handles, like "actually" and, sometimes, "well" are used to contradict the previous line. That means that when Character Two starts the line with "actually," the reader/audience already knows they're about to hear a contradiction. In the example I've given, they know, in fact, that they're about to hear a slam.

On some shows, you can actually hear a studio audience anticipating a slam. They hear the "actually" and start laughing.

A writer in my room pointed this out today, that "actually" anticipates the turn. He argued that leaving off the handle in this case leads to a sharper, smarter joke, since the audience doesn't get ahead of it. I agree. Reread the lame demonstration joke without the "actually." It's still lame, but isn't it --fractionally -- just a little bit sharper?

Now, some of you may have a different aesthetic. It wouldn't be crazy to argue that audiences enjoy knowing a joke is on the way. You will have to decide for yourself which kind of writer you are.

But for me, I plan to start cutting "actually."

Lunch: a pastrami reuben sandwich. Some element of the sandwich was unusually sweet. I have to say, I did not enjoy it.


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