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12/01/2006: Czech Marx
Comedy shows (and many dramas, as well) hold "table reads," in which the writers, producers, directors and executives get to hear the actors read the script out loud. As the writers sit and listen, they make a check mark next to every joke that gets a laugh. (For extra precision, many of us vary the size of the checkmark to reflect the intensity/duration of the laughter.)
Usually, at the end of a table read, every script page has at least one check on it, and many have three or sometimes even more. And the general rule for evaluating a script is usually "more = better." Check marks are treasured like gold, uncomplicatedly loved and desired. And yet...
A script can be overjoked. A script in which every line strives to earn a laugh is as effective as a football team in which every play is an attempt at a touchdown. You end up with an exhausting, overreaching mess that doesn't have room to slow down and breathe. And it doesn't feel like it's about anything other than its own pace.
Something that I myself have witnessed is a progression that sometimes occurs during the production week of a pilot. Writers are brought in to "punch" the script, to make last moment changes intended to sharpen the script. Invariably, piles of jokes are inserted into the script at this point. And sometimes, the show gets worse as a result. Funnier, perhaps, but more manic, less thoughtful.
It's worth being careful about this when you're writing your specs. It's so imperative that the spec be your very best work, so it's easy to push. Letting a joke have some breathing room, letting characters have a real moment, letting an emotional moment land for a second before you undercut it, these can all be powerful events in a script. Even if they don't earn themselves a check mark.
Lunch: Sushi at Echigo. I've told you before about how their morsels recline on tiny beds of slightly warm rice. Holy cow.