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02/01/2007: Jokes that Play Hard to Get
Ooh, gentle readers, you know it's always a fun day when there's a guest speaker. Today I've invited showrunner-type Jeff Greenstein, currently of Desperate Housewives, to speak a little more about highbrow jokes and obscure reference jokes in general. He speaks first about jokes whose brows are so high they're not even on their own heads anymore:
"You know, the best examples I can think of are some of the jokes in the "earlier, funny" Woody Allen films. Jokes that wind up getting a laugh on pure rhythm, even if you don't get the reference, e.g.: "As Balzac said, there goes another novel" or "When it comes to relationships, I'm the winner of the August Strindberg award." [Another] one of these is SO ASTOUNDINGLY OBSCURE that it's actually TRANSCRIBED INCORRECTLY in the published script of Manhattan: Diane Keaton's character refers to her crippling headaches as "like Oswald in Ghosts" (meaning the syphilitic character in the Ibsen play), but the transcriber, obviously assuming Oswald means Lee Harvey, renders the line as "like Oswald and ghosts," which means exactly nothing."
Hee! I love knowing this stuff, don't you? Now, it's pretty clear that a joke at this level of difficulty is not going to help your spec script. The rhythm of a joke might draw a laugh in a crowded jovial movie theater, but it's not something that works very well on the printed page.
So I suggest you aim a bit lower. There are certainly reference jokes that are almost as obscure, though not highbrow, and this makes them at least a bit more likely to find an audience. Jeff gives a really cool example:
"... [M]y all-time, ALL-TIME favorite obscure-reference joke was on 3rd Rock. They had a scene in which Dick Solomon (John Lithgow) goes to the airport to pick up his supervisor, the Big Giant Head, played by William Shatner. "How was your flight?" asks Lithgow. "Terrible," Shatner replies. "There was some kind of gremlin on the wing!" Lithgow gasps: "THE SAME THING ONCE HAPPENED TO ME!!"
Of course this is a staggeringly ingenious reference to the fact that Lithgow and Shatner played the same role, that of a terrified airline passenger who thinks he sees a gremlin on the wing, in the Twilight Zone episode "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" -- Shatner in the original series, and Lithgow in Twilight Zone: The Movie. Phenomenal."
Readers aren't going to be impressed by an easy joke. Writing an easy joke is like being an easy date. Make 'em work for it. They'll appreciate it more.
Lunch: cheese-jalapeno bagel from the local Coffee Bean