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Home » Archives » June 2007 » Soon-Lee was Klinger's Wife
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06/12/2007: Soon-Lee was Klinger's Wife

Sometimes a joke sticks in my mind, and I don't even know what it's doing in there, taking up room. The following three-line exchange is from After-MASH, the very failed sitcom sequel to M*A*S*H. This is from memory:

(admiring Soon-Lee's dress)
You know, that's something I really admire about the Orient, the clothing -- it gives the women such a look of demure grace.

This is from the "Junior Sophisticate" department at Macy's.

They're good too.

It's not great. It's a very standard sit-com joke run, in fact. The first line tees up the joke. It might even have teed it up higher, with talk of silks and fans -- my memory is sketchy on this point. It's a pretty obvious set-up. Then Soon-Lee's line undercuts it, and then there's the second little punchline, which is also of a sort I'm sure you've seen before.

The thing that has always stuck in my mind so clearly is Soon-Lee's line. Although I can't find any evidence of this online, I'm almost certain that I'm correctly remembering the phrase "Junior Sophisticate." To me, it makes the joke. It's funny because it's so precise and so correct. It's exactly the kind of name that department stores use, and it's amusing that she would have remembered it and trotted it out so proudly.

To me, the joke is elevated above itself by that phrase. I'm still not sure it's worth valuable brain-space, but if she'd said "Junior's department" it wouldn't have been as good. And if she'd just said "This is from Macy's," it would be terrible. It's a nice counter-example to the "shorter is funnier" rule of thumb.

A lot of time in sitcom rooms is spent finding the perfect words for jokes like this one. Make sure you do the same thing with your specs. Get out the thesaurus, check with friends, whatever. Don't feel weird about spending time on some tiny bit of phrasing, because if you get it just right, it can stick in someone's head for years.

Lunch: veggie sandwich, no mayo, despite the fact that the woman making it kept trying to give me a turkey sandwich with mayo


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