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11/23/2007: Rimshot Removal
A long time ago, the readers of John August's wonderful blog collected some questions and comments for me. Due to a miscommunication, I haven't really had a chance to study them until now. Thank you for all the questions and comments!
John-August-reader Drew T. asks a great question. He wants to know if there's a difference between jokes written for half-hour comedies versus those written for hour dramas. And, yes, generally there is. Half-hour comedies favor what are called "hard jokes." Here's an example of a hard joke, which I adapted from an old episode of Family Ties:
JENNIFER: I told you to run a down-and-in. You were supposed to go to the pole and stop!
SKIPPY: I did. I stopped when I hit the pole.
You'll notice that it's very structured, very lean, and it's all about the words. The set-up HAS to have the words "pole" and "stop" for the punch line to land.
The distinction between this and a soft joke isn't as clear-cut as some writers would have you believe. The same punch line, if spoken with a self-aware wince, would be at home in many comedic hours.
Take out the constructed-sounding wordplay to soften it further. Now can you imagine it in an episode of House?
INJURED PLAYER: I was supposed to stop at the goal post but I didn't.
Dr. HOUSE (examining contusion): Actually, I suspect you did.
The simple fact that House makes a dry joke of it makes it softer. This is another example of that general principle which I've laid out before: broadly comedic characters tend to be serious in their intent. More complex, "dramatic" characters are often consciously making a joke. It's my favorite writing irony.
Here's another version in which the speaker is attempting a mild joke, and the joke is, again, softer, more subtle. Can you see this on, say, Friday Night Lights?
COACH: One a' your guys just ran into the pole.
ASSISTANT COACH: Oh, for pete's sake. I told him to stop.
COACH (dryly): Looks to me like he did.
Can you feel the difference between these and the sitcom version? The "ba-dum-bump" feeling has gone away even though the basic idea is exactly the same. Don't be too afraid of certain jokes that you fear might mess with your tone. Content doesn't determine tone as much as you think. Characters do a lot of that. A good self-aware character can soften nearly any joke.
Lunch: turkey sandwich with lots of mayo on white bread. The only way to do it.