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Home » Archives » February 2008 » Archaic Anarchy
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02/12/2008: Archaic Anarchy

Sometimes it's hard to tell, when watching a sitcom, that a joke didn't work. The audience reaction can be sweetened during post-production, or manipulated on the spot by the warm-up comedian. But I have a very specific memory of a joke that fell quite flat on NewsRadio.

The joke was delivered by the red-haired character Beth. It went something like this, "No matter what I do to try to impress my stepfather, he always treats me like a red-headed stepchild!" In my memory, the audience greeted the line with a mild confused pause.

I've also heard Mel Brooks talk about a joke in Young Frankenstein that didn't work with audiences. It's when Gene Wilder says to bug-eyed Marty Feldman, "Damn your eyes!" and Feldman replies, "Too late." The audience, although otherwise delighted with the movie, shrugged.

The jokes failed, clearly, because the audience didn't recognize "red-headed stepchild" and "damn your eyes" as common folksy expressions. Guess they're not that common.

Now, personally, I love dialogue that is personalized to the actors... referencing their verbal habits or physical appearances. I've certainly written a lot of jokes that rely on characters commenting on other characters' looks. Both of these jokes reference physical traits that happen to fit with ready-made phrases. You can imagine how tempting they must've seemed to someone who knew the expressions and assumed they were in wide use.

Of course, the best that could've been hoped for, really, was a judgment of "clever." The jokes don't delve into character, they just work at the word-level. This makes them extra-expendable. If you're playing with some word-manipulation clever like this, be very careful. Check it out with some readers, make sure that you're getting the effect you intend. If some people don't get it, take note of that and don't just assume that the person who ultimately reads the script and makes a decision about you based on it is going to fall into the part of the population on which the word-play will work. Better yet, see if you can find a joke that digs a little deeper.

Lunch: proscuitto and red spinach on whole wheat. Fantastic.


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