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02/22/2008: Maybe She'll Get A Free Copier, Though?
I made reference, in my most recent post, to a joke feeling "written." This can happen when a joke relies on very specific wording or a specific structure. The reason that Senator Clinton's joke "that's not change you can believe in, that's change you can Xerox" fell so very flat during last night's presidential debate had a lot to do with its "written"-sounding parallel structure. This was particularly deadly in a joke whose point was supposed to be to praise spontaneity.
The reason that jokes like this are so tempting is often because when they're pitched in a room, they aren't written. Yet. Someone thinks it up and says it out loud, and in that moment it feels spontaneous because it is. And it's hilarious. In fact, the more structured and elaborate and perfect it is, the more hilarious it is when someone just opens their mouth and produces it. Problem is, it's only spontaneous once. Every single time it's said after that, it's going to sound canned, unless it's delivered by a very skilled actor who can somehow make you believe they're finding it on the fly. The classic Friends line: "You're over me? When were you under me?" might've sounded written except that it was so perfectly delivered. From Frasier, Niles' line "My brother is too kind - he was already eminent while my eminence was merely imminent," sounds completely written but was delivered with the joy of a pedant realizing he's just come up with a good one.
Traditional sitcoms provide a natural habitat for this kind of joke. When married with character, they can be the kind of sharp precise jokes -- hard jokes -- that work perfectly in that heightened world. I'm not putting down this kind of joke. They're little gems -- hard and sparkly.
But, if you're writing for a single-camera half-hour or a funny hour, you're usually better off sticking to "soft" jokes that rely on character without relying so heavily on the perfect string of words. Certainly that's what you should do if you're trying to make a point about the value of off-the-cuffedness.
Lunch: ceviche from Ralph's supermarket. It sounds unwise, but it was good.