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Who Hates Whom: Well-Armed Fanatics, Intractable Conflicts, and Various Things Blowing Up A Woefully Incomplete Guide by Bob Harris

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Thursday, February 28th
Metaphorical Stove Architecture

Thank you to Gentle Reader Seanna-Lin in Massachusetts. She's a novelist who says she has found this humble blog to be helpful. Really? Cool! I've never taken on a novel myself and am overwhelmed by those who have. Have you seen one of those things? So many words on a page!

There is also a letter here from Nicholas in Rhode Island. He's asking about taking on too many spec script projects at once. In a neat turn of phrase he says that he thinks his "back burner is about to collapse." Hee!

Well, Nicholas, I've found that back burners can pretty much take any weight you put on them. It's the front burners that are shaky. Cue up as many projects-in-waiting as you want. The trick is in determining the number of them that you can actively work on at once. Some people need to work on one at a time or they get distracted and out-of-focus. Others of us find there to be something counter-intuitively calming about being slightly overworked, since it forces us to turn off our censor and go into emergency mode, which can be very helpful. Figure out which kind of person you are and take on projects accordingly.

And then set some priorities. Having a spec pilot seems to be necessary right now, so that might be a good thing to have finished -- really finished -- before you work on that spec episode of Chuck which is less likely to be immediately useful.

Nicholas also asks a question about breaking the fourth wall in a spec script in an unusual way. He's thinking of having a character in a spec for an already-existing show make reference to a bit of pop-culture to which the actor playing that character is connected. Did you follow that? Well, strange thing is, I actually did exactly this in one of the first specs I ever wrote. I learned that the actor on the show I was specing had recently performed in a Chekhov play. So I added a bit in which that character specifically talked about that play, gambling that someone reading the spec might understand and be amused by the connection.

In retrospect, it was a mistake. I cannot recommend this approach. It's going to cause you to make choices in the writing that have nothing to do with what's organic to the scene, and it's probably not even going to be noticed or understood. Worse yet, if it is noticed and understood, you're in danger of appearing cute, instead of honest, in your writing. I understand why it's tempting (as I was tempted myself, once), but I have to say, "turn away!" Writing the show within the confines of the walls of that show is almost always the right choice.

Nicholas has more good questions, but those will have to wait for another day. For now...

Lunch: a chopped salad with garbanzo beans. I got extra garbanzo beans and I still had them all picked out before I was half-way done.

Jane on 02.28.08 @ 04:30 PM PST [link]

Monday, February 25th
Let's Say You Don't Like Shrimp...

I recently received such an interesting letter from Gentle Reader Maggie in Brooklyn. She writes to point out another variety for our menagerie of joke-types -- a favorite of her and her boyfriend. She says:

We were wondering if there's a specific writers' room term for a type of joke that we love. It happens when you cut to a scene and someone is in the middle of wrapping up a story, and the only line you hear gives you very clear, very funny picture of what the rest of the story was about.

She goes on to give some examples. One of them was from that Charles Barkley Super Bowl ad in which we hear him say, out of a cut, "...and that's why I never eat shrimp." Another is from "Pirates of the Caribbean" in which we hear Johnny Depp wrapping up a story with "...and then they made me their king."

Maggie is right that this is certainly a distinct type of joke. I love this joke. I remember particularly taking note of the "shrimp" line when I heard it. I don't think this kind of joke has been given a particular name, although every room invents some of their own terminology -- if a particular show used this kind of bit as a running gag, I'm certain they'd come up with a name for it. Maybe it's a Fragment Joke, since it's based on only hearing a fragment of the whole. Note that it's certainly the same joke if you only hear the start or the middle of a story. If you open a door just long enough to hear, "Now if I was to show you the OTHER buttock..." for example. That's the same joke.

These jokes are so effective because they make the audience do the work of inferring what they missed. They're certainly related to jokes like those in the old Bob Newhart routines in which we'd hear one side of a phone call or even an in-person conversation and have to infer what was being said or done. From his Driving Instructor Routine: All right, let's get up a bit more speed and gradually ease it into second... well, I didn't want to cover reverse this early....

Any time you can get the audience to do some of the work, you're getting them invested, and that's a great thing.

Lunch: Chicken Caesar Salad

Jane on 02.25.08 @ 06:18 PM PST [link]

Saturday, February 23rd
Another Bite of That Onion

I think you should listen to an episode of This American Life called Tough Room that includes a fascinating visit to the offices of The Onion, including an actual
session in the room, and lots of discussion about which jokes work and which don't.

I recommend that you listen to this segment. This room feels very similar to some comedy rooms I've been in and very different from others, but even if you're just sitting at home writing jokes to put into your spec script, I think you'll find it useful for jump-starting your own thinking about what makes a joke work.

I particularly enjoy the discussion of the joke "Thirsty Mayor Drinks Town's Entire Water Supply." The hypothesis is that the joke works because it's actually not randomly silly, but is instead a silly version of a story about misappropriation of public resources. The joke works because it means something.

There is also a wonderful discussion of why the proposed headline, "Nation's Girlfriends Complain about Lack Of Quality Time," feels tired, while "Local Man Complains Girlfriend Always Wanting to do Stuff" works, even though they appear to be the same joke.

The answer is that the first version is nothing more than a very old observation about women's demands while in relationships, while the second version is a less-used joke about a very specific kind of man who prefers not to go out and engage in activities. Yes. That sounds like the right analysis to me -- I love it when logic agrees with instinct.

Follow the link. You'll get room experience just from listening.

Lunch: the "Mexican Scramble" at Jerry's Deli

Jane on 02.23.08 @ 06:43 PM PST [link]

Friday, February 22nd
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.

Jane on 02.22.08 @ 08:49 PM PST [link]

Tuesday, February 19th
English People Don't Actually Say Po-tah-to

I'm not done yet with that two-part joke from The Onion that I mentioned in my last post. I think I need to talk a bit now about the joke's content as opposed to its construction. The joke is based, obviously, on the idea that two participants can have very different views of the same situation. We might call it a mini-Rashomon.

I was trying to think of examples in which this joke has been used in scripts. The most famous example, I suspect, is this instance from Annie Hall in which Alvy and Annie are talking to their therapists at the same time on a split screen. Both therapists ask about their client's sex life, and the answers come back:

Alvy Singer: Hardly ever. Maybe three times a week.
Annie Hall: Constantly. I'd say three times a week.

Often this joke is done with two characters speaking at once. Someone asks "how did it go?" and someone says "it was fantastic" at the same time that someone else says "it was hellish."

By the way, this joke has a tendency to feel a little written. So you might want to make it a little less precise... make the characters explicitly react to each other, perhaps, instead of speaking exactly simultaneously.

Despite this one reservation, however, I think that in general this is a very good type of joke since it comes out of character. In fact, it comes out of two characters, revealing a lot about both of themselves in one economical package. If you've got characters with contrasting views of the world (and I bet you do), see if you can't mine humor out of their first-blush reactions to different situations.

Lunch: penne alfredo with spinach and extra parmesan

Jane on 02.19.08 @ 09:25 PM PST [link]

Saturday, February 16th
Sweet Onion

There's something very funny in the latest (Feb. 14) issue of The Onion. There's a small front-page article titled "Conference Call Going Awesome." It's funny in the Onion "ordinary events reported as news" mold. Then, inside the paper, there is a second item, tucked into the "News in Brief" section titled, "Employees On Other End Of Conference Call Just Want It To Be Over."

Hee! Brilliant.

One huge reason that this works is that the first part stands alone. I once had some bosses who told me that they loved it when they saw network executives start to criticize a weak joke, only to pull back when they discovered that there were funny callbacks to that joke later in the script. It always seemed to me that it would be much better if the first joke WASN'T weak! Wouldn't you love it MORE if the execs had no call to worry about that first joke? It should stand on its own, the way the front-page Onion piece does.

Callbacks, jokes which reference an earlier joke, can only bear the strength of being funny on their own. They can't retroactively fix the first joke.

A clue that this is happening in your script is that you find yourself reading faster to get to the callback. Be aware of it.

Lunch: spaghetti with marinara

Jane on 02.16.08 @ 01:20 PM PST [link]

Thursday, February 14th

Guess where I've been these last two days? Obviously, I, and all my co-workers, have been back at work in the Battlestar Galactica writers' room. Fun! It's all rush-rush-rush as we hurry to catch back up with our own brains.

The first thing we did was indulge in a film festival. We watched all the episodes that have been filmed so far. Not only did this remind us of the events of the season so far, but it immersed us in the world of the show: the rhythms of the story-telling and the texture of the scenes. I also found that, especially with the added time, I was better able to judge what worked and what didn't work in the episodes I wrote. I learn something about the show every day, and I only regret that we'll be finished with the run of the show before I achieve the level of competence I really want to have.

When you're writing a spec script for an already-existing show, you should immerse yourself in it as much as possible -- both reading and watching produced episodes. And if your spec pilot is similar in tone to an existing show, I would recommend doing the same thing with your doppelgangshow. We watched seven episodes in a row the other day, and when you watch something with focused attention for that long, it's like being exposed to an intensive language course or to chocolate -- you're going to take it in.

Lunch: veggie sandwich from the commissary. No cheese, extra avocado.

Jane on 02.14.08 @ 10:15 PM PST [link]

Tuesday, February 12th
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.

Jane on 02.12.08 @ 12:03 PM PST [link]

Sunday, February 10th
Taking the Lift to the Top of your Career

I dined with a former colleague last night before the WGA meeting, and she mentioned that she was interested in trying her hand at writing radio plays. Well, guess what I pulled out of the mailbag this evening? A letter from Loyal Reader Branko, directing my attention to this site. Say!

The link is to a BBC writing development program called "Writersroom". They say "Writersroom is constantly on the lookout for writers of any age and experience who show real potential for the BBC. We accept and read unsolicited scripts for film, TV and radio drama, TV and radio narrative comedy and theatre.

I've poked around through the links there for a little while and I don't see a mention of a UK citizenship requirement. Maybe I'm crazy, but it seems to me that there may be brave souls here in the US, and other Gentle Readers overseas who might want to look into what seems like a prime opportunity. Now, it's a development program; they're hoping to create writers who will stay and work for the BBC, not ones who will run off to Hollywood, so keep that in mind, but if you're looking to write professionally and would find London a desirable destination, well... meet your open door.

I'm charmed by the wide variety of types of scripts that are accepted. Radio drama! Mmm.

Lunch: stuffed jalapenos at Jack in the Box

Jane on 02.10.08 @ 07:04 PM PST [link]

Saturday, February 9th
Pencils Up?

Strike Update: I've just returned from the big general WGA meeting at the Shrine Auditorium here in Los Angeles. I didn't stay all the way through the question-and-answer portion -- in fact, it may still be going on. But I did stay long enough that I felt that MY questions were answered. In my opinion, it looks like a good deal. Not perfect, but with room to grow.

I'll be checking in with friends, to make sure that I'm not missing anything, to make sure that this is the right deal at the right time, but as of this moment I'm feeling very hopeful that this is a deal I'm ready to take.

Bottom line: if this deal passes membership scrutiny, which I think it will, look for writers to be back at work some time this week. Thank all of you for supporting us, feeding us, joining us, or just thinking of us. We felt it, believe me.

Lunch: Acapulco is getting a lot of my business these days. Put me down for a margarita and my share of one of those Fiesta Platter things.

Jane on 02.09.08 @ 10:43 PM PST [link]

Thursday, February 7th
It's Not Called Wish Factor

As you've probably already read on the fine blog of my colleague Mark Verheiden, the special "Sci Fi channel" picket day was a huge success. No fewer than four of my former and/or current bosses were there -- um, wait, might've been five. Thanks to all who came out, including many of you, Gentle Readers -- good to meet'cha!

The next strike-related event is the big meeting Saturday night at The Shrine. Should be interesting. By the way -- don't let anyone tell you the strike is already over. Until I hear different, watch me walk!

Only a small nugget of writing advice tonight. During the Super-Tuesday coverage, I heard a pundit ask another pundit to stop talking about the greatest wishes of each campaign and instead give us a little insight into their greatest fears. Hm. That's not a bad way to approach characters, too. Know what they want AND what they fear. Maybe the fear is just not getting the thing they want, but maybe it's something else. If you think about it, and find something interesting, you'll have more to play with in your script. Even if you never make explicit reference to it, the character will probably deepen just from the fact that you know it.

Lunch: Ribs USA. An all-sides lunch: greens and mac-n-cheese and corn and those amazing spicy fries.

Jane on 02.07.08 @ 08:26 PM PST [link]

Tuesday, February 5th
Walkin' and Walkin'

Oh my, what a busy picketing day tomorrow will be. In addition to "Sci Fi Channel Day" at NBC from noon to 2, as detailed in my last post, there is also a "Spooky Wednesday" picket at Warner Brothers from 9 to noon. If you want to attend both and don't want to walk for five hours, may I suggest that like any good screenwriter you get into the scene late and cut out early.

You've already seen the Sci Fi Day info. Here is the info on the Spooky Wednesday event as provided by the organizers:

Not sure you're witty enough to write Sam and Dean Winchester's dialogue? The writers from "Supernatural" can help! Want to know how to raise the stakes for a Vampire detective? Writers from "Moonlight" know! Worried that your spouse may be a cyborg? The writers from "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles" probably won't be able to help (but they will be on hand for your other brilliant questions!). Yes, writers from these shows (plus a few surprise guests!) will be there to answers these questions and more...

The usual disclaimers:

If you're a writer for a genre drama (or have been one) and want to show up, please know:

No one will solicit you to read their brilliant spec script. No one will ask for your phone number or email address. No one will expect anything of you other than your ability to answer some story/structure/dialogue questions.

If you're an aspiring writer who wants to take advantage of getting some truly great advice from the folks who have lived, eaten, breathed it:

Definitely join us -- all you need to do is pick up a sign! What you should not do: solicit the writers to read your brilliant spec script. Do not ask for phone numbers or email addresses. Do expect brilliance, because that's what you'll get!

SPOOKY WEDNESDAY: February 6th, 9 AM-12 PM, Warner Bros Gate 2.

Since I've already committed to the NBC event, I'm choosing to attend that one, but if you're an aspiring writer, both events obviously have a lot to offer.

Lunch: leftover veggie fajita

Jane on 02.05.08 @ 01:22 PM PST [link]

Monday, February 4th

Isn't it lovely when all the elements of a story click neatly into place? It is -- unless it's too neat. A classic example of this is the murder suspect who gives one superfluous piece information while giving their alibi, and it turns out to be the one piece of information that the detectives need to puncture the alibi.

All you need to do is make it a little less neat. I saw a good example of this on a syndicated episode of Law and Order: Criminal Intent that I watched yesterday. The guy gave the one superfluous piece of info -- mentioning something about a boxer "puking" during a boxing match he watched on television. The detectives wondered if that particular highlight would really have been shown on TV. But when they looked into it, that wasn't actually exactly what punctured the alibi -- when they checked out the match, they discovered that it was actually an undercard that hadn't been broadcast at all. Now, you can quibble with whether or not this was a smart alibi, but I really like the fact that there was a ragged, imperfect match between the detectives' suspicions and what they actually found. It feels realer, more like life.

So, especially if you're writing a script with procedural elements, look at where the puzzle pieces fit together and consider roughing up the seams.

STRIKE INFO: This Wednesday is SCI FI CHANNEL DAY FOR FANS & WRITERS: Jaime Paglia, co-creator of "Eureka" is inviting fans to join the writers, producers and cast members from Sci Fi Channel's BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, EUREKA, FLASH GORDON, PAINKILLER JANE, and others for a rally at NBC Studios. 12 noon - 2 pm at NBC STUDIOS, 3000 W. Alameda Ave, Burbank, CA. I will be there and I believe lots of the rest of the BSG staff will be as well!

Lunch: In 'n' Out burger and a Dr. Pepper

Jane on 02.04.08 @ 07:24 PM PST [link]

Sunday, February 3rd
Strike Update

I will be up at NBC Burbank tomorrow (mid-)morning, picketing my little heart out. If it's true that we're wrapping this thing up, this may be one of your last chances to see TV writers on the hoof! If we're not wrapping this thing up, well then, we could use your support. Come on out and heft a sign and say 'hi'!
Jane on 02.03.08 @ 08:29 PM PST [link]

Saturday, February 2nd
Holding Down Your Chowder

In looking over my last post, I think I should point out that the examples I cited aren't only used to delay the arrival of a pun. They're also generally part of a joke in themselves, in which a character, searching for a polite way to say something, comes up with the most impolite way possible. It usually looks like this:

He was -- how can I put this delicately? -- a rat-bastard.

Again, I object on the grounds that the joke is painfully familiar and hopelessly telegraphed. Once you hit the word "delicately," you know what the joke is. The only possible pay-off that'll surprise the reader/audience is the particular choice of epithet that's coming along next. And they're still going to wince at the utter clamminess of the set-up.

That doesn't mean that you can't mine this joke area. The idea of someone trying to find an inoffensive word and failing has some humor potential. Just put in the extra effort and see if you can find another way to get there. For example, maybe you could have your character, realizing they're in mixed company, suppress the word they're looking for, then scream "rat-bastard!" half-way through the next page in the middle of someone else's heartfelt line. Same joke area, much bigger pay-off.

There's a good general lesson there, of course. Don't throw the chowder out with the clams. Often the general idea of a joke is good, even if the execution of one particular take on that idea has gone bad.

Lunch: cheese and crackers with real-sugar Coke, not corn-syrup Coke. It's imported from Mexico. You can find it if you know where to look.

Jane on 02.02.08 @ 07:40 PM PST [link]


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