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Who Hates Whom / Bob Harris

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

"The geopolitical equivalent of scorecards that get hawked at ball games. Only Bob could make a user’s guide to our increasingly hostile world this absorbing, this breezy, and—ultimately—this hopeful."
~ Ken Jennings, author of Brainiac


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Serenity Found: More Unauthorized Essays on Joss Whedon's Firefly Universe, edited by Jane Espenson

Flirting with Pride and Prejudice: Fresh Perspectives on the Original Chick-Lit Masterpiece, edited by Jennifer Crusie and including Jane Espenson's short story, "Georgiana"

Finding Serenity: Anti-Heroes, Lost Shepherds and Space Hookers in Joss Whedon's Firefly, edited by Jane Espenson and Glenn Yeffeth

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Wednesday, May 31st
Like a Stealth Weapon for your Spec Script

There is a small white dog who lives with an old lady in my building. The dog's name is Precious. I think she might be an old lady herself. She never begs for attention -- doesn't want to offend by taking up your personal space -- but given the smallest encouragement, she's all over you. She's like a respectful but ultimately eager red-carpet correspondent at the Oscars.

Ha! Analogy! I've talked before about using analogy in dialog. But a quick search of my own scripts reveals I do it even more in stage directions. It can be a quick and evocative way of conveying exactly the effect you want.

Some of you may have been instructed to avoid flowery and figurative language in stage directions. But even the sparest stage directions have room for analogy.

In produced scripts, these can serve as helpful guidelines to actors and directors about what you're looking for, like this one from a Buffy episode:

"Dawn concentrates, and very slowly, she lifts one foot... And falls face forward like toppling timber, landing out of frame."

Or it might be an instruction to an effects person. This fragment is part of a description of a ghostly figure attacking Buffy:

"…two thin arms forming to crush her like a coiling snake"

Or perhaps to an animator. This one is from Animated Buffy:

"Cordy freezes, looks around, like a shark smelling blood."

But since you're writing spec scripts, all of your analogies are instructions to a *reader*, helping them quickly and easily picture what you had in mind. The fact that they also color the read with emotion is a bonus. A huge bonus. One that the ultimate viewer of an episode would never know about, but that a reader gets the full effect of. It can be a spec writer's secret assistant.

"He sits astride her, hunched like a vulture," does more than accurately describe a posture. It sets a tone for the interaction. "Angel hovers over and behind Griff like a storm cloud," tells you not just that Angel has snuck up behind someone, but that something big and dark and dangerous is about to happen. In a script I read recently, there was a description of people "eaten away by disease like gypsy moths." Wow. Talk about setting a tone… tattered, sad, inevitable, unclean, passive, gray… it's all in there. Accomplished in seven little words.

Don't overload your script with these, of course. It'll start to read like a parody of that noir style -- "She sashayed into my office like a trolley car with a drunken conductor" -- Fun, but not right for your spec Grey's Anatomy.

Find those non-verbal moments in which you're going for a specific look or feel, and see if an analogy doesn't serve you well.

Lunch: Chicken wings from Koo Koo Roo.
Jane on 05.31.06 @ 12:56 PM PST [link]

Tuesday, May 30th
When Puppets Shouldn't Point Out the Hands up Their Bottoms

Once, when I was very young (27-ish), I was in the Star Trek: TNG offices shortly after a spec script had arrived. The episode was titled "Tangerine," and it had been accompanied by, get this, a crate of tangerines. Some people in the office were scared of the tangerines, but I ate one. It was lovely.

Now, here I am, years later, and I remember the name of that spec script. Does that mean this was a good technique? I gotta say, I don't think so. Especially in these security-paranoid days when unsolicited citrus fruits can get you detained without access to counsel. You want your script to be remembered as professional and well-crafted. Not sticky and freedom-endangering.

Sometimes the tangerines aren't literal. If you break the fourth wall in your spec script, it's almost certainly going to feel just as gimmicky as if it had arrived with a Harry and David gift box.

You know what it is, I'm sure, to break the fourth wall. That's any reference that calls attention to the fictional nature of our enterprise. (Or the fictional nature of *The Enterprise* if we're still in Star Trek land.)

Even if the show you're specing routinely flirts with the fourth wall (as Boston Legal has done throughout this season), I would warn you against it.

(By the way, what Boston Legal has been doing has been a sort of pseudo-fourth-wall construction, having their characters speak of their lives "as if" they were television characters. The same conceit was used in a joke on the Will and Grace series finale, in which Jack complains about how he and Karen are treated as if they're "supporting characters on the 'Will and Grace' show.")

A tempting example of breaking a fourth wall in a spec would be to have Lily on How I Met Your Mother make some joke about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, relying on the reader to know that Alyson Hannigan was one of our stars on Buffy. Tempting, but not worth it.

The problem with doing this in a spec, is that you're working as hard as you can to convince people that they're reading "the real show, " or, even better, that the Lily whom you are writing is a real person. You can't afford to raise the issue of artificiality. I don't even like it when actual shows break the fourth wall, actually. We're all trying to seem "real," so let's not mess with it.

Fan Mail Update: A big helloooo to Jessica in Lexington, MA! Glad you're enjoying the blog! And keep your eyes peeled for more Espisodes of television… update coming soon.

Lunch: flatbreads and artichoke spread

Jane on 05.30.06 @ 07:25 PM PST [link]

Monday, May 29th
Progess Report

Yesterday, I got to go to a Jake in Progress reunion brunch. A quorum of writers got together, ate breakfast meats, drank mimosas, and watched the episodes that have not yet aired. I can report that these eps are really good, folks. I'm very proud of what we did. The truth is, of course, that in order for a show to make it to the air, a zillion tiny things have to go right, and among them is the requirement that a show fit the network's scheduling needs.

At least, that is currently among the requirements. If the era of downloading continues and grows, schedules may soon become charming antiques. Shows will be made available for downloading directly to your television, and you will design your own viewing schedule. And network programmers will create slates of shows with an eye toward making a distinctive brand, but without the constraints of timeslots and lead-ins and lead-outs. I'm very interested to see if this happens, and, if it does, how it affects what we TV writers do.

Already, the new dynamics are making parts of the spec writer's life easier. Getting prepared to write a spec used to be a much harder process. I used to have two VCRs going every night, recording every show that I could imagine specing. Then, when I needed to start preparing to write the spec, I would sit down and watch a dozen eps that I had saved up just for this purpose. So much programming, so much labeling! It was quite a process. Now, a weekend of DVD viewing, downloading and on-line transcript/analysis reading can make a Battlestar Galactica expert out of any of us. (All of us, hopefully --what a show!)

All of this brings us to a question sent in by charming blog-reader Christine in San Francisco. She asks:

"Let's say I want to write a spec for 'How I Met Your Mother,' that introduces one of the main character's parents. Let's say it's Lily. There has never been an appearance by a parent on the show, but there may have been references in dialogue to Lily's childhood or what kind of parents she has. Should I worry about this when writing her mother? If I need to take it into consideration, how would I even go about finding that out without having to cruise every single show-devotee's website for details?"

Oh. Interesting. Unlike Galactica, 'Mother' is a show that doesn't seem to have downloads available. It isn't on the list of shows covered by televisionwithoutpity.com. Amazon lists a DVD, but describes it as 'unavailable.' A quick bit of Googling doesn't reveal a wealth of transcripts. Comedies are a bit invisible right now, and they simply aren't being documented in the way that dramas increasingly are. Christine finds herself in the dark ages here.

But do not fret! The truth is, Chris, that although ideally you would have seen every episode of the show, you don't actually need to worry too much about any references to Lily's Mom. This is where you benefit from a couple of truths about spec writing. First off, you aren't going to be sending the spec to the producers of 'How I Met You Mother," but to agents, contest readers, and ultimately, producers of other shows. They are unlikely to know the show that much better than you do. And secondly, even if you're unlucky enough that your script lands in front of the eyeballs of a reader who remembers a joke about Lily's mother from some random episode, he or she is unlikely to dismiss a well-written spec on that basis. So you're almost certainly all right on this account.

(Also, sometimes shows don't even respect their own history on points like this... there are many examples of inconsistencies within produced shows, so it's not always seen as a huge transgression.)

However, I will now make my standard facial expression of concern at hearing about a spec that features such a prominent guest character. Guest character specs, as I have spoken of before, are frequently problematic. They take focus off the regular characters, downplaying your ability to capture their voices and interactions. They are also, for some reason, one of the most popular choices for new writers, so your spec ends up competing against other "Lily's Mom" specs.

So be cautious. But if you've got a killer idea, then don't let my quizzical eyebrow stop you!

About your other question, the problem with public transport in LA isn't that it's dirty or ramshackle, but that it tends not to go where you need it to go – at least that's the impression I've received. This remains, I'm afraid, very much a car city. All of you who are contemplating a move to LA should keep this in mind. When I got into the Disney Fellowship, one of the first things I did was sign up for driving lessons, to brush up my skills!

Lunch: My Jake-brunch was my lunch. Bacon, sausages, huge chocolate-chip cookies, mimosas!

Jane on 05.29.06 @ 12:50 PM PST [link]

Saturday, May 27th
Taking Advantage of Your Friends

Had a lovely lunch at the Farmer's Market today with Friend-of-the-Blog Maggie. Then I bought exotic fruit (love the cherimoya), and a bag made out of one long zipper. Have you seen these? It looks like a long dog leash. Then you zip and zip and it keeps mostly looking like a leash and then suddenly, it's a bag! It's like writing a script. You start with the idea of an episode, but then you get involved in all the little pieces, so you work on them, and work and work…. and suddenly, like magic, the episode stands as a whole.

But what if there are flaws? You've been looking at all the little pieces for so long, you probably find your judgment a bit muddy. The whole thing still looks like a leash to you. So, before you turn in your script, it's a good idea to have a few friends read it. Smart friends with opinions you can trust.

But first, you have to be sure you want to hear their opinions. If you fight every suggestion that's given to you, if you turn the note session into a vigorous defense of your draft, you will soon notice that your friends start *loving* your work. They don't have a single note! This doesn't mean your writing got perfect. It means your friends got tired.

The other classic mistake, of course, is to scrupulously take *every* note, whether you agree with it or not. I actually think this is the worse mistake. At least the first error gets your script rejected for script problems you're actually responsible for. The second error gets it rejected for suggestions your dumb friends made.

The best way to take notes from a friend is to listen, to say, "uh-huh," ask a question or two like "do you think you'd like it better if...", and then move on to the next note. There is no need to tell Friend McFriendstein whether or not you're going to actually implement the note. Giving your opinion of their opinion extends the conversation, makes them too invested in putting their mark on the script, and it commits you mentally to changes you may later realize aren't really what you want. You should be in receive mode, not implement mode, at this point. Flip the switch back from "listen" to "do" after the conversation, and after you've had time to let it all sink in.

Lunch: tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich at the Farmer's Market

Jane on 05.27.06 @ 07:19 PM PST [link]

Friday, May 26th
The Tiny Joss in Your Head

Just now, I cracked open a fortune cookie. The fortune says: "You will be advanced professionally without any special effort on your part." The hell? Does that mean: "You're going to be promoted, but you won't really deserve it"? I guess it's good news, sort of. It could be kind of soothing if I'd been dreading some big exhausting burst of special effort I felt about to surge up in me.

Truth is, effort is usually required. Right up to the last minute. We are, right now, in the submission period for the ABC Writing Fellowship, if I'm reading their web site right. So, many of you are probably getting your specs all ready to send off. Maybe you're waiting for a visit from the Script Elves. You're heard of them, right? Tinker, Polish and Tweak? Put out a big plate of chocolate-coated brads and they'll work all night.

There is actually some real work that you can do at this point, cleaning up all those parts of the script that still aren't working. But first you have to figure out where those parts are. This is the part I used to routinely screw up. I figured out something was up when I kept having this weird experience in note sessions – I would *know* which scenes the show runner was going to have trouble with, seconds before he or she pointed them out. But, for some reason, I wasn't able to identify them until that very moment. What was happening, of course, is that I knew them all along. I just wasn't trying very hard to listen to the internal voice that was tickling at me the whole time.

Now, as I reread that script for those last few days or moments before I submit it, I try to notice where I'm rushing through the read, where I'm jumping ahead, where I get a tiny shrug of doubt. Pay attention to that little shrug. There is no notes process for a contest. Just in or out. So you have to be your own show runner. Give yourself notes *even if you have no idea how to go about fixing the problem.* Then figure out how to fix it. Or avoid it. But do something with it, because your subconscious isn't going to be the only one to notice.

Lunch: tofu pups with sauerkraut. That's a favorite.
Jane on 05.26.06 @ 09:06 PM PST [link]

Thursday, May 25th
Script Dentistry

Well, have we drifted far enough? I've been completely tickled by our exploration of types of jokes. No one is doing this. No one is cataloging these species, as far as I know. But, I also realize, the purpose of this blog is help anyone who wants to write a good spec television script. And, it has been pointed out, maybe there are a few more generally helpful things to talk about.

Like… brads.

Seriously. They're hugely important. Certainly as important as any one line of dialogue in your script is going to be. You know how, in this country, the most visible, and most reliable, indicator of a person's social class is the condition of their teeth? Well, brads are script-teeth.

When I'm handed a script by a professional writer, it has two one-inch brads – top hole, bottom hole. And they're stiff – they hold their shape. When I'm handed a spec script, it often has brads with long spiky legs. And it almost always has soft brads that pull apart when the script's pages are turned. No one gets to read your writing if your script falls apart. Find good brads. I know it's not easy. When I was in grad school, sending in my Star Trek: TNG spec scripts, I had a very hard time finding good solid brads -- I don't know why this is true, but for some reason there are a lot of totally worthless brads out there. It's worth the effort to find the good ones.

By the way, during my first year on Buffy, my Secret Santa gave me a quart of good brads, because I loved the show's fancy silver ones so much. I'm still using them -- fantastic.

There are other cosmetic things to pay attention to, of course. You don't need to try to fake the show's logo on the cover. And you don't need to indicate how many times you have re-written it – no need for a draft number. Date optional. Remove it, I'd say, if the script is getting old. Keep it if it's recent.

Put it in an envelope and send it to the ABC Writing Fellowship (making sure you've met any specific requirements they might have about what to include on the title page, etc.). They're going to be happy to see a professional-looking well-bradded script, believe me. There wouldn't be a saying about judging books by their covers if it wasn't so easy to do so.

Lunch: Chicken and Waffles!

Jane on 05.25.06 @ 11:59 PM PST [link]

Tuesday, May 23rd
Squiggy and the Sea Creatures

First, an update. The day after I posted the entry about the Squiggy jokes, an actor friend of mine happened to be waiting for a voice-over audition, when who walked into the room?... Squiggy! If only there had been some warning, he could've set up the entrance!!

All right. Back to our regularly scheduled blog:

Have you heard about nudibranches? No? They're the coolest things. Beautiful, brightly-colored, looking like tiny exotic glass art sculptures when photographed, they're simply the most lovely sea slugs you'll ever see. Do an image search for "nudibranch" and you will gasp with joy. Stunning. I'm hoping to see some on my next snorkel adventure. Can you imagine being an expert on these things? Fantastic.

Being a comedy writer can be like being a naturalist. Sometimes you stumble across a species that hasn't been catalogued before. Here is an example of the small and exotic "audience assumption joke."

Barney's was crazy. Ok, what would you do if there was only one size four cashmere camisole, and this woman starts crying, and says she needs it to wear to a funeral? You'd have to give it to her, right?


Good... I think I'll use that one again.

It's a nicely surprising joke, and one of the most character-revealing kinds of jokes I can think of. Here's a good one of the same type, this time from Friends:

If I turn into my parents, I'll either end up an alcoholic blond chasing after 20-year-old boys...or I'll end up like my mom.

Here's another one, a little different, but clearly in the same family, from the Simpsons. Grandpa Simpson is trying to cheer up Lisa, who is disappointed by a failed attempt at something:

Oh, Lisa, don't talk like that. I never thought I'd shoot down a German plane -- and then last year...

This particular one doesn't rely on the audience's assumption about "who," but their assumption about "when." There was a similar one - even similar in content - on The Office recently too, in which Dwight is talking about his grandfather's accomplishments in the war, finally mentioning that he ended up finishing out the war in a Allied prison camp! Hee! Assumptions are great!

I guess what I really like about these is that, like other techniques we've talked about lately, they presuppose an audience that's thinking, that's anticipating, that's involved in the stories they're being told. And if you expect that, you're more likely to get that.

Lunch: Another In 'N' Out burger! Bunless! With rootbeer! I like my new deal with Universal. There's an In 'N' Out right by Universal.

Jane on 05.23.06 @ 11:54 AM PST [link]

Monday, May 22nd
Talking Dirty for Money the Classy Way

When I was in college, I lived in a place called Wolf House. It was co-op housing at UC Berkeley. And it was, I'm certain, exactly like you're imagining it. A microcosm of 27 people sharing unisex bathrooms, heating bologna directly on the gas flames of the stove and only occasionally falling out of second story windows. I loved it. There was something about coming home to find a vigorous hacky-sack game *in the living room* that I miss.

Wolf House was full of smart-asses. I learned there to be very careful with word choice. (And not just because my Midwestern references to "pop" were routinely misheard as "pot.") This was the kind of crowd where you didn't want to refer to anything as "hard" or "up" without hearing a boner joke, and lord help you if you had anything to say about an actual beaver. Twisting words into something sexual is a comedy standard. Those years would serve me well.

Here are three television jokes I can think of instantly that use this technique. The first is a classic exchange from Friends. It went approximately like this:

I'm over you.

When were you… under me?

This one was really quite sweet, since Ross doesn't really intend the sexual re-interpretation, but finds the syntax leading him into it. Here's another. This one is from the sitcom Cybil, reconstructed from memory:

Do you think either of us will ever fall head-over-heels in love again?

I think at our age, the best we can hope for is heels-over-head.

I like this one because the image is SO outrageous. Finally, here's one I wrote for the Buffy ep "Harsh Light of Day," in which Anya is trying to seduce Xander. She thinks having sex with him will help her forget him. It's a little unusual since she's re-interpreting her own language:

It's the secret to getting you out of my mind. Putting you behind me. Behind me, figuratively. I'm thinking face-to-face for the event itself.

Of course, these are all really just examples of taking a common idiom and then interpreting it literally. Sex wouldn't have to come into it. Doug Petrie, for example, got comic mileage out the phrase "making money hand over fist" in a Buffy episode without bringing sex into it at all.

But sex does seem to make these more memorable. (American Dad reinterpreted the song title "Come On, Eileen" into the dirtiest punch line ever. I will remember that for a very long time.)

The best way to find these jokes in your own writing is just to pay close literal attention to what you write. If you do this, you'll notice idiomatic speech all over the place that doesn't make literal sense. Then take it literally. This is, of course, how those guys at Wolf House did it… they listened with their ears attuned to filth. And you can too!

LUNCH: a convenience store spicy tuna hand roll!

Jane on 05.22.06 @ 02:50 PM PST [link]

Saturday, May 20th
Also check out "Must Love Jaws"

Have you seen "Ten Things I Hate About Commandments"? It's from the same place that did the re-edit of The Shining into a trailer for a romantic comedy. This one re-edits the classic movie into a high school romp. So funny! Google around, you'll find it. And speaking of things that are forbidden, let's talk about another joke type that is generally banned by the rules of good writing and good taste.

I'm talking now about the "Hello Joke," also known as the "Squiggy," because of its use every week as the set-up to the entrance of Lenny and Squiggy on "Laverne and Shirley." Here is a classic example:

All a man wants out of life is something that cries, burps, and wets its pants.


Now, like the "Since Jokes," these aren't really quality, character-exposing jokes. They feel constructed and don't tell us anything, really, about the character saying them. Not even their attitude about the person who's about to enter, since the joke only works if the audience already *knows* their attitude. Also, it's a very jokey-joke. It would be hard to adapt this for use even in the lightest drama. Yes, this is certainly a joke type to avoid.

And yet…

There was a very nice Squiggy on the big series-ending "Will and Grace" episode the other night, a bright spot in an otherwise disappointing farewell, I thought. For those who need background, Beverly Leslie is Karen's diminutive effeminate nemesis. Here is the joke, as I recall the wording:

(to Karen)
Let's have dessert. Nothing heavy. Something small, and fruity, with lady-fingers.


Ha! That one got me. The set up is so beautifully stealthy because "lady-fingers" gets entirely re-interpreted once the joke manifests itself. For me, it works.

See, that's the thing. There is an exception to every joke-writer's "Thou Shalt Not." If you find a really clever way to do it, feel free to break the rule! Just like a real commandment!

Lunch: Back to the food court for California Rolls and another Godiva fruit-and-chocolate kabob

Correction! I am told by someone in the know that Beverley Leslie's entrance line was, and always has been, "Well, well, well." It is, of course, still a Hello joke. Also, check out the fancy spelling of Beverley. Is that the male spelling? The things you learn!

Jane on 05.20.06 @ 02:32 PM PST [link]

Friday, May 19th
Like Syndicating "Will" and "Grace"

When I got into the television writing business, the hour drama was dead. The Disney Fellowship didn't even accept hour long spec scripts as submissions. And, what's more, we were all told that the hour drama *couldn't revive.* It simply would never be possible, because syndication sales were driving the business and hour dramas didn't syndicate – didn't fit into those slots between the news and the prime-time line-up.

I was even told once that the only reason "Law and Order" was picked up, was because it was pitched as an hour that could be split up and syndicated as two separate half-hours: "Law" and "Order." (Presumably the regular viewers of "Law" would have to check in with the regular viewers of "Order" to find out if the guy arrested at the end of their episode actually did it.)

Things changed. A few successful hours took hold, other business models started shaping what was profitable and what was not… and now hourlong is king and the half-hour comedy is dead. Especially the multicamera shows. Friends and Frasier are gone and, some say, the format went with them, as doomed as radio plays.

At least two of my friends who have spent long and thriving careers in half hour are now dipping their toes into hour-writing for the first time. And many more of my comedy friends asked me to recommend them to hour shows. Where else is there to go?

Does this mean that you should all forget writing half-hour specs and only write dramas? Nope. Because when that pendulum comes back, it tends to do it fast. And right now it's pulled pretty tautly over to that one side. All it takes is one hot new multicamera sitcom hit and everything will change. And there won't be that many young writers with half hour specs, so life will be sweet for those who are ready.

Lunch: sashimi. Delicate and savory… mmm.
Jane on 05.19.06 @ 02:08 PM PST [link]

Thursday, May 18th
Since-less Violence

I needed a new black sweater this week, so I took myself out shopping. I'm not a huge shopper, but I can do it if I have a specific goal. Anyway, I've just recently noticed a very weird tendency I have. I will enter a store and find the item I like best *in that store* and buy it. As if I don't know the difference between liking something best, and actually liking it. What is this? Why would I do that? Weird.

This is how I end up with things in my closet that I do not love. I have to learn that not all stores are created equal.

Neither are all joke types. One that I'm not especially fond of is one I'm gonna call the "Since Joke." Family Guy is made of Since Jokes. You know the ones. "I haven't seen a blank that blank since Peter blanked with that random celebrity," leading into a quick pop of a flashback scene. Note that these don't actually have to have the word "since" in them. For example: "This is as bad as that time…" is also a Since Joke.

Murphy Brown used a lot of these too, although that show did not actually show you the event in question. They were used primarily to remind us of the world in which she worked – a reference to some political or journalistic celebrity.

Sometimes these jokes are great. Family Guy does absolutely brilliant and hilarious things with these jokes. And here is one I really like from the British series Blackadder, in which the main character expresses his opinion of the just-invented dictionary:

It's the most pointless book since "How To Learn French" was translated into French.

And yet, Since Jokes are not my faves. They sound written, and they don't lend themselves very easily to exposing character or to forwarding the story. They're about an event separate from the events of the script, and they're about as spontaneous as the analogy section of the SAT.

Use them if you're writing a Family Guy spec. Otherwise, you might want to look for a joke that tells you more about the character saying it.

Lunch: a nifty little salad from the South Beach Cookbook. Zing!

Jane on 05.18.06 @ 05:45 PM PST [link]

Wednesday, May 17th
Hide in Plain Sight

Hi all! This is staffing season, and the game of musical chairs is getting pretty wild. As a result, I only have time for a quick posting today, but it's a neat little nugget. Suppose your spec has a whodunit structure. Like, say, a House or perhaps a Veronica Mars or, depending on the story you've chosen, pretty much any show. (House is totally a whodunit, always, just with microbial bad guys). One way to keep the audience from correctly guessing the identity of the culprit is to raise the actual baddy as a possibility early on and dismiss him. This keeps the audience from screaming: "Why aren't they considering the sheriff?!" (or "rickets?!") and correctly guessing the bad guy.

We did this, at Joss's direction, in my Buffy episode "Earshot." Xander made a joke, early on, about the ultimate identity of the would-be-killer, which turned out later to be correct. The fact that it was done as a joke was especially nice since audiences tend to dismiss jokes anyway. It kept the moment from calling too much attention to itself.

This same thing was done effectively, but without jokes, on the House episode this season in which the little boy had the same disease as the old woman who had died previously. A cause was proposed, then rejected, and then brought around again.

It's hard to stay ahead of an audience. This way, you're banking on their active minds, acknowledging the fact that they'll have theories of their own, instead of hoping they don't.

Lunch: In 'N' Out burger. With half-Dr. Pepper, half-Coke. I love it when you can mix your own.

Jane on 05.17.06 @ 05:28 PM PST [link]

Tuesday, May 16th
They could look like footstools sometimes

You know how stuff gets put in piles around the house? Well, it does in my house. Oh, you know what they should make? Pile-cozies. Brightly-colored plastic or fabric-covered cubes, about nine-by-eleven and maybe a foot tall, that you could just slip down over piles of papers when company's coming over. Genius! I swear, that's a brilliant idea. You could make them look like art. Anyway, I just found two stray pieces of blog-related mail that got lost in a pile.

Karen in San Diego sends a great postcard, on which she expresses the wish that I be the one to take over Gilmore Girls. Well, what I can do is assure you that the amazing Rebecca Kirshner will be continuing there, and I'm all agog to see what happens next. Rebecca is remarkably smart and funny and I expect great things.

The other letter is from Brendan, writing from near-at-hand in Studio City. There's the general praise, (thank you, blush), and a good question. He's asking about how often it's all right to call an agent who is reading your material, in hopes of spurring them to read faster. The answer, of course, is a fulsome shrug. You don't want to let an opportunity dry up due to inattention, but you don't want to give an agent the impression that you'd be a pest, should he or she decide to take you on as a client. I have no idea what the right answer is. But I know who might. Befriend the assistant. This is always good anyway, because assistants become agents. Also, they are good and overworked people and they could stand to hear a friendly voice. Once the assistant is charmed, they can help you find the perfect moment to give that agent a little nudge. So make a joke, ask about their day, compliment their pleasant phone manner… if nothing else, you'll make their day easier and an angel will get its wings.

Okay, now to the jokes. I've been going around the house chuckling for a while because of a joke I heard weeks ago on House. I'll just be making lunch or something and I'll think of it and chuckle. The team has been trying to make a diagnosis, right? And there's an important new development. They all rush in together to tell House about it:

We've got anal bleeding.

What, all of you?

Oh my god. That slays me. It's fast and short and snappy. It reveals character. And it's got "anal" in it. It might be the perfect joke.

I think part of why this one tickles me so much is that it's a joke type I rarely use myself. Let's call it the Disingenuous Type. I found another example, from an episode of Friends. Joey and Chandler have just listed an advantage of being female. Rachel counters with:

Come on! You guys can pee standing up.

We can? All right, I'm tryin' that.

This is of course, a joke for a smart-ass. Got a smart-ass in your spec? Well, this is the joke for them.

Lunch: I finally figured out what made my soymilk-yogurt-tofu shakes so awful. The yogurt and the tofu. Soymilk + banana + natural peanut butter = great!

Jane on 05.16.06 @ 01:00 PM PST [link]

Monday, May 15th
Admiral Adama and a Frilly Lampshade

I've been cooking a lot lately. Lots of stuff with soy. And you know what happens? Eventually, you just can't look a tofu in the face anymore. Bleah. And it occurs to me that you all might be feeling the same way about a steady diet of Buffy exemplars. So I went searching to see what comedy scripts were available online, so I could mine them for cool examples. But, instead, I stumbled across a British web site with comedy writing instruction on it. Looks a bit like this blog, really. I'm not gonna give the link because I'm about to criticize something they say, and I don't wanna point a finger. Besides, I've said loads of dumb things in here, so why invite the tit-for-tat?

Anyway, here's the quote that jumped out at me:

"There's nothing you can't write a joke about - nothing. Someone once told us that some subjects just weren't funny. He picked up a cushion from the sofa he was sitting on and said, 'This cushion for instance - nothing funny about that.' So we decided to prove him wrong and wrote a joke about scatter cushions. No, we're not going to tell you it - but it turned on the word 'scatter' and if you're any good at this game, you can probably figure it out. Or write a better one. Go on."

First off, I think they're talking about throw pillows. So whatever joke they're thinking about (I suspect it involves the phrase "scatter-logical humour") won't work in American English. But I think there's a bigger problem. This is simply not how I'd approach the exercise. Script jokes – good script jokes – aren't about things. They're grounded in character.

Instead of trying to write random jokes about random objects, it would be much better training to write jokes about established characters and their relationship to objects. Niles Crane and a throw pillow, Roseanne Conner and a window treatment, Michael Scott and a handmade quilt… you probably already had a gut reaction to each of those pairings.

Let's see… Niles is critical of his pillow because it doesn't perfectly fit the small of his back; "my small is, counterintuitively, rather large." Roseanne is amused by the whole idea of a window treatment: "I pretty much let my windows go untreated." Michael talks about how every quilt tells a story if you know how to read the patterns, then he claims that this quilt tells an off-color joke. Then he admits that he's kidding. Then he tells an off-color joke. Then he apologizes. Then he laughs at the joke.

Those are off the top of my head. They're not great, but they didn't take long. But, just thinking "throw pillow… go!" I'd've been here all day. I would've panicked and decided I couldn't write comedy. Don't let that happen to you. If you can write people, you can write comedy.

Lunch: Went to the food court at the local mall, and had a shredded cabbage salad. Pushed it down with something from the Godiva Chocolate shop: a fresh strawberry and banana kabob covered in chocolate. Yum!

Jane on 05.15.06 @ 02:16 PM PST [link]

Sunday, May 14th
Tears On Your Keyboard

I went to a fantastic wedding yesterday. Two television writers married, legitimizing the next generation of television writers. Lovely reception up in Malibu, overlooking the water. I ate, I talked, I danced, I had a tiny root beer float served in a shot glass! And there was a hilarious and touching toast that compared the companionship found within a marriage to the scenes between James Spader and William Shatner at the end of episodes of Boston Legal. How can you not love that?!

So, while we're here, let's talk about those scenes and ones like them. Let's suppose you consider yourself a joke writer, or a procedural writer, or any kind of writer except a sentimental writer. And now you have to write a scene that's crammed with "heart." Sure, there may be jokes in it, but the main purpose is to show an emotional connection. You might be tempted to sort of rush through the scene, to dash it off, to write this sort of place-holdery kind of dialogue that you've heard on other shows:

Well, we've lived through worse before.

We certainly have.

Yes. Yes, we have, my friend.

Piffle, I cry! You can do better! This kind of writing might not come naturally to you, but you can do it. It was completely foreign to me, and I learned. So can you. On Buffy, Marti Noxon was the queen of the scene that rips your heart out. She could find that moment that made the viewer connect to their own emotion and experience. I watched, and tried to figure out how she did it.

In the episode called "The Prom," Angel breaks up with Buffy, breaking his own non-beating heart in the process. She's shocked and hurt and angry. And, in the line that gets me every time, there's a moment where you suddenly realize that what's happening is sinking in. She simply asks, "You don't want to be with me?" Oh! Punch in the stomach! So small, so vulnerable. Go Marti!

Work on writing the emotional moments. Think about how you felt in a similar situation, and what you actually said. And what you left unsaid -- the Boston Legal scenes can be very sparse, as the two men don't pour unfiltered emotions at each other. Sparse doesn't have to mean surfacy.

Some writers find that it helps to play music while writing these scenes. Many writers cry while writing deeply emotional scenes. You'll feel like a fool, but the emotion will show in the writing.

Lunch: Skipped lunch, saving room for the wedding reception. At the reception, I especially enjoyed the tiny potato pancakes and the tiny root beer floats. Tiny food good!

Jane on 05.14.06 @ 11:21 AM PST [link]

Friday, May 12th
Cheesy Jokes

I had a realization yesterday while eating a large bowl of pasta. I love lots and lots of parmesan cheese… or none at all. Because, as dull as an absence of parmesan is, what is far worse is a little bit that is not nearly enough. This is also true about phone calls with loved ones who are a very long way away.

Realizations are a wonderful place to look for comedy because they show you two aspects of a character's mind – their first take on something, and then their re-evaluation. The buyback jokes I mentioned in the last post are one kind of realization – the kind where you realize you want to take back what you just said.

But there are other kinds. I find that I tend to write these jokes in pieces, because I actually have the revelation while writing them. That's why, in my own little brain, I think of these as "truth" jokes, because in the middle of writing them, I realize what the truth of the situation is, as I see it.

Here's a truth joke:

She's fascinating. She designs computer programs for a civil engineering company. She makes a typo, a bridge collapses.


Or it’s extra strong. Could go either way.

I wrote the first line, just thinking that it was amusing that Jake would be impressed by a woman who can make a bridge collapse. And then I thought about the truth of the situation and realized that math errors don't only go one way. Suddenly I had (what I think is) a much funnier joke.

The same thing happened in a Buffy episode in which Xander is looking at a magic talisman that turns out to be simply a flattened nickel. I wrote the first sentence of what follows. And then I looked closer at my nickel.

Washington's still there, but he's all smooshy. And he may be Jefferson.

I decided it would be funnier – and truer -- to make Xander as dumb as I was, and have him make the realization, than it would be for him to get it right in the first place.

I was surprised how many of these I found in my writing. Apparently I do a lot of just random starting out of jokes, letting them turn into other jokes along the way. Here's another truth joke from an Animated Buffy in which she's been shrunk down very small – like to about 6 inches tall. She's trying to climb a staircase, and reacting to what she sees. I knew the riser would look tall. And then I realized it would also look irregular…

Boy. Everything's so tall. And... textured.

Sure, it's not really a laugh-out-loud joke, but I kept it in the script because I was kind of tickled at the thought of Buffy noticing that and being distracted by it, in the middle of her shrinking crisis.

If you've written something that seems true for a character, and then you have a realization, maybe the character needs to go through the same thing. It's a good way to keep the writing from seeming "pat," like the characters are too smart and prepared.

Lunch: Another delightful lunch with Jeff Greenstein! I had a big bowl of pasta and the waiter brought me additional parmsesan when I asked.
Jane on 05.12.06 @ 01:56 PM PST [link]

Thursday, May 11th
Sorry, JVC, but it's simply true

I do believe I finally own a working DVD player/burner. The kind I want, with the VCR built into it to, so I can move stuff from video tape to disc. This means that the first thing I wrote that aired -- my episode of "Dinosaurs" with the commercials in it -- won't be rendered unwatchable by time. Well, it will. Just a longer amount of time.

But, oh my, the struggle I've had getting one of these devices! I literally had three of them break on me. Three! A little internet investigation showed that one of them -- a sleek little model that simply blinked "loading" for days on end and refused to do anything else -- was universally troubled. Many people who bought one had the same problem. Don't you think they'd check this out in the factory? And then, once they realized they'd sold something that wasnt so much a DVD burner as it was a dim lamp with a bulb shaped like the word "loading," don't you think they'd want to do something about it? Like, say, buy it back? That's what you do when you've offered something of doubtful quality.

This is why the following joke form is known throughout the business as the "buy back." This is, again, from the unproduced Animated Buffy series. Here Buffy has just inappropriately used her Slayer-Strength on the volleyball court, so she vows to restrain herself:

Sure. Okay. I can hold back. Call me Dairy Queen, 'cuz here comes a soft serve.
Sorry, that was kinda lame.

The buy back raises a fairly deep question. If you're going to tell a joke, then claim it wasn't funny -- why tell it? The answer is that you tell it to reveal character. The pun here is or isn't funny depending on your taste. But it's interesting to all, because we learn that Buffy was momentarily proud, then ashamed of it. The joke takes you on a little tour of Buffy's head. "Hey, here's a funny pun! Yikes, I just went out on a limb with a pun."

So if you decide to use a buy back, make sure it's right for the character, and for the mood they're in. Because you're not just showing off your own brain, you're telling us something important about theirs.

Lunch: tofu weiners with sauerkraut.
Jane on 05.11.06 @ 11:20 AM PST [link]

/duplicate entry deleted/
Jane on 05.11.06 @ 11:20 AM PST [link]

Tuesday, May 9th
Reading what's been written to sound written as it's spoken

Have you noticed? The healthier the grocery store, the narrower the aisles. I was in a Whole Foods Market today and I spent the whole time pulling in my arms to keep from elbowing the macaroni and goosing the poultry. But I repositioned and eventually reprovisioned.

Wow. That is one "written" little paragraph. With the labored construction and the puns and the rhymes and some fairly long and obscure words. In general, in dialogue writing, you want to avoid language that sounds "written." Have people say "thing" a lot, and speak imprecisely, and search for the word. Unless... you're going for a joke that plays off the fact that someone is saying something that sounds written.

Here is a particularly blatant example of what I'm talking about. On Buffy, Anya was an ancient demon transformed into a human teen. And she was the queen of using "written" dialogue. Here she is, pointing out the fact that she is jealous:

Observe my bitter ranting! Hear the shrill edge of hysteria in my voice!

This is not naturalistic speach. This character was distinguished by her ability to produce dialogue like this. And that in itself is the joke -- the notion that anyone would speak like that.

Here's a slighlty subtler example. In another episode, a creepy guy tells Buffy about his problems with clogged ears:

Now I have a kit. For ear cleaning. It has this bulb mechanism.

The magic word is "mechanism." Most of us would say "thing." The technical word calls to mind something tangible and tubed. We try to picture it. It's not a word we would use because making people picture the device is creepy. Hence Phillip is creepy. This line was made all the funnier by an actor who said the word "mechanism" very slowly, with great relish. So a character we didn't know very well was defined with the help of a bit of "written" dialogue.

But I think the best, subtlest use of this kind of dialogue is when it's suggested that a character is using it on purpose to be self-deprecating. This works because we use it in real life this way sometimes.

Here is a nervous Buffy, having brought a date home with her. She hesitates outside her dorm room:

This is it. My door. It's wood. I think. Maybe some kind of wood veneer.

How many of us casually use "veneer" on a date? The word calls attention to Buffy's nervousness. Which is exactly what the character wanted it to do, since Buffy is subtly laughing at her own nerves in this moment.

In one last, similar, example, I came across a joke from an Animated Buffy episode. These eps were written but never produced, which is a shame, since they're really fun. In this one, Buffy realizes she's eaten her Mother's breakfast by mistake. She holds up the last bite of bagel and, instead of saying, "there's a bite left," she says:

There's a remnant.

Again, we get the sense that Buffy is being cute and a little submissive, trying to get a smile out of her mother by using an amusingly precise word.

By the way, I feel like I should apologize for using so many Buffy examples as I go through these techniques. But I have them all on my computer which makes them easy to search. And since I lived with them for so long, it's also easy for me to summon up examples of what I want to illustrate. For other examples of the "written" kind of dialogue, look at Stewie's lines from Family Guy... And Chandler on Friends did a lot of the self-deprecating kind, if I recall. I suspect, if you watch a night of TV with your ears attuned to this, you'll hear it all over the place.

Lunch: The "Frank's Fantasy" specialty burger from the place called "Mo's" up in the Valley. Sour cream and caviar on a burger. It looks gray, but it's delicious!
Jane on 05.09.06 @ 08:08 PM PST [link]

Monday, May 8th
A Really Touching Letter

Gosh, is it time to get out the mailbag again? Here's another pile of letters! A lovely card from Leona in Alabama, congratulating me on the new NBC/Uni deal. Thank you, Leona! Another pretty postcard from Ingrid in Germany, who wants more entries of the "Field Guide to Jokes" variety. Great! Because we've only just gotten started on that!

Oh, here's a good question from Lilia in Houston. She notes that I said not to refer to previous episodes within your spec, and wants to know if she can do it if it's important to her story. Oh! Absolutely! You can certainly refer to previous episodes all you want. My warning was about a self-conscious referencing of previous episodes done expressly to show off your knowledge of the show. I did not mean to suggest it as a general prohibition. Go crazy!

Tom in Brooklyn has some good basic questions about getting into tv writing. I refer you to the blog archives for a lot of your answers – look at the early entries. But the short-handed answer -- which I give here because I'm sure it applies to a lot of other readers -- is that you can get your first agent long-distance, but these don't tend to be the very best agents. If you're serious about the career, it does still seem that a move to LA is necessary. Check out the ABC Writers' Fellowship for a good way in – it's easier to move here if there's a reason to be here. Your feature scripts will be helpful in terms of getting an agent, and also in getting hired, but a tv spec of a show that is currently on the air will be a tremendous help to you. Even if you only use it to apply to the fellowship!

And finally, I have here the most wonderful letter (sent to the whole Buffy staff) from Sara in Jerusalem, who talks about Buffy and about Sara's own life as a medical student. I'm going to assume it's all right with Sara for me to quote this section about the parallels:

"... we are old way before our time, spend a lot of time around dead bodies and gore, and give up our youth dealing with things in the middle of the night most people will never have to see. Buffy captures the aftermath of that -- the effect on the person, the loneliness, the 'superiority complex with the inferiority complex about it,' the fear of how cold and hard you become..."

She goes on to talk about the comfort of having (even a fictional) hero… wow. A wonderful letter. Writing for TV is a pretty darn fun job. And the notion that it might sometimes be a useful one as well… I'm the luckiest person in the world. Thank you, Sara. And I know Joss would thank you too... what you're talking about really belongs to him.

Lunch: A store-bought Indian bean dish that came sealed in a neat little silver pouch. Just heat-and-eat. Tremendous.

Jane on 05.08.06 @ 06:07 PM PST [link]

Sunday, May 7th
Morley Safer, that's a great one

A few posts back, I was talking about the use of repeated words in dialogue. A few of the examples I used were also Reference Jokes -- a mention of Stratego here, a mention of Bob Barker there. Reference jokes are one of the easiest things to do, and yet so often they're done poorly. People pick the wrong objects and people to reference. Go for the quirk! Chess is not as funny as Stratego. iPods aren't as funny as Stratego either. Stratego is non-obvious, which is what you're striving for. Also, it is a funny sounding word, which is hugely important.

Which would you find more interesting? If I told you that I saw Rob Lowe placing a very specific order at a Starbucks? Or if I told you that I saw Leonard Nimoy having a pair of sunglasses repaired? Personally, I'd be a lot more excited about Nimoy and his eyewear. And it's not just because Spock is dreamy. Nimoy may have a lot more restful pilot season than Lowe, but he's inherently more interesting as a reference. He's got nostalgia value, and surprise value and a funnier name. (The right answer is that I saw Rob Lowe at Starbucks. Too bad, really.)

If you're writing a spec Family Guy, and you've been studying their scripts, you've already noticed how they delight in the off-beat references (The Proclaimers? -- my my). But even in a much more traditional show, it's really worth making the effort to find the perfect reference instead of just putting in one more mention of Elvis or Michael Jackson or Kobe or that girl that disappeared in Aruba.)

Here's a joke from a Jake in Progress script, with some redacted material:

I thought things were going so well.

I thought they were, too! And then she made it clear that in her eyes I’m about as sexy as _______ in an ill-fitting thong.

I thought for a long time before I picked the name I picked. First let's talk about the wrong answer. Do not pick a name from this list:

Rosie O'Donnell, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Oprah, Bea Arthur

Not only are these names kind of expected, but they're kind of mean. All the joke boils down to is: "she's fat" or "she's old." But there's so much more fun to be had if you pick a name from this list:

Winston Churchill, The Ditech commercial guy, Alan Alda, Clint Eastwood, Haley Joel Osment, the poorly-preserved body of a frozen Viking, Porter Goss...

By making it a man, you automatically get the cross-dressing funny. Better (well, sure). And by avoiding obvious options like "Homer Simpson" and generic options like "a sumo wrestler" and too-obscure options like "Morey Amsterdam," you guarantee funny of a much richer sort. And, what's nice is that all of the options are funny in a different way. Haley Joel is funny in his little off-center thong in a completely different way than that poor desiccated Viking is!

The name I actually used in the script was Bruce Vilanch. In retrospect, I'm not happy with it. The cross-dressing is too literal. I wish I'd gone with Alan Alda.

Lunch: another one of those weird tofu shakes. Gakk!

Jane on 05.07.06 @ 06:08 PM PST [link]

Saturday, May 6th
the chamois joke is best read out loud

Exactly two years ago at this time, I was at Epcot. I rode that Mission: Space ride. Came out green as a lima bean and clammy as a chamois. Horrible! I had to be led, shaking, to a place called something like "Ice Station Cola" or god-knows-what, for a cold drink and a bit of a sit-down. Didn't feel right for about eight hours. During those hours, my first development deal closed, so I felt richer. But still barfy. Better than poor and barfy, but still.

The way I understand how the ride works is that you're spinning in a centrifuge, while at the same time, being shown footage that suggests you're moving forward. Your brain is telling you two things at once… that you're whipping forward and that you're slinging to the side. Stomachs don't like it when the brain can't agree about basic stuff like this.

Other tourists expressed their dissatisfaction with the ride, too. Some went so far as to fall down dead. And to their credit, Epcot has introduced a new, milder version of the ride which eliminates the centrifuge part of the fun. This is very very cool of them, and I would actually hop on the ride again in this new version in a second – the basic adventure framework was great. Of course, others aren't as excited. Here's a quote I pulled from a news story:

"How on earth can this ride be fun without spinning?" a post on the website ThrillNetwork.com asked. "People might as well stay home and watch TV."

Well, yes. I am also a big fan of staying home and watching TV. Can't argue with that. Television, when done right, can be a thrill ride too. Look at your spec again. It might've undergone a lot of changes as you've worked and reworked it. Does it still have at least one genuinely surprising moment ? A moment that a savvy audience won't be expecting? And is the surprise motivated… in other words, not a random event or out-of-character decision, but a surprising action grounded in character? Make sure that in smoothing and fixing and punching up your script you haven't lost that moment. Hopefully it won't nauseate us, but it's okay if it jolts us a little.

By the way, I'm not blaming Disney for anything. They gave me my start, they're surely welcome to the contents of my stomach. Speaking of which:

Lunch: more of that noodle-shaped tofu. How can it be tofu when the package clearly says it's made from yams, not soybeans? Oh, wait. It's both. Soybeans and yam flour. Mystery solved.

Jane on 05.06.06 @ 11:56 AM PST [link]

Friday, May 5th
Wanna Read an Entry? There's a New Entry!

Because of my new deal, I've been driving up to Universal a lot. The first few times I had to do this, I was late for my meetings. Traffic extended the trip to well over an hour. So I made a note: leave early. So then, of course, I started arriving at my meetings a full hour too soon. Because, of course, all the traffic evaporated. Have you ever realized, half-way to somewhere, that you're absurdly ahead of schedule, so you start looking for things to slow you down? You stop fighting the traffic. You let people in. You move into the lane that's mysteriously slower. You just stay behind that truck – why not? In LA, this feels like a big infraction of the rules, because you're supposed to want to be moving as fast as possible at all times.

But it feels good. Good things come from breaking the rules.

Here's a rule. Or at least a rule of thumb. In general, we try to keep from reusing the same word, especially when the uses fall near one another. In the paragraph above I used "early," "too soon" and "ahead of schedule" quite consciously, to keep from repeating "early," "early," "early."

So what happens when you break this rule? On a recent episode of Family Guy, the mayor, Adam West, asked:

"Anyone want to play Stratego? I have Stratego!"

And on Buffy (in a Joss-written line), a college girl once scoffed at Willow, who had proposed a spot of spell-casting, by saying:

"Oh yeah, then we could all get on our broomsticks and fly around on our broomsticks!"

Also on Buffy, an enthusiastic minion once promised to eliminate a perceived threat by saying:

"We will get Bob Barker! We will bring you the limp and beaten body of Bob Barker!"

Here's how I think this one works. Because we tend to try to avoid repeated words, in careful speech as well as in writing, when a character repeats a word they naturally sound either generally inarticulate (like the college scoffer) or over-excited, like the mayor and the minion. Or nervous, as when the earnest suitor in a Firefly episode said:

"...the honor that you do me flatters my... my honor..."

Once again, character traits and comedy are one and the same. The repeated word joke can be funny because it contains a funny reference, like Stratego or Bob Barker, but it also contains the extra funny that comes from revealing character. Want to expose a dumb or flustered character to amusing ridicule? Give them a repeated word. Works like a charm.

Lunch: Forced to skip lunch by the meeting up at Universal! Made up for it with a hearty burrito-and-a-malt dinner.

Jane on 05.05.06 @ 11:13 PM PST [link]

Thursday, May 4th
A Staking Without a Slayer

Tonight: a simple example of comedy done well. I just now heard this, off tonight's broadcast of the Dodger's game. It started out, as comedy often does, with pain. A broken bat, flying through the air, clocked the pitcher on the back of the head, sending him to the ground. As he was tended to, the venerable Dodger's announcer, Vin Scully, vamped. Vin has been around forever. I suspect he once whispered "Hey, I've got a good idea" to Abner Doubleday. Vin always has a story.

Tonight, indeed, he had a story. About a worse thing that could happen when a broken bat is flinging through the air. He had all the details, as he was there. The year, the venue, the names of all the players. And the fact that the sharp end of the broken bat pierced the injured player THROUGH THE CHEEKS. "It was awful!" he concluded with a sort of satisfaction in his voice. Yes, yes, I imagine it was.

So why was this funny and not simply strange and terrible? Why was I, in my living room, driven to my knees as surely as that poor pitcher was? Well, for character reasons. Knowing Vin, one couldn't help but hold one's breath, knowing a story was coming. And that it would be a humdinger. But, beyond that, I think it was funny because of exactly one letter. The "s" at the end of "cheeks." Cheek, we expect, we can picture... it came at his face from the side, sure I see that. But cheeks -- wow -- that just paints a whole new image, doesn't it?

I don't know what you all can learn about spec writing from this that you don't already know: capture well-defined characters so that the audience has expections about them, choose the perfect word, seek the suprising image... So if there's nothing to learn, I simply invite you to enjoy.

Unless your brother died from double-cheek-bat-having-through. Then I'm very sorry.

Lunch: broiled chicken with a sort of mediterranean salsa: black olives and tomato and lime juice. Nice. Almost bought one of those great "Take 5" bars, but resisted. Do you know them? Candy bars with salted pretzels inside. You'll love 'em.
Jane on 05.04.06 @ 08:30 PM PST [link]

Tuesday, May 2nd

Hello again! I want to make clear that friend-of-the-blog Lani is not herself compiling a catalog of joke types, but that I am. Or at least, I intend to. Some of the entries in this blog will be devoted to indentifying joke species, as a part of the catch-and-release effort. Others will continue to be about other aspects of spec writing.
Jane on 05.02.06 @ 07:54 PM PST [link]

Like a Fat Kid in Corduroy, They Make Sounds with Their Legs

I got to interact with two lovely puppies while I was on vacation. Little tiny things that lived in a beach-side café, digging adorably in the sand and eating random bits of dropped starch. So cute! And I had that thought. That one that I think all of us have when we play with a small animal. "I'd agree to give birth, if I could have one of these instead of a baby."


So… that's just me, then.

That was my attempt to execute a certain kind of tv joke in blog form. I was prompted to try this by a note from friend of the blog Lani. Lani is enjoying the continuing catalog of joke types. She writes:

"One of my favorites is the silent punchline, or what I call a cricket, when someone says something that doesn’t become a joke until the silent beat. They play off the other characters, and the audience, knowing a character so well that comment isn’t necessary."

Lani calls it a "cricket" to evoke the implied sound of crickets during the silent pause. Some shows use a real cricket sound here, but that's getting very tired. The joke form itself is evergreen, however.

Lani, bless her, even supplied examples, which Buffy fans may recall. The first is from the Buffy musical episode, in which Anya is wildly off-base in identifying the source of the evil:

"The first cricket that comes to me off the top of my head is when Anya sings, “Bunnies, it must be bunnies” and then there’s the shot of everyone just staring at her on a silent beat. Then back to Anya with “Or maybe midgets."

She also recalls this one, which is, interestingly, entirely silent, relying on an outlandish costume.

"A great cricket is when Giles opens the Magic Shop and he’s wearing the sorcerer getup and Buffy just stares at him for a beat, and he takes it off."

Like the analogy jokes that we talked about earlier, I think these jokes work because they come directly out of character. You're reminded of Anya's irrational fear of rabbits in the first example, and you're amused, conversely, by Giles' out-of-character decision to wear a costume, in the second example. It's a very common joke form, and I'm sure you can think of your own examples from Friends, from The Simpsons, etc. The Office is almost entirely constructed of crickets, come to think of it. Man, I love the Office.

I have two caveats about this joke form, however. As I was writing this entry, it occurred to me that my instinct is telling me it works better on film than on paper. So much of it is about the literal silence and the facial expression of the actor doing the reacting. On paper, in a spec, it may read not as much as a silent punchline, as it does an absent punchline. Have your friends read it, ask them about it, make sure you're getting the right effect.

My second caveat. If you do this, make sure you don't have the character who uttered the original line follow it up with "Did I say that out loud?" That was very funny the first time. (That was on Cheers, I think?) It is no longer funny.

But whatever the hazards, this is one of the joke types that comes out of character. And that makes it good. Look at The Office to see how the pros do it.

Lunch: A weird kind of shake with yogurt and tofu and soymilk and peanut butter and splenda. I want a burger.

Jane on 05.02.06 @ 05:24 PM PST [link]

/duplicate entry deleted/
Jane on 05.02.06 @ 05:24 PM PST [link]

Monday, May 1st
Again with the Grilled Cheese

Remember what I did in that last post? I mentioned the grilled cheese sandwiches early on, and then I mentioned them again at the very end of the post. This is called a "callback." A callback is a reference to a joke earlier in the scene, or earlier in the script... or sometimes, earlier in the run of the series. The "We were on a break" callbacks between Ross and Rachael on Friends extended over a remarkable length of time. But usually, these will refer to something in the same episode.

I looked around online, and found some transcripts of Friends episodes, to find some good universal examples for you guys. They are, of course, all over the place. In one early episode, Chandler is appalled to see Joey lick a spoon clean and put it back in the silverware drawer. Later in the episode, when Joey has a chance to move out of their shared place, Chandler makes a joke about having to invite someone over to lick his spoons now that Joey won't be there. This is a callback. Then, even later, Chandler gives Joey a box of plastic spoons. At this point, this is a "comic runner." Less than a story, it's a series of non-adjacent jokes that follow from and build on each other. (By the way, if the first joke does not work, then none of the callbacks to that joke will work. A failed comic runner of this variety is called a Nakamura. Seriously, it is. I think the original reference was to a series of jokes about a Mr. Nakamura on some show -- the Bob Newhart show? I'm not sure. Anyway, the failure of the callbacks was so legendary that the name stands to this day.

Comedic dramas use this technique too. In my Buffy episode "Pangs," every time a new character saw that Angel had returned to Sunnydale, they assumed he had turned evil. This quickly formed into a comic runner.

Callbacks are especially useful as "blows" to a scene -- the last line of a scene. Because they require no additional set-up, they're fast and punchy, which is the best way to blow out of a scene. They also tie off the scene really neatly, by turning it back to an earlier point. If you ever watch comedy improv, you'll notice that the improvised scenes finish on a callback even more often than scripted material does. It's the simplest way to make a scene feel complete.

So, the next time you're watching tv, pay attention to the callbacks. You'll be amazed at how often they are the solution to the tricky how-to-get-the-hell-out-of-this-scene problem. If I'm in a writers' room and we're having trouble finding that last line, I will automatically start scouring the early part of the scene -- either looking for something to call back, or, if there's nothing useful there, looking for a new place to put a joke up there so that we CAN call it back at the end. It's not always the best solution, but the success rate is such that it should be one of the first ones you try.

Lunch: turkey meatballs from the South Beach Cookbook
Jane on 05.01.06 @ 04:21 PM PST [link]


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Walt Disney Writing Fellowship Program
UC Berkeley
Jane recommends you also visit BobHarris.com



May 2006

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