Friday, September 28th
Tuesday, September 25th
Did you read Dilbert yesterday? In a lovely coincidence, yesterday's strip provides an excellent example of a way to revitalize a clam. Amazingly, it's a close cousin of the exact example that I discussed in Monday's post. Here's how the strip lays out:
First Panel: The pointy-haired boss thinks to himself: "It's time for some generic management."
Second Panel: He approaches an employee and says "Did you talk to what's-his-name about the thing?" She replies, "Um… yes."
Third Panel: He walks away, self-satisfied, thinking, "There should be some sort of award for avoiding minutiae."
What I like about this is that the purposeful vagueness is being put to a new and more subtle purpose than just a character excusing himself from conversation so that he can pull his friend aside. This is about using a vague question to demand a vague answer, thus excusing both parties from a conversation neither wants to have. That's less familiar, more complicated and more interesting.
It's the illustration of dynamics like this -- ones that are recognizable but haven't been mined to the point of exhaustion -- that make good shows and good comic strips feel fresh. Recognition is at the heart of comedy. That's why Jerry Seinfeld impersonations always start with "did you ever notice…" The problem is that after you've recognized something once, you no longer get a thrill of connection when you recognize it again. Dilbert and The Office are both great at finding these fresh dynamics. Once you find them, you can put familiar comedy conceits into them, like the self-conscious use of "thing" as above, and it won't feel tired, because the overall point is new and fresh.
Jane on 09.28.07 @ 11:03 AM PST [link]
Monday, September 24th
What do you get when you get when you breed clams? Strangely, sometimes you get a genuinely fresh new joke. Gentle Reader Sarah in Washington state writes in with a great example of this phenomenon, which I had not consciously noticed before. She doesn't know on which show this occurred, but she brings us the line, "After all, it's not rocket surgery." Hee! I love that! Two clams getting together to create new life.
It occurs to me that I even know of a three-way menage a clam. The not-very-smart character Mark on Roseanne once said something like, "He's not the brightest tool in the deck."
To be fair, I suppose these aren't really clams that are being combined, they're simply cliches, and the idea of malapropisms as comedy dates back as far as humans had sayings to screw up. But let's not pop my parade here; I think there's something to be learned from these. Lots of you will be writing specs in which you have to convey something of a character's essential nature very quickly. Malapropisms like these can be very useful for establishing a certain type of character. Give 'em a try!
In other news, I'm pleased to find a letter today from Mark, also in Washington, who writes representing the Northwest Screenwriters Guild. This is a mysteriously apostropheless group that helps professional screenwriters get started at making a living. He wanted to let me know that a link to this very blog has been added to the site's Resources page. Thank you, Mark! I'm always happy (as a clam) to be listed as a writing resource.
Lunch: bean and rice burrito
Jane on 09.25.07 @ 12:36 PM PST [link]
Clams! Yes, there's always room for clams. I'm talking of course about old and overused jokes and joke forms, known as clams, which need to be expunged from your spec scripts. It's shockingly easy to write a clam since you've heard it work before and it just lays itself out on the page so easily.
Here's one that's currently bothering me. Three people stand together. Two of them (Persons One and Two) want to get away from the other one.
Um... We actually need to go. We've got that thing.
Oh. Right. Um. The thing. At the place. We better go.
Now, right away, I want to point out that this is not the same joke as the line from "Broadcast News" in which a character off-handedly says: "I'll meet you at the place near the thing where we went that time." That's a joke about two people who know each other so well they share both their reference points and their internal labels for those reference points. The clam joke is about the opposite, two people trying to coordinate through their closeness and not doing it very well.
Both concepts are amusing, but this particular expression of it has simply become overly familiar. It also requires that reality-challenging conceit of the on-looker who doesn't notice the very obvious strange behavior of his companions. So what should you write if you want to exploit the humor of the three-person situation? Well, instead of a halting bad lie, how about a fast glib one? It's also been done, of course, but it has the advantage of being constantly made new because of the exact nature of the lie:
We have to go because there's this massive ottoman sale at Ikea.
And I need a really big ottoman. Gotta run.
Or whatever. That's really just to give you the idea of a shape of it.
To clamtinue, a recent letter from Gentle Reader Amanda (Hi again, Amanda!) in Eureka, comments on another clam I discussed a while back, the facetious use of "I said good day, sir!" She mentioned that there is an interesting discussion of exactly this clam on line. I poked around and found it here. As you can see, the joke dates back even earlier than I had realized, although it looks at though "Tootsie" might be the first use of it in its current form. Fascinating. Someone needs to do a comprehensive study of the modern American clam. Until then, use your own instincts to smell them out and cut them from your script. This was a great joke in Tootsie, but as you can see from the long list of uses, it's become distinctly smelly since then.
Lunch: meal #10 at Del Taco (featuring two kinds of soft chicken taco)
Jane on 09.24.07 @ 12:38 PM PST [link]
Sunday, September 23rd
Friday, September 21st
Are you working on a lightly-humorous hour-long spec pilot? Are you finding yourself getting bogged down in plot moves and client-story elements that fail to even capture your own attention? Are you longing to bring the focus back to the main characters? Here's a crazy thought: maybe your show isn't an hour. Maybe it's a (single camera) half-hour.
This won't work for all shows, of course. If you've got a cop or lawyer show that hangs on dense plotting, or if it's dark drama, it clearly won't feel at all like a half-hour. But if it's got a light tone, some funny, and doesn't necessarily hang on lots of plot moves and suspense-filled act breaks, then it might work well as a half-hour.
Imagine that you were given the job of going through a stack of "Ugly Betty" scripts and cutting them down to a half-hour length. What would you lose? You'd probably cut all the arc elements, the running mystery stuff. You'd simplify the A-story too, reducing plot complications while trying to keep all the funny character moments. "Ugly Betty" obviously works well as an hour, but I suggest that if it were a spec script, that a half-hour version of it would have definite appeal as a little gem of characterization: funny, fast, and short.
[CLARIFICATION: I am not suggesting writing spec Ugly Betty scripts as half-hours. I was unclear here. What I meant was that if Ugly Betty had been a spec pilot, it would have worked well as a half-hour spec pilot.]
It's not a prescription, but it's an option.
Lunch: Vietnamese pho, this time with tripe in it. Yum! Tripe's fantastic!
Jane on 09.23.07 @ 02:56 PM PST [link]
Wednesday, September 19th
There is a thing that happens sometimes when you're coming up with a story. If you're still convincing yourself you can write without an outline, then it happens a lot. I'm talking about when a character doubles back on their own arc, ending up emotionally back where they started. A woman in love with her husband is told he's been cheating. She leaves him, then learns she was lied to and goes back to him. She's in love with him again just as she was at the beginning. It might feel like emotional movement as you're writing it, because she's angrily backing her bags at one point, and begging him to take her back at another, but since the beginning point and the ending point are the same, the story feels like a big never-mind.
Sometimes something similar happens with a pair of characters in conflict, who both change position and then both change back, twisting around each other in an awful double helix.
The problem actually grows out of good writers' instincts. You want to write scenes in which something changes. So you have your character change. But then there's another emotional scene. So you have them change back. It's a yo-yo. Add another character and you can see how the helix thing happens. When I tried writing my very first spec script I had two characters switching positions so often that I ended up titling the script, "The See-Saw," hoping that hanging a lantern on the problem would make it a virtue. It didn't.
Keep a watchful eye out for this. Complicate your character's emotional life so that going back to the starting place isn't an option, put them in a three-dimensional world so that they can move off in unexpected directions, plan your scenes so that you aren't improvising moves that you haven't thought through.
Ban the yo-yo!
Lunch: butternut squash soup, edamame
Jane on 09.21.07 @ 11:20 AM PST [link]
Tuesday, September 18th
This is a continuation of the reply to Lauren in Michigan who asked about the daily life of a TV writer.
A typical day when you're working on a show varies from show to show. Almost all shows maintain some kind of writers' room, although the amount of time spent there is wildly variable. The room might feature a large central conference table and desk chairs, or it might be filled with comfy armchairs and couches. There is a whiteboard or a corkboard-and-cards arrangement, or both.
This is where the entire staff works together to come up with the storylines for each episode. A typical day often involves sitting in the room helping develop the stories. As a new staff writer, you wouldn't be expected to dominate the room, in fact, it would be a mistake to try. You spend a lot of time listening in a writers' room. By the time a story is sent off to be given a detailed outline, the staff has worked out the general content of each scene through collaborative discussion -- this is "breaking the story". If it's a comedy, especially a multi-cam, traditional sitcom-type comedy, you spend even more time in the writers' room doing group rewrites of the current script. This involves the higher-stress activity of pitching jokes: coming up with jokes for the script and calling them out to the group. You probably already have an instinct about whether that sounds like fun or torture for you.
Some dramas don't have a room, instead requiring each writer to work one-on-one with the show runner to develop their episode. As a writer you simply fold yourself into the method that your show runner prefers.
If there is a room, sometimes you won't be there, because you'll be "out on script." Some shows like you to still come to the studio every day and write in your office, while others let you disappear for the one or two weeks you have to write the episode. Sleep in, go to Vegas, whatever, just turn in a great first draft when it's due. Being out on script is great.
As you become a more experienced writer, other duties might come up to add variety to your days. You might be expected to go to set and watch your episode being filmed. You might be expected to go work with an editor. But no one would expect you to come in as a new writer with a full set of producing and editing skills. Some shows never require you to do much of this kind of activity anyway. To a large extent, writing scripts and breaking story IS the job.
I've left Lauren's most interesting question for last. She wants to know what the hardest part of the job is. There are a number of potential answers to that:
-- The hours. Some shows, especially but not limited to multi-camera comedies, require very long hours and/or coming in on the weekends. But you're young.
-- The humanity. If working with the same people, hearing the same voices, accommodating the same personalities for long stretches of time under stress and in a limited environment sounds like hell, then you may not enjoy the room. But you do get to go out on script now and then.
-- The ego-crush. You will get notes. You will be rewritten. You may have your suggestions derided publicly. But you do get to see your name on television.
-- The business. It's hard to get that first job, and for a while it may be hard to get that next job. It can take time and luck to get traction in this career. There aren't a lot of jobs and they're highly sought-after. But you're good, right? I see new people getting in every single year. There's no reason it can't be you.
I hope that answers your questions, Lauren! Hope this helps!
Lunch: that heirloom tomato salad again
Jane on 09.19.07 @ 06:19 PM PST [link]
Monday, September 17th
I guess I assume that everyone out there wants to be a TV writer. I mean, why wouldn't you? But a letter from Lauren in Michigan reminds me that some of you may want to know more about what you're getting into before you hop that ol' freight train for LA.
Lauren wants to know about what sort of educational background is a good preparation for the job, and what the typical daily life of a writer looks like, both when working on a show and when between shows. She also wants to know about the most challenging parts of the job -- the downside of the work. This, in particular, is a great question, since it's true that it isn't the Emmys every day! This is a lot to cover in one post, so I'm going to start my answer today and continue it tomorrow. 'Kay?
First off, every sort of educational background is found among TV writers. I know rich successful writers without college degrees, for example, although that's unusual. I myself was a computer science undergrad (I can program in Pascal -- useless now), and a linguistics/cognitive science grad student. Some writers have film school backgrounds, but certainly not all of them do, not even close. There is no educational background that would be inappropriate. In fact, a background in something beyond film is often considered desirable because it brings a diversity of knowledge to the room. Biology? Poli Sci? Psychology? Philosophy? Engineering? Great. The sort of skills that you need to work on a writing staff aren't really part of any specific curriculum. If you have creative ideas, can write a good script, and get along with people in a cooperative venture, then you've got the skills. (This is not to say I'm encouraging you to enroll in a program with a poor record of post-graduation employment, thereby gambling it all on hitting the Hollywood Jackpot. I'd suggest you be a little more practical than that, of course.)
It's also fairly common for TV writing to be a second career, giving you the extra selling point of real-world experience. There are ex-doctors and lots and lots of ex-lawyers and ex-journalists in writers' rooms around town.
I think there's also a perception that TV writers grow up in the business, but I've actually met very few second-generation writers. You can come from anywhere and you can have studied anything. Just write scripts. Write them well.
Lunch: veggie sandwich with extra avocado. No mustard today -- I think it was the right choice.
Jane on 09.18.07 @ 06:14 PM PST [link]
Friday, September 14th
Yesterday, I attended the Emmy Awards for my first time ever. I recommend it. The show itself moves along pretty painlessly and the Governor's Ball afterwards is full of famous people, tasty food, and surprises like looking up and realizing that Tony Bennett is actually just over there on the bandstand, singing, and you can just walk right up. My goodness.
You saw the same broadcast bits that I saw, so you already know which parts of the show itself were fun, but I liked all the stuff you got from really being there. I enjoyed the vintage Emmy clips they showed in the theater during the commercial breaks, and the incongruously cultured voice that would request "applause in the house, please," before the end of every break, and even the very end of the night was fun because there was this crush of people all waiting for their hired limos to come pick them up and everyone was in the same situation even though they might be, say, Vanessa Williams. Bizarrely egalitarian, the limo-waiting process.
Television writing is the best job in the world. It's got so many rewards built in already: you work with smart and funny people, create something, have your work seen by millions... and then, on top of that, there are awards. Really?! Neat.
Polish those scripts, Gentle Readers. They're the ticket to the show.
Lunch: turkey with spices for a sort of pseudo-Indian effect
Jane on 09.17.07 @ 10:59 AM PST [link]
Thursday, September 13th
Kathy in New York City writes to ask a question about aging spec scripts. She's got a Grey's Anatomy spec that is being quickly rendered antique by plot and cast developments on the show. She wants to know if she needs to update the script, or throw it out, or simply hand it over with the caveat that the show has changed out from under it. This is a common problem with the current surfeit of arc-driven shows. The shows change quicker than one can write the specs!
To answer the question, you're probably best off replacing the script with an all-new effort, Kathy. That way, you'll still have the old one and you can certainly hand it over with the "this got old" explanation in case someone wants to see it, but you'll also have something brand new.
To answer the broader question, this is one of the reasons that the current trend is to write original material. It's more in demand anyway, and it doesn't present this problem. If you really want to write a spec of a show that already exists, you might want to pick one that is somewhat less arc-y. House, for example, although it has character arcs, usually relegates them to a smaller percentage of the script and is therefore easier to keep current.
Kathy also mentions that produced Gray's episodes have also now touched on some of the plot elements that were still virginal and pristine when she used them in her spec. Hmm. Depending on the degree of similarity, this is of less concern to me. If they're just themic similarities then you certainly don't have to worry about anyone thinking you lifted them (if they even know the show thoroughly enough to notice the overlap), and you can take them as a sign that you're thinking on the same wavelength as the paid writers. If, however, these themes have now been so completely explored on the show that your spec feels like it's replowing old fields, then you probably should retire the spec anyway on the grounds of sheer exhaustion.
You should pretty much always have a new spec (for either a produced show or an original) in some stage of the process: either plotting or writing or polishing. If you never shut the factory down, you worry a lot less about a fire in the warehouse. Or something like that.
Lunch: bowtie pasta, pesto sauce
Jane on 09.14.07 @ 07:27 PM PST [link]
Wednesday, September 12th
Psst. Gather 'round. I have insider info for all of you, Gentle Readers. I've received a letter from Jack Gilbert, who is in charge of the reading of the submissions to the Warner Bros. Television Writers Workshop, and he has information about the changes to the program that go into effect this year.
Even though the program has had a lot of success in the past (both of last year's writing Emmy winners - Greg Garcia and Terrence Winter were Workshop alums), the changing TV landscape called for a new chapter of the Workshop.
Now under the leadership of Chris Mack, they've combined the Drama and Comedy programs into one and scaled the class size back to ten. Chris also got rid of the $495 program fee (bravo!) and made it free to the chosen.
Now everyone (not just the sitcom folks) will come out with a completed new spec. The mix of the smaller class (something like 7 drama and 3 sitcom writers) is an experiment, but will not only allow for a better writers' room simulation, but will permit Chris and the other execs overseeing the program to concentrate on placing this select number of participants.
Ooh. Interesting. It sounds like the program has become more accessible monetarily, but more selective creatively. Obviously the smaller class size makes it a harder "get," but the resulting improvement in the amount of attention and likelihood of being placed on a staff makes it much more likely to actually launch your writing career. I think it's a positive change. You know you're good, right? You wouldn't be pursuing this if you didn't. Therefore, anything that rewards you for being good is exactly what you want.
I'm interested to learn that Jack is in charge of the reading of submissions. I'd love to hear his reaction to what he's seeing -- namely, what are the big mistakes that he's seeing over and over. I'm going to write back to Jack and ask, and I will report the results back to you, Gentle Readers. Due to the reduction in size, the target for this program has gotten smaller. The only response is to improve our aim.
Lunch: Miceli's restaurant near Universal. I had the 1/2 spaghetti, 1/2 ravioli. Nice meets lovely.
Jane on 09.13.07 @ 10:38 AM PST [link]
Monday, September 10th
All right. I wasn't going to do this, but I have to weigh in on the Britney Spears thing. Namely, I'm very upset about the way the media has covered what happened at the Video Music Awards. I think you know what I'm referring to. Consistently, almost every source I've seen has flagrantly mispunctuated Sarah Silverman's joke. Mispunctuation! Here in America! Here's how E! online reported it:
She is amazing. She is 25 years old and she's already accomplished everything she's going to accomplish in her life.
I haven't seen a clip that included audio of Silverman, but I promise you, I promise you that she said:
She is amazing. She is 25 years old and she's already accomplished. (BEAT) ...everything she's going to accomplish in her life.
See? Now it's not a random savage shot. It's a random savage shot with a JOKE IN IT!
And it gets worse. Get this! Some news sources have even changed the wording so that the joke can't be made to work even with repunctuation. Here's how the Washington Post's online article put it:
"She is amazing," Silverman said. "She is 25 years old and has already accomplished everything she is going to accomplish in her life."
See that? By making "she's already accomplished" into "has already accomplished," they've taken away the possibility for the syntactic reanalysis that makes this joke possible! You can't end a sentence with "has already accomplished," and thus the joke doesn't work. You need the apostrophe-s in that sentence so that the listener doesn't know if it's a contraction of "she is" or "she has." That's what makes the reanalysis possible!
There's no way for a reader of the Washington Post's article to even discern that there was intended humor in what Silverman said!
This kind of joke that requires a syntactic reanalysis can be very funny and it's a personal favorite of mine. The joke I wrote for Buffy in which the spray-painted graffito "KISS ROCKS!!" was misinterpreted as an exhortation to go out and kiss rocks, requires this kind of reanalysis. And I talked with all of you, not too long ago, about the popular joke about Mickey and Minnie Mouse's divorce with the punchline, "I didn't say she was crazy, I said she was fucking Goofy." Syntactic reanalysis! It's wonderful! But it's also fragile and it requires scrupulous protection, since the change in even one small word can destroy the necessary syntactic ambiguity. If you told the Mickey Mouse joke and ended it with "...she was screwing Goofy," you've messed it up irredeemably.
So, American Media, be careful! If you're reprinting a joke, make sure you GET THE JOKE! Huff.
Lunch: veggie sandwich with extra avocado. Why doesn't it just come with extra avocado in the first place?
Jane on 09.12.07 @ 10:58 AM PST [link]
Friday, September 7th
I have received a lovely letter from Gentle Reader Eurie in Studio City. It includes a recipe for a Vanilla Frappuccino, which is an unexpected bonus! She writes asking about humorous or otherwise personalized stage directions. Eurie:
My all time favorite script line of Buffy is from "Innocence" when Joss... writes something to the effect of "The bastard actually winks at her." [...] Do you recommend this level of spunky personality in writing our spec pilots to help our work stand out? Or is this an indulgence extended to established writers?"
This one has an easy answer. Yes! I recommend this kind of writing. Absolutely. Feel free to put personality and opinion in your stage directions. It makes you sound confident and it helps the reader keep track of what you're intending them to take away from the script at any given point.
However, as long as we're in the neighborhood, there is one thing that you will find in the stage directions of produced episodes that you shouldn't adopt. I'm talking about hyper-specific instructions on set design or visual effects or props. I'm talking about stage directions like: "I'm seeing the room as having a claustrophobic feel, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's a small room. Let's just make sure that it's laid out to have a cramped feeling." You'll see things like this all the time, but it's not appropriate for a spec, for the obvious reason that material with this level of specificity is intended to provide guidance to actual production people, which you don't have.
But jokes? Personality? Attitude? Yes... do that, please!
Lunch: quiche and Tater Tots
Jane on 09.10.07 @ 06:27 PM PST [link]
Thursday, September 6th
Gentle Reader Samantha in Los Angeles asks a terrific question I've never contemplated before! Samantha:
I just started looking at some produced The Office scripts and comparing them to what was finally broadcast. I've noticed that many scenes are moved around in editing, even from one act to another. My question is whether I should write to emulate the script of the finished product in terms of technical issues like how many talking heads per act, or how the B story is interwoven with the A story.
Oooh. Fascinating. (By the way, for those of you unfamiliar with The Office scripts, when Samantha refers to "talking heads," she is referring to the interview-like segments of the show.) This kind of divergence between the script and the show is not uncommon. A lot of writing actually happens in the editing room when something doesn't work (either because of the writing, the performance, the direction, or for length), and the script has to be restructured out of footage that already exists.
I'm going to surprise myself a bit with my answer here. You know, Gentle Readers, that I'm all about the script, much more than the broadcast. But in this instance, I have to recommend emulating the final product. There are a couple reasons for this.
First off, the broadcast version is what the ultimate readers of your spec are going to be most familiar with. You're going to appear to be a better chameleon if you've captured that tone and pacing.
Second, and more importantly, the broadcast version is, of necessity, tighter. Early cuts of a show rarely come in short, they're almost always too long, so the changes usually reflect a paring down of the material. And pared-down is good -- the story becomes more focused, the weakest jokes are lost, and the page count of your spec decreases, making it a more appealing read. You end up with script-concentrate, which is delicious. It's hard to miss stuff you never knew existed.
Of course, sometimes something genuinely valuable is lost in the process. A sweet little character moment simply takes too long and gets cut, or a clever dovetailing of the A and B stories goes away because it's the only thing that CAN go away that doesn't touch the logic of the events. You're going to have to decide if making your personal spec The Office look like the broadcast version is going to cost you something in terms of depth. As you cut, be very wary of that, since you've got to give your script that little special sparkle that makes it better than an average episode, and that sparkle ALWAYS resides in the little character moments that are not essential to plot.
If you really can't decide, try opening a new file and just playing with a cut-and-restructure that reflects something more like the broadcast structure. Then you can actually look at both versions side by side without having committed to anything and pick the one that works best.
Lunch: vegetable and chicken stir-fry with lots of garlic
Jane on 09.07.07 @ 11:01 AM PST [link]
Sunday, September 2nd
I've got two fun sites for you today, Gentle Readers! There is this one, and then there is this other one.
These are both useful sites for coming up with character names. What I like about these sites as opposed to other sites or books I've seen is that they can help you find the right name for a character that reflects the character's age. This can be really useful for giving a script authenticity and for helping readers remember and visualize the characters.
The first site allows you to enter a birth year and it gives the most popular (U.S.) boy and girl given names for that year. Got characters born in 1975? Hmm… looks like Michael and Jennifer are good choices that will, consciously or subconsciously, evoke the right age for your reader. 1999? Jake and Emily. 1901? Good ol' John and Mary are leading the pack.
The second site is more visually exciting, and I recommend you play with it for fun if nothing else. And check out the blog, too -- was Placenta really once a common girl's name? Find out in the blog. Perfectly fascinating. This site graphically displays given names charted against years and allows a user to display, say, all boys given names starting with "An" over all the years. (Watch "Angel" surge in 2003.) This site is a good one for finding names that never were in the top ten, but which enjoyed prior and interesting popularity, or for exploring other subtleties. Want to make sure no one forgets your "Molly" is old? Spell it "Mollie." She just aged in front of your eyes.
Want to name a whole pack of old biddies? Try "Jane," "Mary," and "Lillian". No wait, that was me and my friends in the late seventies -- we were anachronistic, another interesting trait you can play with when you name a character. Our names suggest we might've been out of step with our era. Us? Heaven forfend.
Lunch: spaghetti with marina and artichoke hearts
Jane on 09.06.07 @ 10:50 AM PST [link]
Jon from Minneapolis writes in to propose my favorite type of discussion -- a little exploration of joke-types. Ooh! Fun! Thank you, Jon!
Here are two jokes that he suggests form a category. In the first one, from the movie Hot Fuzz, the small town's chief of police is talking to the newly transplanted Nick Angel:
Chief (serious): Well, there's one thing your predecessor had that you'll never have.
Nick: Oh? What's that?
Chief: A great bushy beard.
The second one comes from Victor/Victoria, in which a nightclub owner is giving instructions to a private investigator:
Owner: Now, I need you to be extremely careful.
Investigator: I always am.
Owner: That stool is very unstable.
Investigator: What? (The stool collapses and he falls.)
It wouldn't have immediately occurred to me that these are examples of the same joke structure, but I think Jon is right. I'd also add this exchange from Ghostbusters which I think is a gem of economically-applied funny:
Dr Ray Stantz: Where do these stairs go?
Dr. Peter Venkman: They go up.
These all involve a specific and extreme kind of undercutting of expectation by suddenly going very literal. They are, in fact, the same kind of joke as the horrible classic children's jokes about why firemen wear red suspenders and why chickens transverse-navigate motorways. In these jokes, you're misled into thinking that you're going to be given actual information on some topic, when in fact you're going to be told something very literal and irrelevant to the larger matter.
This kind of joke naturally has a childish feeling to it, but that doesn't mean it can't be used in sophisticated comedies. For example, a character who specifically employs this type of humor in an attempt to cheer up his colleagues in a fraught moment could be endearing and even heart-breaking. And, as Gentle Reader Jon points out in his letter, it is a powerful way to give a jolt to an otherwise gravely cliched exchange. We know that undercutting is important for keeping a script light; this kind of extreme undercutting, when used carefully, can help.
Lunch: the sourdough something-or-other at Jack in the Box. It was loaded with tomato slices and was shockingly good.
Jane on 09.02.07 @ 11:10 AM PST [link]