Home of Jane's blog on writing for television
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    September 5th, 2008Jane EspensonFeatured, Friends of the Blog, On Writing

    Friend of the Blog David sends in a great example of what we were discussing last time — the Bad Joke Joke.

    This is from an episode (“Beers and Weirs”) of Freaks and Geeks. In the scene, Neal distracts Lindsay while Sam and Bill swap out her alcoholic beer for non-alcoholic:

    So, what kind of music are you gonna play tonight? You should play some Chicago. They have a really hot horn section.

    I don’t know. I think I’m gonna play some Zeppelin, Foghat, maybe some Sabbath.

    Friday night — always a good night for some Sabbath.
    (off her puzzled look)
    ‘Cause Friday night . . . is the Sabbath . . . for the Jews.

    Heh. Now that’s a good bad joke. It totally comes out of character and out of the relationship between the two characters. And it has that magical quality of being funny at the same time as we understand why it’s not a big laugh-getter. A great example against which to measure other examples of this difficult genre.

    Lunch: noodles, sushi, canned tonic water

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    August 17th, 2008Jane EspensonFriends of the Blog, On Writing

    Hey! We’ve got controversy! Last time, I cited this hypothetical character intro as a good one:

    SHERRY, 40s, sharp-tongued, rich and proud, is the woman you sit next to when you want to hear snarky comments about everyone else. She’s all offense because her defense sucks — she’s shockingly thin-skinned. Chain-smoker, stylish, bright-eyed, attractive in a surgical way.

    Friend of the blog Alex, over at the Crafty TV Writing blog suggests that this description is a bit of a cheat. He says, while observing he’s become less of a purist about this recently, that:

    My personal effort is never to put anything in a script that an actor can’t play and communicate to the audience.

    He points out, with specific reference to Hypothetical Sherry:

    Until we see her say something snarky, she’s not really a snarky character, is she? The danger is that a newbie writer will write a direction like that and expect us to like the character because, hey, she’s snarky!

    His remedy:

    Personally, I usually minimize the description, but then have the character immediately bust out a distinct line, or do something out of the ordinary that defines them.

    I certainly have nothing wrong with immediately giving a character a line that strongly defines their attitude — in fact, I encourage it. And it’s certainly true that stating that character has a given attribute is not enough to give them that attribute. You actually have to give them that attribute.

    I still like my character intro, though. For one thing, I think “the woman you sit next to when you want to hear snarky comments” evokes a TYPE of person, in the same way that “the guy who always spills soup on his shirt front” or “the kind of baby who smiles at strangers” is a type. It doesn’t mean there’s going to be any actual soup-spilling, stranger-smiling or snarky-commenting necessarily going on. It’s just supposed to evoke a certain category of human, and it seems to me that membership in that category is something that an actor can portray in any number of ways.

    I’ve certainly been guilty of exactly what Alex is talking about here. I’ll often say, “his humor, when it appears, is self-deprecating,” or things like that — things that certainly could be left for the reader to discover through the examples that follow in dialogue. But I’m still not troubled. In a world in which readers often miss elements in a script because of distractions or time pressures or inattention, I have no problem with building in a little redundancy. It’s a little like that old formula for giving a speech: tell them what you’re gonna tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you told them. It doesn’t work if you skip the middle, but why would you skip the middle?

    I’m reminded many old stories about Hollywood writers hired to rewrite a movie because readers weren’t finding the main character likable enough, or because the studio felt a character wasn’t proactive enough. In the story, the heroic writer always adds one word to the character introduction (“likable” or “proactive”) and turns the script back in, receiving mystified compliments as the execs wonder how he achieved such a positive change. I actually heard another one of these stories recently, a bit more plausible than other versions, in which the change was actually slightly more than one word. The new phrase added to the intro was something like, “she’s off-putting now, but trust me, you’ll grow to love her.” Is it cheating? I suppose it is — you’re certainly describing things unseen — but it also shows confidence. The writer is telling the reader to relax, that they have things under control. The readers feel that their initial reaction is validated, and they also know where the writer is going to take them next.

    Rules are supposed to help you communicate with the readers, so they know with consistency how the words on the page are supposed to translate into the hypothetical filmed product in their heads. When the rules stop helping, I believe in stepping away from them.

    There are limits to this kind of free-wheelin’ writin’, of course. Alex and I are in total agreement about “backstory intros,” in which the reader is told that this character is recovering from a divorce, or that they’re secretly the sister of the other character in the scene even though neither of them know it yet. That is almost always a mistake, since it forces the reader into a position in which they have story-influencing info that the potential viewer doesn’t have. And when you split the reader and the viewer, you’re making the reader keep track of two separate story-experiences in their head. Bleah.

    Now, I should point out, Alex may very well be right all the way through. If the person reading your script likes for rules to be followed, and you break the rules, even with style and purpose, then you might have lost their enthusiasm right then and there. Maybe you’re willing to take that chance, and maybe you’re not. Check out Alex’s blog and his books — wonderful stuff! Have fun making up your own mind on this point!

    Lunch: pork pot-stickers homemade by my own mother, who has taught herself how to prepare a wide variety of exotic cuisines to perfection. Better than a restaurant.

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    August 8th, 2008Jane EspensonFriends of the Blog, From the Mailbag, On Writing

    With the help of Friend-of-the-Blog Jeff, I located and purchased the most wonderful book today, Gentle Readers. “Best Television Humor of the Year,” edited by Irving Settel. It was published in 1956 and contains long script excerpts from “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” “The Goldbergs,” “The Life of Riley,” “The Martha Raye Show” and others. All of the shows were in production at the time of publication, and there’s something wonderful about hearing, say, Milton Berle discussed in the present tense.

    I’ve only started reading the scripts, and I must say they are heavy on situation and reaction and low low low on jokes. So far, the only real laugh I’ve had was at a clever stage direction. In an episode of “The Bob Cummings Show,” written by Paul Henning and Phil Shuken, there’s a bit of physical business indicated for a bit player — a model hoping to land a job. The stage direction reads:

    A very beautiful and shapely model is seated near the office door waiting to be interviewed by Bob. As she hears the door open she quickly crosses her legs, pulls her dress up to jury-influencing height, and assumes a provocative pose…”

    “Jury-influencing height.” I love it. Sharp, quick, knowing, subtle, and since it’s in the stage direction, clearly intended for the reader, and not the viewer of the piece. It feels very contemporary amid the rest of the script. I’ve always advocated stage-direction humor, and I think this is one of the starkest examples I’ve seen of how it can pop — not just as an opportunity for humor, but as a way to create a connection between the writer and the reader, even across decades.

    Lunch: Barbeque chicken and more of those Spicy Fries from Ribs USA. Wonderful!

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    August 4th, 2008Jane EspensonFriends of the Blog, From the Mailbag, On Writing

    Okay, so my new pattern for the blog is to disappear for a long time and then come back with a post that gets something wrong while being critically snooty about people getting things wrong. And I accomplished it on my very first try!

    Friend-of-the-Blog Craig Miller has directed my attention to the actual standard use of the phrase “butter wouldn’t melt in his/her mouth.” And I was totally wrong about it, although I’ve certainly heard other people be wrong as well, in different and contrasting ways. The actual use is to refer “dismissively to somebody who appears gentle or innocent while typically being the opposite.” Erm. Okay, yeah, that actually seems right, although the connection to the relative behavior of mouths and butter is obscure.

    I will point out that this totally proves my point. Sometimes we’re so sure we know how language works (what with being writers and all), that we don’t double-check this stuff and then we get in trouble when our scripts meet a reader who does know what they’re doing. In fact, this makes my point so perfectly, that I suspect maybe I played it exactly this way on purpose.

    So check those idioms!

    Lunch: Korean bbq chicken, brown rice, kim chee and pickled radish from the food court at the Century City Mall.

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    June 13th, 2008Jane EspensonComedy, Friends of the Blog, On Writing

    UPDATE: I have been informed (by two different Friends of the Blog), that the most prominent source for the “state your name” joke referenced here is the movie Animal House. So now we know!

    Have you seen it yet? SciFi is running the Battlestar Galactica mid-season finale on their web site all day today. And of course it will be broadcast tonight. Tune in, okay? You need to see this. Seriously, one of the best hours of television ever. I cannot even articulate how proud I am to be involved with this show.

    This episode was presented Wednesday night here in LA at a huge domed movie theater. It was incredible to see it on the big screen. There’s nothing like hearing the reactions of a crowd moment-by-moment. You really can tell what’s working and what isn’t. (It all worked.)

    Before the screening began, Ron Moore got up and made everyone promise to keep the secrets they were about to learn a full two days before the official broadcast. He had everyone raise their right hands and repeat an oath beginning, “I, state your name…”. So everyone, of course, said, “I, state your name…” As he knew they would. It was a sweet moment of shared smart-assery, as Ron knew it would be.

    It made me think about some things, that moment. How often does a crowd get a chance to be funny? Being funny as a group with no prior planning is ridiculously difficult. Perhaps a crowd, asked to repeat after their host, might refuse to stop repeating, but that’s more bratty than funny. Perhaps a group of close friends, out for a nice dinner, might spontaneously mimic the gait of the host at a restaurant after he says “walk this way,” but that’s a much smaller group. (And impolite, especially in a nice restaurant. I can’t recommend it.) The only other example of large-group whimsy that I can think of is The Wave, which is impressive, but hardly a reliable laugh-getter.

    There’s that trick of saying to a crowd, “Everyone turn to the person on your right…” but that’s about making a crowd be foolish, not letting a crowd be funny.

    So why does the “state your name” joke work? Because the audience knows the bit. I am not coming up with where exactly I’ve seen the bit before, but I certainly have. Taxi, perhaps? Perfect Strangers? Shows with someone with an amusingly incomplete mastery of English could easily use this joke. It would be a non-self-aware version of the joke, of course, in which the “swearer” makes a mistake. But, of course, it would also work on MASH or Cheers or even Welcome Back Kotter, in something more like its recent use: I mean, someone addressing a group of smart-alecks.

    The group of smart-alecks is a great comedy configuration. The Marx Brothers, of course, are a spectacular example of this. There is something irresistible about scripted bits that capture the spirit I observed in that theater — the feeling of more than one person simultaneously seizing on a comedic moment. If you’ve got a group like that in your script, playing around with this concept is definitely worth your while.

    Anyway, in whatever form, and from whatever context, the audience knew the bit. It’s so familiar, in fact, that it has crossed the line from “clam” to “classic.”

    Could this bit be on its way to this status?

    Can you hear me?


    It would work, I’m telling you. Now we just have to get the general populace organized.


    Lunch: leftover Koo Koo Roo chicken and a yam. Disappointingly tasteless yam. Sometimes you get a boring one.

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