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    May 16th, 2010Jane EspensonComedy, On Writing

    It’s not often that a joke becomes an instant classic. But let us now discuss the joke from Glee that goes like this:

    I will go to the animal shelter and get you a kitty cat. I will let you fall in love with that kitty cat; and then on some dark cold night, I will steal away into your home, and punch you in the face.

    The beauty of the joke is that, unlike the joke from the McDonald’s ad that I talked about last time, this one WANTS you to get ahead of it, and then subverts your expectation. This is extremely hard to pull off because you have to make certain that the audience is going to get ahead of the joke, but you can’t be so obvious about it that you know they’re going to anticipate the switch-up. This particular version is a thing of joy. I think a lot of what makes it work is the violence of the final image — you lose nothing of the force of the threat by not getting to any violence against the kitten.

    It can be easy to be too heavy-handed with this joke. Whenever a character on a sitcom is about to say an obvious swear word but is interrupted by another character, or quickly turns “ass” into, say, “asphalt,” the laugh is supposed to lie in the failure to reach the anticipated ending, just as in the kitten joke. But I generally find that in this form it feels forced and self-aware.

    One time that I did see this version done well was in an old episode of the British series “Are You Being Served” in which the character of Mr. Humphries describes a quaint verse on an old calendar. He relates it as: “Monday is for Meeting. Tuesday is for Talking. Wednesday is for Wishing. Thursday is for Touching. Friday for some reason was torn out.” This works very much like the kitten joke — the sudden swerve off the well-worn track of the joke is in itself the source of the humor. Note that the delivery, without a pause after the word “Friday,” is an excellent example of throwing the joke away.

    The other danger with this joke is being too subtle with it, so that the audience doesn’t have the replaced punchline clearly in mind. A friend of mine once created a single-panel cartoon that showed an egg-shaped Federal Express truck. On the side of the truck was printed “FederEGGal Express.” The joke, of course, is that the joke should be “Federal EGGspress”. I think that this probably escaped many readers, although I’m tickled by it. (In my mind it’s a character joke all about the cartoonist who made the mistake.)

    So Sue Sylvester wasn’t really doing anything new, exactly. The joke form is established. But the joke hit a very small, hard to hit target perfectly and is perfect for modern savvy audiences who have become adept at anticipating punchlines. Give it a try. Tee up a joke and then let the ball fall off the tee.

    Lunch: Back to Susan Feniger’s “Street” for more of that Kaya Toast. Wow.

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    May 3rd, 2010Jane EspensonComedy, On Writing

    Here’s how NOT to tell a joke. There is a currently running McDonalds commercial in which customers talk about bad situations. A man talks of “… when my luggage went to the Bahamas… And I didn’t.” Oh, the attempted joke is so painful! Jokes are about surprises. What is the surprise in the second half of that line? There is none. Of COURSE he didn’t go. If he’d gone to the Bahamas he wouldn’t have worded the first part that way! You don’t say, “My luggage went to the Bahamas and I had a great time there.” Nonsense.

    The thing that makes this really shameful, of course, is the ellipsis. The pause is a very interesting comedy device. You can only use it when what follows is really good. It’s an investment that the writer (or actor) is making in the joke. If it pays off, then if pays off bigger because of the pause. But if it fails, you lose everything. In this particular ad, the pause isn’t just a short pause either, but a long one, with the actor turning to look down, then a WIDEN TO REVEAL shot change, which shows us that the actor is standing at an almost-empty luggage carousel, and then he looks back into camera for the “And I didn’t.” That is way too much weight for almost any joke! Especially for one with the fatal flaw of not being a joke.

    I give this example to illustrate the opposite of what is called “throwing it away.” Throwing a joke away usually refers to the performance end of the deal, to delivering a joke in a casual off-handed way, without a pause or other tee-up, and without any apparent awareness of having said something funny. It can also refer to the way a joke is directed (for example, without changing the shot). And, important for our purposes, to the way a joke is written.

    One way to make sure a joke is thrown away is to make sure you leave out that ellipsis. You can also use parentheticals or stage directions to tell the actor how to deliver the line: “Casually,” “Without pause” or even “Throwing it away” can help. Since you’re probably writing a spec script, intended to be read, not performed, you don’t even have to worry that you’ll piss off the actor who doesn’t want to be told how to deliver a joke.

    I realize now that this is what my showrunner on a show called Monty meant when he told us not to put the funniest word at the end of the line, but to make sure the line continued past it. This seemed to me to go against one of the basic principals of joke writing, but now I see the value in it. He wanted casual, easy, “thrown away” funny, not needy rim-shot comedy, begging for laughs by hitting every comedy-made-easy rule.

    If you want to be funnier than McDonald’s, write actual jokes, and if you really want to be classy, throw them away.

    Lunch: beef shabu-shabu with an extra side of clear noodles.

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    April 18th, 2010Jane EspensonComedy, On Writing

    There’s a good example out there right now of what my friend and fellow writer Jeff Greenstein (@blue439) calls “Clams Casino” — that is, an old over worked joke (or “clam”) used as an ingredient in a new exciting mixture. Note that Clams Casino is a classic garlicky recipe, presumably good for making sure dinner guests don’t realize how old the clams were until they’re halfway home.

    The clam dish in question is featured in the latest Progressive Insurance ad. This is the series of ads featuring the perky salesgirl, Flo. I often find that these ads have the rhythm of jokes without being genuinely funny, but this one worked for me. In the ad she cracks some kind of mild joke and then adds, “I’m here all week.” This particular phrase has been clammy for at least a decade. It’s often accompanied by “Try the veal,” and/or “Remember to tip your waitress”.

    The commercial rescues itself by having the girl continue, a bit abashed, “I will. That’s my schedule.” This is a great save. Not only is the attitude right, clam-shamed, but the word “schedule,” by referencing the *actual* venue that’s represented, a retail store, pulls us out of the implied world of 1980s comedy clubs in a grounded way. The joke was made literal and became a joke again. Nice work, some ad writing person!

    You can do the same thing if you find yourself in a clammy situation. Look for a way to make the joke literal by tying it to the setting, character or plot that’s specific to your script. Here’s another example in which the same trick was used. Strikingly, it’s also a comedy club reference — because that is of course the source of the clammiest clams. This is in an episode of the Simpsons: Moe tells a joke, gets no reaction from a crowd, taps his mike and nervously jokes, “is this thing on”? Angle on Barney, who realizes the mike is in fact unplugged. He apologizes and plugs it in. Just as in the Progressive ad, the joke is saved by making it literal.

    An aside: What I find interesting about both of these clams is that they are clams ABOUT clams (or at least about failed jokes). The “here all week” joke is used exclusively as a follow up to a joke that the speaker is trying to gently disavow. By pointing at the image of a hacky standup from the age of hacky standups, the joke is designed to allow the speaker a chance to gently distance him or herself from what was just said. The fact that this clam occurs so often tells us, I suppose, that there’s a real social function being served here. We clearly need jokes that fill this ecological niche– can you be the one to coin the fresh replacement?

    Lunch: whitefish with artichokes and string beans at Toscanova at the Century City Mall. So fresh and delicious!

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    Hello again, Gentle Readers! I’m fascinated by all the parts of the television writing world that don’t generally communicate with each other. Even sitcoms and dramas often seem to live in very different worlds. Get farther out and it’s a different galaxy: game shows, daytime dramas, late-night comedy… it’s all TV writing, but it can follow totally different procedures. I recently corresponded with Friend-of-the-Blog Syndi, a writers’ assistant at Sesame Street. Here’s her account of their process.


    The Sesame Street writing process seems so simple compared to what you’re used to. We have a team of 10 writers, which includes our head writer. The entire group meets a couple of times for some general brainstorming. Then, the producers decide how many of the 26 episodes will be assigned to each writer. Then, to each writer, I assign a show number (we use show numbers instead of titles), a letter of the day, a number of the day, and an assortment of muppet and human cast (per script).

    Each writer takes their assignments and brainstorms on ideas for their episodes, then meets individually with the head writer to talk it out. From there, the writer goes off and writes their first draft. The head writer reviews the first draft and speaks with the writer about any changes he would like to see made. A second draft might be turned in, a third, etc.

    Eventually, the head writer signs off on it, and the script gets typed up into our script template by our script coordinator. Then I proofread it, and clean copies are distributed to our Research department. The folks in Research all have Master’s degrees and PhD’s in education, child psychology, etc. Research will review each script and give their comments to our head writer, who has the ultimate power to veto anything (of course, if Research feels very strongly, they’ll push hard.) I’ll put those research comments that were approved into the script and then the producers will meet on the script.

    Any changes that the producers would like to see are communicated to our head writer via our Executive Producer. (The Exec. Producer has ultimate say.) Once those changes are put into the script, it’s pretty much ready to be met on in a production meeting. Any changes that come out of the production meeting would constitute a revision, or at the very least, revised pages.

    How cool is that? Can you imagine getting your assigned letter of the day? It’s easy to get very near-sighted about TV writing, and to think that the whole world is primetime drama and comedy, but there are many fine streets in the world, and one of them is called Sesame.

    Look around and make sure you’re aiming at the job that really interests you, because there’s more than one way to do this.

    Lunch: a Caesar salad with garbanzo beans — nonstandard but delicious

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    October 17th, 2008Jane EspensonComedy, Friends of the Blog, On Writing, Spec Scripts

    Breaking News. What went wrong with your writing program submission? I found out.

    I’ve pinned down three reasons why scripts don’t make the cut when they’re submitted to scriptwriting competitions like the one profiled yesterday. Two of the three key errors that have been flagged are no surprise to me. But one is, so hold onto your space bars, there’s something interesting ahead.

    First off – Guest stars! If your spec script centers around a guest character, then that could well be why you didn’t get into the program. This was one of the first things I talked about when I started this blog. One of the very few reasons that someone would ask you to write a script for a show that’s already on the air is to see if you can capture the voices of the characters. The reader is listening to the show in their head as they read, imagining the literal voices. A guest character, no matter how well-written, causes silence. And it’s not just a pseudo-auditory problem — your regular characters need to drive the story, if someone else is coming in and doing a lot of talking, chances are that you’ve got them acting and all your regulars reacting. Big problem. It’s an episode of The Office, not Michael Scott’s Mother Visits The Office. Use original characters in small doses. If you’ve got a stranger given material that approaches the amount given to one of the regulars, then that’s almost certainly why you didn’t get in.

    Second — Spelling! Grammar! Punctuation! Imagine that the fellowship reader is filling out a form about your script, creating a score. Imagine that you get points automatically taken off for (real or perceived) errors. How many points do you want to lose because you forgot to have your mom/professor/friend proofread your script to make sure you used the right form of “your,” that you spelled “precede” correctly, that you’ve got your apostrophes in the right place? Seriously, find an apostrophe fiend and make him or her study your script — I find apostrophe errors in every script I read. Imagine the advantage you’ll have when everyone else’s script takes a scoring hit in this category and your script does not.

    And here is the third, surprise factor:

    Failing to observe the difference between multi-camera versus single-camera formatting. This one I did not see coming. Multi-camera, traditional sitcoms like The New Adventures of Old Christine, Two and Half Men and Big Bang Theory use a very specific style of formatting — stage directions are capitalized and dialogue is double spaced. Some sitcoms also put all the stage directions in parentheses. They also label the scenes with letters of the alphabet (but not ALL letters of the alphabet, some are skipped). I also seem to remember from my comedy days that some shows even had the peculiarity of omitting the period from the last sentence of every clump of stage directions. In a nutshell, sitcom scripts are strange and need to be studied closely. Get a copy of a script for the show you are spec-ing. Study it! Mimic it! If you try your hardest and simply cannot get a script for your show — well, I think that’s a big problem, but the least you can do is to get one for a show that resembles it in format. Again, this mistake is easy to avoid but could cost you.

    Submitting a script to a writing program is like submitting your college application. It’s worth taking the time to do it right.

    Lunch: In ‘N’ Out burger, “animal style”. So good! I wish it was easier to combine this with an order of McDonald’s fries.

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