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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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