I want every line of dialogue I write to land like a punchline.
Even in the most serious, least funny stuff I write — I still strive for that rhythm. Each line sets up the next. And each line has to land. And if it doesn’t, you tighten it (by cutting off the top of the line, the first half of the sentence, which the eye skips over anyway) — or you cut filler words — or you reorder the line so that the highest-impact word falls last. Or conversely — you reorder the line so that it falls away, it’s a throwaway, the intensity and conviction of the words and the speaker drop from the start of the line till the end. And this is a kind of punchline too, where we suddenly look at the speaker, knowing there’s a story there. He’s the butt of the joke. Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s not.
What we’re talking about is a way to make your dialogue rhythmic, musical and responsive. Just make each line feel like the punchline to the joke that was the last line. I’m not saying make it funny — I did this in death scenes in my Iraq pilot. Ok maybe there was a little humor there, I don’t remember.
As an artist, I threaten the status quo. I test boundaries. I push limits.
Now, that isn’t to say I don’t get along with people or don’t follow directions or don’t take notes. I do. I believe in storytelling as a collaboration, and TV as one of the most collaborative media there is. And I believe in creating stories that are true to the show you’re making, and true to the network you’re on.
But collaborating and staying true to the show’s voice are no excuses for staying in the middle. Or being boring. Not threatening the status quo because that’s safe. You can plod along turning in recycled ideas and you’ll probably never get fired for it — because what are they going to point to? How reliable you were? How you always turned in material that you knew for sure would make it on the air, and that 68% of your audience would kinda like because it wouldn’t upset them and they’d kinda never even notice it go by?
Instead you can become an artist. And you can turn in material that may push the edge of what the show may do — and make the show bigger, and deeper, and bolder, and funnier, and more interesting, and more lasting. You’ll still turn in stuff or pitch stuff that you know is safe — because that’s part of your job, to repeat — but part of your job too is to get dangerous.
My first T.V. job was writing for a show called “The Dish” on Style and E! — a spin-off of “The Soup” with Joel McHale, a clip show where a host stands in front of a green screen and shows clips of other shows and says jokes about them. Occasionally we did little sketches and trailer re-cuts, and we had characters (played by the writers or production staff) who would come out and do very stupid stuff. It was fun and low-budget, and there was a lot of room to try wacky stuff. Pitch Jerry the Fashion Crab on Monday and on Thursday the prop guy is spray-painting a foam cut-out in the shape of a crab — and the writer wearing it is dizzy from the fumes.
Once during punch-up we wrote a joke about a commercial for a female stand-up urinator — I don’t remember the exact punchline, but the commercial had a line like “I learned it in Europe.” So then we cut out of the commercial on that line, had our host Danielle look like she’s peeing while standing there. Then she said “I learned it from the host of The European Dish.” (Then the window over her shoulder flashed to a mocked-up photo of Danielle with a huge wart and a unibrow, in a gypsy costume, pushing a plough through a rutted field in Transylvania — with the logo of The European Dish superimposed over the whole thing.)
The joke killed in taping. We the writers loved this joke and laughed really hard when she did it. But the powers that be killed it in the booth because they didn’t want to seem “xenophobic.” We came up with something else on the floor. But I was sad to see the Host of the European Dish get iced, because building mythology is important.
Whether you’re writing a tiny little clip show on a cable channel somewhere in the upper 300’s or a huge-budget space opera on one of the antenna channels, mythology is what makes your show sticky.
Seeing the Host of the European Dish — or Jerry the Fashion Crab — or any other dumb little one-note characters we did on that show — once is funny. But then if European Danielle comes back — and this time she’s there to talk about the Paris runway shows, say in a tape segment, and then she pees herself again … now you’ve got a bit. But then say every time European Danielle comes back on the show, she drops little tidbits about how she got her gig as Host of the European Dish — maybe she was coyoted by a band of gypsies and she has to pay off her debt to them by hosting this clip show … Then we cut back to Danielle in the studio with fake tears rolling down her cheeks, going “They said there’d be opportunity in America … I didn’t know I was going to be a clip show host ….” You’re building the mythology of this character, populating the world of this clip-show, and creating a narrative myth that gives fans an armature to congregate around. Suddenly they don’t just love watching stupid Real Housewives clips, but they also love when European Danielle comes on, and it seems like no matter how outrageous things in Europe are, they’re gonna be more outrageous back in the home studio . . . . It brings people back. It makes you feel like you’re part of it. Fans know they’re fans by knowing that European Danielle became a clip show host via indentured servitude. Late Night with Conan O’Brien did this so well.
Human beings like stories. Tuning into a clip show is fun, mindless entertainment. But if there’s a chance that a character I recognize from a few weeks back will make a surprise appearance, even just to toss off a stray line that may add to his weird back-story — even if that character is just a foam spray-painted crab played by one of the writers — it’s satisfying. It makes us want to stick around, tune in again, see what happens next. Because what if we find out that European Danielle and Jerry the Fashion Crab know each other — what if European Danielle caught a case of Jerry the Fashion Crabs during her time working the Marseilles docks and now she won’t even look at him in the studio for fear of them being recognized together?
This is pure silliness because that’s what that show is. But the principles are the same, no matter what kind of show you’re writing. If you’re writing a serialized drama, mythology is that much more important. Every time you introduce one character or artifact or motif, and then bring it back — you’ve given it a story that has the potential to impact other stories. Tracing the pattern of these collisions, what impacts what and how that changes what can happen next — who has collided into whom in the past, and what that has produced — it becomes a puzzle for the audience to solve. It pulls them in, putting connections together and being rewarded when connections and histories are revealed. It turns your show sticky, holding onto eyeballs.
Because who wants to watch plot? We want to watch stories. We come back to create myths.
I’m working on scenes right now. So I’m thinking about scenes as discrete units, like jokes. A mentor taught me this, and a showrunner he worked for taught it to him.
A good scene is pithy like a good joke. It takes leaps and accomplishes its mission in shorter than expected time and distance. It doesn’t explain itself, doesn’t tip its hand — it leaves its most important points unsaid, to the imagination, to be completed by the audience. Any time you let the audience step in to fill in the space you’ve supplied between Set-Up A and Punchline B, they’ll love you for it. Because you’ve let them become the heroes of the telling.
Whether you’re writing a joke or a scene — you wanna get in there as late as possible, get out early. But not too late, not too early. Finding those right moments to jump in and out of scenes (or jokes) is an art. A great scene will have a beginning, a middle and an end, turned like a little three-act play, as will a great joke (even a one-liner, if you look hard enough).
Think of the beginning of the scene (Act 1) as the set-up of the joke: Why does this person need something, here, right now? The set-up builds expectations.
Middle of the scene (Act 2): a reversal happens, a set-back. The twist in the joke. The moment we realize all is not right in joke-world.
End of the scene (Act 3): the character is thwarted or spun a new direction. Surprise! Punchline.
The punchline is the most important part of the joke. Your punchline lands your joke and lands your scene. Scenes finish with a twist, a turn, another obstacle for the character — they finish dramatically, and whatever you go out on is your punchline. The body of your scene was the setup, so you made it pithy and tight and turned it, then you killed with your punchline. Maybe it’s the hero’s final line as he blows out, maybe it’s what the hero does, maybe it’s what you reveal, maybe it’s an explosion. Whatever it is, it’s a punchline, something we lock onto, digest, understand what’s being turned or thwarted or revealed and then wonder what happens next.
Set ’em up. Knock ’em down. Always leave ’em wanting more.
Because in both joke-telling and scene-writing, the business we’re really in is keeping them wondering what happens next.
I love motifs. If there’s some physical law where the number of motifs in your story threatens to reverse the chemical ratio of metaphor to action, I’m the person to test it.
A motif is a detail that repeats through a story to draw attention to an idea or theme. The motif can be a word, phrase, color, character, monster, sign, place, image, way of describing something, way of talking, alliteration, simile, character trait, situation, anything. The point is that it repeats. Once it repeats it becomes a trail of breadcrumbs we leave to help the reader or viewer find depth and meaning in our stories. When motifs cross and combine, they reflect and magnify each other, drawing a map that points the audience down paths of allusions, partly inherent in the story and partly supplied by the audience’s experience. This is the theme.
I’ll use my Iraq pilot LIONESS as an example to show how I use motifs. I decided to introduce a new motif in each act, like a recurring chord in a symphony, that, once introduced, would blend together in the end. Each act’s motif shapes the act, giving it a guiding metaphor to direct the action.
These are the ideas that take root in the imaginations of my characters in each act. They discuss them, they see evidence of them all around themselves, they see parallels to them in their environment, more importantly, they DON’T see parallels to them in their environment. These motifs show up in both subtle and un-subtle ways, as jokes, as images, as plot points, as looping topics of conversation.
Act 1: Motif: Bloodshed.
Act 2: Motif: University of Texas Cheerleaders.
Act 3: Motif: Missing Humvee and Suicided Soldier.
Act 4: Motif: We Don’t Leave A Man Behind.
Act 5: Motif: Innards.
You don’t have to tell a serious story to use motifs — my sitcom pilot was standard network fare but also very motif-driven. You can bury them beneath the surface or not. What they give you is a deeper, more meaningful, more textural world.
This is what fancy pants comedy writers talk about in the writers rooms of famous shows: First Thought, Second Thought, Third Thought.
First thought is what everyone thinks of. It’s the joke that 20 people post on Twitter or Facebook. It’s “any relation? Ha ha” when they hear your name is Bush. It’s the first joke that springs to mind — what a lot of people might think is funny. Problem is, comedy relies on surprise. Once you’ve spent any time laughing at jokes, first thought jokes are no longer funny. Because they’re not surprising. They pop into everyone’s heads immediately because we’ve all heard them before. The first thought joke for the picture above would be — “I said medium rare.”
Second thought is what only a few people think of. You take the first thought and build on it — make it more outrageous, more extreme, more prosaic, more defined. Or go in a new direction. If first thought was kind of hacky (meaning obvious, direct, familiar, easy), change course for second thought and take a new angle on the subject. Go literary, go personal, go dirty, go big instead of small (or vice versa), go against the grain of the subject. Second thought is what only a few people think of, because they’re creative and original enough to see things abstracted at that next level. Second thought joke for the picture above would be — “It comes with its own special sauce.”
Third thought is what only you think of. Third thought is what happens when you take second thought and build on it even further, creating a whole new animal. Or you blow past first and second thought altogether and find a completely original, fresh take on the subject that only you, with your unique set of experiences and emotional make-up, could have seen. There’s a reason why so few people make it to third thought: it’s difficult to discipline yourself to always search for the fresher take, to hold out for the joke that only you could have thought of. And you’re not going to make it on every joke. But trying for third thought every time is what will shift your comedy writing to the next level. Third thought joke for the picture above would be — “Aunt Dot’s gonna put her money where her mouth is.”
For most good comics, third thought is automatic. They immediately see and discard all the first thought jokes, they may consider a few second thought jokes, then they land on the third thought joke that’s really them. That’s how they become known for having a unique voice — because everything they say is something just they would say.
Storytelling is comedy writing that isn’t necessarily trying to be funny. Using the tricks of comedy writing — like first thought, second thought, third thought — will sharpen your stories.
Your story is one joke. Even if it lasts 10 seasons. It’s one joke. At least — it should be if your Prius is running on all fuel cells. Whether you’re writing comedy or drama, your entire premise boils down to “. . . but the joke’s on them.” Where “them” = your main characters.
The joke isn’t necessarily funny. But it has that thing that all jokes share: surprise. We start in one world, and we wind up in another, with the old world blown up in our face. That’s what a joke is. When it’s short and tight and sharp, it’s funny. When it depends on context and character, it’s dramatic irony.
Dramatic irony is what happens when we know more than the characters do — because we know them better than they know themselves. Because we perceive something in the situation they don’t. Because we’ve picked up clues they’ve missed. So the joke is on them: they strive, struggle, blithely unaware of what’s about to happen. And we enjoy it. Because when we know more than they do, tension builds as we watch them struggle to find out what we know — because the joke’s on them. And we win. We’re in the superior position.
Dramatic irony happens when a character doesn’t know he’s in a joke, and he’s surprised by the punchline.
Dramatic irony is the joke your character finds least funny right now. Because we want them to suffer. Because that’s what we find funny — or alarming — or affecting — or profound.
Your character may run into variations of the same joke over and over, or she may live out the consequences of the joke slowly over the course of the story. The joke must be clear, and your entire story must boil down to this one joke. To test this, see if you can answer “how is the joke on them?” about your story. Here are some examples:
People survive a plane crash only to fight for their lives against mysterious Others who force them to confront their past lives. (LOST) (joke’s on them.)
A boss loves his office like family but taints everything in it with his incompetence. (THE OFFICE) (joke’s on him — and the other people in his office.)
Humans create a race of machines who now want to destroy them. (BATTLESTAR GALACTICA) (joke’s on them.)
These are TV examples, but it works for all stories.
Distill your story to its essential joke — ask how is this situation a joke on them? — and then repeat that same joke on a larger and larger scale, with greater consequences, until you reach your conclusion or 100th episode. Here’s my post on how to tell a joke.
Telling jokes keeps you tight and light on your feet. And it’s fun. Try it.
A joke is the simplest, most perfect kind of story. It has a subject, a protagonist (sometimes me, sometimes you, sometimes society, etc.) a moment of drama (surprise), a theme. Jokes trace entire journeys in the most direct possible routes.
Learn how to tell a joke, and you’ll know how to tell a story.
Here are some tips I found on a Taco Bell napkin in my handwriting:
1. Leave something to the imagination. Jokes are like sex — if you give it all away, it won’t be fun anymore. But if you leave something implied — leave part of the story of the joke incomplete and give enough detail so the listener makes natural assumptions and finishes it in their mind — they get that little jolt of surprise we call comedy. No matter what kind of story you’re telling, it’s always a good idea to let your audience put two and two together.
2. Most good jokes have a victim. Not all comedy has to be mean. But even the most benign jokes — if funny — are going to target some person, group or entity. Without this there’s no traction, no bite. No feeling of us versus them, with us winning. That feeling of us winning is what makes jokes fun. Most stories need that feeling.
3. Shorter/tighter/better. Cut as many words as you possibly can while still preserving a clear meaning. Rearrange and rearrange words so that you get away with less words but clearer meaning. More direct with less words = funnier. I highly recommend all writers use twitter regularly: it forces you to write short and pithy, and you get instant feedback. There’s nothing like writing to an audience to quickly sharpen your skills. It’s why TV writing and blogging are so good for writers.
4. Always place the funny word or idea at the very end of the joke. Rearrange the syntax however you must so the funniest word falls last. This same principle holds true in all kinds of storytelling — whether going out on the funny word or the dramatic look or the fire that’s destroying all the evidence, we need to end on the idea that will have maximum impact, that we want to LAND with the audience, SURPRISE them and stick around in their heads as long as possible afterwards. Often, you’ll be tempted to tag the joke with an extra little kicker — top yourself with another phrase or idea to make it even funnier. It doesn’t help. If the tag were funnier, you would have just said the tag. All the tag does is dilute the surprise of the first joke. Leave it out. Also, tags make your audience think just heard the joke — and they mistakenly laughed at the setup. They stop laughing so they can hear your real thought. Don’t talk past the close. This holds for dramatic storytelling as well. Go out on the most dramatic moment.
The only time you would consider not landing the joke on the funniest word is if you’re deliberately playing against the traditional expectation of the audience to hear it that way, in which case you’re making yourself the butt of the joke, by choosing to make a conventionally bad joke, knowing the audience knows that you know it’s a bad joke.
5. Hard consonants are funnier. K and CH sounds. D/P/T. Also odd numbers. There are funny numbers — no one knows why. Sometimes trading out a word for an equivalent but funnier-sounding word can make the joke much funnier, but it’s hard to tell where till you try it. There are always substitutions you can make in any story to tighten the screws and make it land harder.
6. References. Constantly be on the lookout for material. Standard joke material gets old very fast. Right now robots and zombies and Ed Hardy and Jon Gosselin and diarrhea are big in the joke-making world. But good jokes are all about surprise, and if you refer to any of these (or a variety of other well-worn topics), you’ll get no surprise from anyone remotely used to hearing jokes. If you look around your own life, you might find a half-drunk bottle of Pimm’s on your living room floor and a stack of Taco Bell napkins covered with joke-writing rules . . . uh, anyway, the more specific the reference the better. And the more unexpected, the more pertinent, and the more completely the specific detail tells a full story — that’s what makes a joke funny.
7. Rule of Threes. First example is to establish. Second to reinforce the pattern. Third to bust expectations. Third example is the funny one. Third should be a twist and/or a build on the first two.
8. Setup/Punchline. Not all jokes have to follow this format (in fact, I’m a big fan of the one-liner and also the more narrative long-form joke, which rambles and is more about making a character out of the person speaking.) However, the setup/punchline — the monologue joke you see on late night talk shows — is the most basic joke form, and it’s stuck around for a reason. People get it. One-liners leave more to the audience’s imagination, the result of wordplay or basic twists of logic or reversals of expectation. But because they’re free-standing — the audience has to do more thinking to understand them — these jokes feel a little more dangerous. Monologue jokes use these techniques as well but feel safer because they always provide a basis for understanding (the setup), so the audience knows exactly what the joke is about. The setup is two lines long, then the punchline is one line. The setup gives just enough information the audience needs to understand the punchline, and nothing more. Anything more confuses or dilutes the focus. I had a mentor who said scenes should be structured like a monologue joke — a good tight setup, then end on a punchline (not necessarily a funny line, but a punchy one that lands). The punchline to a comedy scene is called the “button”.
9. Show the irony. Where do things not match up? Where’s the disconnect in the situation you’re talking about? The disconnect is the heart of the joke. Human nature hates things that don’t match up — it upsets us, so we laugh at it. Once we laugh at it, we feel like we’ve won. We’re in control. We’re no longer upset. That feeling of us winning is very important. Structure your jokes to focus maximum attention on what doesn’t match up — what’s unfair or ridiculous or absurd or opposite to the way things ought to be. This works for dramatic storytelling as well: if you go into every scene with the goal of finding what doesn’t match up and then shining a spotlight the size of the sun on that, your story will shine.
10. Exaggerate — or downplay. Don’t play scared and don’t stay in the middle. This goes back to my rule about risk. If you’re going to compare something to something else — compare it to the most absurd example (not necessarily the biggest or most outlandish of its kind — finding that right, most absurd example is part of the art of joke-making. You know it when you see it.) Or conversely, downplay the comparison. Deflate the joke. This is another way to play against the conventions of joke making. You can do this if you want to really serve the victim of the joke — in other words, this person is so pathetic, I’m only going to compare her to something slightly more pathetic. She doesn’t even rate a good comparison. Drama happens at the extremes, which is why jokes are little drama-nuggets.
11. Take a common word or phrase or assumption that people make and use that as the setup. Then twist it around, invert it, reverse the meaning, turn it back on yourself … turn the setup into a punchline. Play around with the words until it sounds funny. Inverting the familiar is essential in drama.
12. Callbacks. Everybody loves callbacks. Because people like to feel smart, and callbacks make us feel smart for understanding the link between this joke and the last joke. The two jokes multiply their comedy coefficient. There’s also a symmetry to it that human nature responds to. Remember how human nature hates when things don’t match up? Callbacks help us feel like things are matching up. It’s reassuring. It all comes together in the end. Another lesson for dramatic storytelling.
There’s no trick to callbacks (though improv people who do Harolds and stuff like that are masters of the form). Just take a word or reference or element from an earlier joke and use it as a word or reference or element in this joke. Preferably your final joke. And preferably your punchline. You can do as many as you want, but doing too many starts to feel like resting on your laurels. A good dramatic story becomes satisfying with the right callbacks — references, words, gestures, symbols, characters that remind us of where the story was and where it’s going. But again, too much of this keeps the story backward looking when you’re trying to move forward.
And it’s that simple. You can read some of my jokes on Twitter by looking to your right. I’m gonna go see a movie.
“We look for the places where the conditions are the worst — the places where others are not going — and that’s where we want to be.”
This is a motto taken from a Doctors Without Borders map of the world hanging on my wall. I read it often–it resonates with me. And it occurred to me today this could be the storyteller’s motto as well.
When we find the places where the conditions are the worst — whether most uncomfortable or the largest gap between a character’s self-conception and the way others see him (comedy) or most emotional, most significant, widest gap between what a character wants and what they feel they can do (drama) — that’s where we want to be. That’s where we find the best stories. Especially where others are not going, because we want to be brave and bold and get there first. We want to be discoverers, leaders, not followers. We want to forge the path to new stories and new ways of looking at familiar stories. Because storytelling never suffers from settings, scenarios, relationships that are too dramatic: instead, storytelling’s enemies are the bland, the banal, the familiar. We go where the conditions are worst, whether on a suburban street or far afield, because we want to be where others are not going.
We could think of ourselves as doctors without borders: surgeons moving freely across boundaries and territories.
Jaime Weinman is a critic (and my friend) who has an astonishing knowledge and understanding of TV and pop culture. I love this post about “comedy writer jokes” in The Simpsons, prompted by the DVD release of Season 12 this week.
Most comedy writers loathe analyzing jokes, feeling you kill the magic by dissecting it. But I find it really interesting, especially when, as here, there’s trenchant analysis of jokes — that comment on jokes — for an audience of joke writers.
Jaime points out that by Season 12 on The Simpsons, writer George Meyer’s style was predominant, and that style had less to do with the character-based situational comedy that sit-coms are founded upon and more to do with a quirky, meta, layered, self-reflexive, post-modern wordplay.
It’s sort of a joke about a joke, where the humour is supposed to come not from the characters and their reactions to their situations, but from the writer’s attempt to put his own ironic twist on the thing you might expect to hear in that situation.
The example I always use from season 12 of The Simpsons – I don’t know if Meyer came up with it, but it certainly is a Meyeresque joke — is when Grandpa Simpson says that he was such a great grifter in his youth that “They used to call me Grifty McGrift.” The line is supposed to be funny because it’s not funny, because in a spot that normally calls for a funny turn of phrase, the writer could not come up with any turn of phrase at all, and just repeated the word “Grift” twice. Another favourite George Meyer joke technique is to have a character describe a plan as “Operation ______” and then fill in something that’s just a straight, prosaic description of whatever he’s going to do: “Time for Operation Mail-Take.” “Now for Operation Strike Make-O Longer.” “Now for Operation Christmas-Remind-Her-Of-How-Good-Is.” (A George Meyer line that was cut from an early episode, according to a commentary, was “You couldn’t find Mr. Burns’ inner goodness with a Mr. Burns’ inner-goodness-finding-machine.”) It is not really a joke, it’s, as someone else put it, a parody of bad writing. And that’s why I think of it as comedy-writer comedy, because it references their own struggles in coming up with jokes and their own intimate knowledge of old joke structures. It never once sounds like anything an actual human being might say. This also applies to jokes that are based on the assumption that it’s funny to hear a deliberately awkward turn of phrase, like “Don’t worry, I’m not a stabbing hobo, I’m a singing hobo,” or “She changed her name to Appleseed and her family changed theirs to Buffalkill.” The main joke there is just that it sounds a little weird.