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.
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.
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.
Paul Feig–writer/producer of Freaks and Geeks, Arrested Development, The Office–gives The Guardian some great comedy writing lessons. Here’s one:
“3. Make them cringe
“Regardless of where or when your story is set, it’s important for the people in any comedy to act just like real people act. That means not speaking in a constant stream of pithy one-liners. It means getting into the same sort of horrible, awkward situations we all get into every day. Easily the most funny, fascinating and cringeworthy time in anyone’s life is school. It’s the only time that you get lumped in with a whole bunch of people without any filter; it’s not to do with skills or interests, just age. And you’re forced to spend every day with them for years. With Freaks And Geeks I wanted to write scenes that people would squirm while watching because it would seem so familiar. Seeing people cringe is the jackpot for me. The thing is, not everyone wants to sit through the exact same situations they already had to go through at school. So it’s the jackpot that nobody wants to win!””