Ever heard this old screenwriting adage: “They don’t cut funny”? It’s one that’s tried and true. And sometimes painful to hear. The “they” are often the last people you want messing with your script — the decision-makers. If they’re suggesting to cut one of your jokes, it probably means it’s not funny.
Screenwriter Jeffrey Davis (The Love Boat, Night Court) and professor Peter Desberg know that cutting pain all too well. Authors of the new book Show Me the Funny!, they have taken their knowledge — as well as knowledge gleaned from interviews with some of Hollywood’s top comedy writers — to educate aspiring sitcom scribes. Script sat down with Davis and Desberg to get the secrets on how to keep your jokes on the page.
SCRIPT: What’s the biggest challenge of being a TV comedy writer today?
PETER DESBERG: There are far fewer writing jobs in television comedy because compared to 20 years ago there are almost no freelance assignments; everything is written by staffs. In addition, there are people who have worked their way up from writers’ assistant, moved over from drama and there are far more graduate and undergraduate writing programs at universities.
SCRIPT: How has the industry changed in the past 5 or 10 years?
JEFFREY DAVIS: The network television business has become more “corporatized” which translates to networks are less willing to take risks and more interested in copying what’s been seen and worked. During the last half dozen years those risks have been assumed by both basic and premium cable in much edgier shows like Louie, Nurse Jackie, and Weeds, which in turn have influenced network television as exemplified by the hit Modern Family.
SCRIPT: Why did you feel there was need for this book on the market?
PETER DESBERG: The creative processes of comedy writers fascinated us; when we looked at the dozens and dozens of books on the market we saw that all the how-to books suggested there is only one way to write comedy and all the interview books showed how writers think they write. We wanted to see how they actually do it in real time.
SCRIPT: How does your advice differ from others?
JEFFREY DAVIS: Every writer in our book from the late great Sherwood Schwartz (Gilligan’s Island, The Brady Bunch) to Ed Dector (There’s Something About Mary) testifies to the fact there is no one way to create comedy, which is very different from what most of the gurus will tell you. Comedy writers we interviewed use a variety of methods and devices. The one thing they all agreed on is that all great comedy comes out of conflict.
SCRIPT: Why should a beginner read your book?
PETER DESBERG: Students using Show Me the Funny! have found a wealth of devices and strategies to model their own work on. As an example, almost every writer has advised to create from your gut.
SCRIPT: List a few tips on how to “show me the funny.”
JEFFREY DAVIS: In addition to creating conflict, comedy writers rely on personal experience and observation.
- Yvette Bowser (Living Single) suggests keeping large index cards on which a writer can list all the weird and fun traits of a character and his or her backstory.
- Marc Sheffler (Who’s The Boss, Harry and the Hendersons) told us that the mistake new writers make is to start writing the script too soon, before they have gotten to know the characters. He suggests carrying a small notebook around and jotting down funny ideas for scenes, characters, and situations.
- All the writers interviewed said that jokes are expendable if they don’t serve the story you are writing. Don’t be afraid to go two pages without a laugh if the story is compelling.
PETER DESBERG: And, wear green on Thursdays.