If you make your career as a comedy writer, it’s a good idea to learn how to write funny in a variety of different mediums. That’s especially true these days with new media popping up faster than you can say, “tweet.” Taking as my inspirations such multi-hyphenates as Woody Allen and Steve Martin, I’ve always subscribed to the notion that if you can write funny in one format you can write funny in any format. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t some differences in structure and technique for what works in one media versus another. So, before you leap into, for instance, turning your stand up act into a sitcom pilot, or converting an idea you had for a sitcom into what you figure would be even a better idea for a screenplay, here’s just a few considerations that might be helpful.
Stand up jokes have an obvious structure. As most anyone who plies the comic trade knows, each joke consists of a “premise,” a “set-up” and a “punch line.” Deconstruct any joke and you will find these elements. The premise brings up a topic. The set-up narrows the focus. The punch line provides the leap in reasoning that results in a laugh.
Even jokes that go by so quickly that they seem to have no time for these three elements, do, upon further examination, have them. For instance, comedian Richard Morris had a great joke, “Why do they call dead people ‘late?’ They’re not ‘late,’ – they’re not coming!” Where’s the premise? It’s implied. I.E., “Some words are confusing” is the premise, making the completed joke, “Some words are confusing. Like, why do they call dead people ‘late’… et cetera.”
If you can write stand up jokes, with just a slight adjustment in your thinking, you can easily write sitcom jokes. They also are comprised of premise, set-up, punch line. The only difference is, the three elements are divided up and then spoken by two or more characters. For instance, from Two Broke Girls, here’s hard-bitten Max, talking to ex-socialite, Caroline:
Oh come on, you’d be a terrible hooker.
Thank you, I would be a terrible hooker. I have a heart, and soul, and dreams, and wanna fall in love and have a family.
Oh, just say it, you’re bad in bed.
Re-write this as a standard joke and you’ve got:
(Premise.) Some women when they talk, you have to be to translate. (Set-up) Like they’ll tell you, “I have a heart, and a soul, and dreams, and I wanna fall in love and have a family.” And, I’m like, “girl, just say it, (Punch line) you’re bad in bed!”
That said, it is not true that you want to your sitcom script to be chock full of jokes that could be equally at home in a stand up routine. That sort of script plods along – the dialogue moves the story, then stops dead in it’s tracks for a joke, then the dialogue gets going again, advancing the story a bit, then stops once again for a joke… et cetera, et cetera. Here’s an example from Two a Half Men, from last season. Charlie is asking his fiancé, Chelsea, what it’s like to be living with her gay father and his lover who were, years ago, in the Navy. The exchange takes place during an episode where neither the A story, nor the B story concern Chelsea’s Dad.
How is it living with your Dad? Two old Navy guys shacking up?
The walls are thin. Every night I hear “Up periscope. Down periscope. Launch the torpedoes.”
Enough idle chit chat.
As you’ll notice, even the writers knew that the action had come to a halt to get this joke in. They have Charlie follow up the “torpedo” line with, “Enough idle chit chat,” as if to say, “Okay, now let’s get back to what this episode is actually all about!”
If you look at the sitcoms over the years that have been tops in the ratings – not to mention critically acclaimed, not to mention good choices for specs – from Mary Tyler Moore, to Cheers to Modern Family, they mostly have been shows where you have laugh lines that fit seamlessly into the flow.
How is that accomplished? It’s pretty simple. We know that for a sitcom to work, it must have distinctive characters. To come up with a good episode, you put your distinctive characters into a situation. Then, you see how the characters behave. To get dialogue, you have the various distinctive characters react to how the other distinctive characters behave. Pretty simple.
Here’s an example from an episode of Modern Family. The B story for the episode concerns Phil Dunphy trying to come up with something that his son, Luke Dunphy, can excel at. He decides maybe baseball is the answer.
EXT. DUNPHY HOUSE – FRONT YARD
Phil squats in a catcher’s stance. Luke assumes a pitcher’s stance.
Okay, let’s burn one in here.
Luke winds up and throws a wild pitch well over Phil’s head.
Luke throws wildly again.
Now we’re gettin’ there.
Luke throws another wild pitch.
That one was my fault.
Luke throws another bad pitch.
Are we a hundred percent sure you’re not a lefty?
After three more wild pitches:
Okay, good first hour. Toss me that glove, I’ll put some oil on it.
The glove goes flying over Phil’s head.
Situation: Distinctive character (A) and distinctive character (B) play baseball.
Behavior: (B) is lousy at baseball.
Response: (A) is unable to accept the obvious.
And the jokes not only don’t stop the action, they advance the narrative, moving the story forward which makes for a great 22 minutes of television comedy.
Although the lines above would fit nicely into a movie comedy, much of what comprises sitcom dialogue doesn’t work in film. Just like when we go see Superman we make the buy that a guy can fly, when we flip on the TV we make the buy that not only Phil Dunphy, but every single member of his immediate and extended family, is hilarious all day long! But, when we plunk down $12 at the multiplex our expectations are different. We want to see characters that are more nearly like folks in real life. The dilemma for the writer is how do my film characters get the audience laughing if they have to be just like regular folks?
To solve that problem there are several good techniques and strategies.
First, you can designate one or two characters to make wisecracks constantly. That’s fine. We all know folks who are constantly making jokes. Just so long as it’s not everybody. So, for instance, if the Dunphys showed up in your movie, Phil could be a jokester, but keep the rest of the family playing it straight. One other proviso: Even the character who is full of one-liners, should occasionally get serious. In Knocked Up for instance, Paul Rudd’s character, a father of two young daughters, makes a joke out of everything. His wife says he’s got to stay home and baby-sit. He says, “Yeah! We can watch Taxicab Confessions!” His wife says that he shouldn’t get the kids overexcited before a long trip in the car. He says, “I shouldn’t have given them all that meth then.” But, during a scene where he and his wife confront the difficulties in their marriage, he stops joking around and a more sensitive side of his personality emerges. This makes him both recognizably multi-dimensional and more likable – both important attributes for your characters, particularly in a light comedy.
You want other characters to get their chance at being funny, too. But when? You don’t want it to be random. Instead, a good strategy is to ground the personalities of your characters by having their own particular brand of humor get set off by particular triggers. For instance, in My Cousin Vinny, – the story of two very New Yawky New Yorkers trapped in a small southern town – Marisa Tomei’s, Ms. Mona Lisa Vito, mostly plays it straight. When her boyfriend Vinny thinks too highly of himself, however, she always has a zinger – including one of the most deliciously delivered bits of sarcasm ever heard in the history of film:
You stick out like a sore thumb around here.
MONA LISA VITO:
Me? What about you?
I fit in better than you. At least I’m wearing cowboy boots.
MONA LISA VITO:
Oh yeah, you blend.
Another example is Owen Wilson’s character, John Beckwith, in Wedding Crashers. Mostly, Wilson plays straight man to Vince Vaughn’s, Jeremy Grey. He’s even quite sappy in many scenes. But, not when he’s caught in a lie. Every time he’s almost talked himself into a corner, he talks his way back out with hilarious results. Here he tries to convince Rachel McAdams character, who he’s fallen for, that although he’s (supposedly) a venture capitalist he’s not “all about money!”
(making this up as he goes along)
Like what? Oh, you know, we’ve got a company that, uh, takes the wool from sheep and uh, and turns it into thread for the homeless people to sew…into…cloth and then make, you know shirts and pants to sell at a profit. Everybody wins.
Having your character be funny only at selected times not only makes them more believable, it also sets up a nice feeling of expectation in the audience. We look forward to Ms. Vito getting ticked off at Vinny, or John Beckwith getting tripped up by his own tall tales, because we know we’ll once again be laughing.
Of course, all strategies and techniques, no matter what the medium, have their exceptions. In the case of Two and Half Men for instance, which I complained about above, you could ask yourself, “With stilted dialogue like that, who the heck would want to watch such a show?” And your answer would be, “Apparently everyone, because until this year, Two and Half Men was the always one of the top rated sitcoms on the schedule!” But, by and large, having a clear understanding of what works and what doesn’t, before starting out on a project, is preferable to trial and error. Likewise, having some repeatable techniques to put in your writing toolbox, offers a better guarantee of success.
Jonathan Leigh Solomon is a stand up comedian who has appeared regularly on the Late Show with David Letterman. He teaches comedy and humor writing as part of the faculty for the extension programs at Santa Monica College, East LA College and Mission College. He has guest lectured at UCLA Extension and NYU. His essays on comedy appear in the Huffington Post, and his classes and products are available at The Writers Store.