COMEDY WRITING: How to Fix a Broken Joke

Comedy writers need to put their best and funniest feet forward on EVERY page. Evan Smith found the cure for a broken joke!


Evan Smith has written for NBC, CBS, FOX, USA, and various producers, and has worked as a programming VP responsible for developing network TV movies, specials, and series. Evan is the author of the bestselling book WRITING TELEVISION SITCOMS, teaches screenwriting at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, and he serves as a private script consultant for screenwriters and entertainment companies.

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Have you ever been blasting through a first draft and you’re just so happy because you know exactly what should happen next, and your characters are practically writing their own lines, and you start the next joke, the setup’s great, and you dive into the punchlineandandehhh

Okay, technically you did just type something. Words where a punchline should be. But they’re not funny words.

But wait, back up, you reread it, yes, yesnonostill not funny. And now the punchline seems stupid too. Or forced or corny, or just something the character would never say.

Fine, reset. What if she saidor if heor theyor if that thing with the thing? Ugh. Crap. Each new punchline seems worse than the others. And that blasting through thing? Yeah that’s done. And your characters won’t even look at you now. And you start to doubt the last three jokes you wrote—they probably stink too.

Script EXTRA: Every Script Deserves a Good Beating

Ever happen to you? If not, congratulations—you are a creative genius. Or a really bad writer who has no clue. Because every other comedy writer on the planet has faced this many times. I’ve sat in a room with eight high-paid pros all trying to fix one broken joke for ten-plus minutes, pitching punchline after punchlineuntil finally we set the problem aside with a “JTC” notation (“joke to come”) or settled for the least heinous of the punchlines suggested. Later, someone might eventually come up with a brilliant fix but often a crammed production schedule results in settling for “close enough.”

Unfortunately, “close enough” doesn’t sell spec scripts or launch a new writer’s career. One needs to put one’s best and funniest foot forward on EVERY page. Well, good news: I found the cure for a broken joke! I did!  Well, “a” cure. But it works. It’s a lesson I learned years ago, and it’s so simple it should be obvious and yet

Let me tell you a story.

WORDS WHERE A PUNCHLINE SHOULD BE

Early in my career, back in the 90s, I worked on a new FOX sitcom called Hotel Dicks. No, you never heard of it. The show fell victim to a clean sweep ordered when a new executive took over the studio. The series was canceled just as we began production—welcome to Hollywood.

Anyway, one day I was in my office working on a draft, blasting right through, when I hit a wall. The scene had been moving along nicely, very funny, and I just needed a small punchline to break up a speech. Nothing big, just a passing thing, butnothing. Nada. I stared, I typed, I talked to myself, talked in characters’ voices, but I could not come up with a good line to pay off the moment. What was the scene about? The episode? The series?

THE SERIES featured two fast-talking hotel detectives who were constantly dreaming up ways to make money and avoid work, and who ran their crazy schemes right under the nose of the suspicious hotel manager.  R&B singers Morris Day and Jerome Benton of The Time played the leads.

COMEDY WRITING: How to Fix a Broken Joke

Singers Morris Day and Jerome Benton starred as two fast-talking, always scheming HOTEL DICKS. Photo by Chris McKay/FilmMagic.

In THIS EPISODE, Morris and Jerome secretly open a detective school in the basement of the hotel, hoping to recruit students who would both pay tuition and do the detectives’ work for them—what could be better? (Yeah, this show was a broad comedy built on physical gags and over-the-top stories; the main target audience was teenage boys, so “go big” was the order of the day.)

Script EXTRA: 10 Reasons Why Maybe They Do Make Them Like They Used To 

I was writing an early sequence of the episode when I hit that what’s-the-punchline wall. In THIS SCENE, Morris and Jerome have borrowed a hotel room to shoot a cheesy commercial for their new detective school. We see a typical hotel guest (hotel co-worker Denise) about to disrobe when a masked intruder (co-worker Ernie) suddenly appears, frightening her. Denise screams, and suddenly hotel detective Morris swoops into the room (how? from where? not important!) and kung-fu’s the bad guy with one kick. Intruder goes down, damsel swoons, and Morris turns to camera to begin his pitch:

DENISE: You saved me! With your bare hands!
MORRIS: That’s right. And I still look good. (SMOOTHES HIS HAIR)  Just one of the many skills I learned at “I.H.D.”
DENISE: The “Institute of Hotel Detecting”?
MORRIS: Right again. At I.H.D. you learn all about firearms, self-defense, arrest procedures—all the best crime-fighters have studied at I.H.D.!
DENISE: Really? Like who?
MORRIS: Likelikeehhh

Yeah, that “ehhh” was me, not Morris, not knowing how to pay off the last setup. This is where I hit a wall, and here’s why.

The joke’s setup has Denise asking Morris to name well-known crime-fighters who’ve graduated from I.H.D. So who would that be? Elliot Ness? Old news. J. Edgar Hoover? Old news but could be funny old news—but that joke would require an additional comment from Morris or Denise to get the laugh. And that would create so much additional dialogue that it would bog down Morris’s pitch. (This is a cheesy commercial, right? It’s all about quickly throwing out a bunch of wild claims and then flashing an “800” number.) So, answering Denise’s prompt in a literal fashion did not work.

Another option was to have Denise say only “Really?” and have Morris not even respond, but just jump to his next outrageous claim. But that’s a cheat. It would sort of work, but that joke setup you left hanging would leave this part of the scene feeling unfinished. Not good.

Nor were any other of the options I dreamt up as I sat and sat, struggling with what should be just one little joke. At some point, I even considered:

DENISE: Really? Who?
MORRIS: I could tell you
DENISE: But then you’d have to kill me.

Hey, I was desperate! And starving too, it was way past lunchtime. But I swore to myself I wouldn’t do anything else until I solved this problem.

Script EXTRA: Setup and Payoff – Writing Foreshadowing

And then a miracle happened. An angel appeared in my doorway. Actually, it was one of the producers, but with all that light from the window behind him  Anyway, he invited me to lunch, I explained my problem, and he said three magical words: “Change the setup?”

WHOA! Stop! Wait a minute. Of course. I hadn’t thought about changing the setup because the one already written felt like a setup, it felt like a solid prompt for a joke. But if I couldn’t find a good punchline after all this effort

So, as the producer strolled off to have a nice lunch, I backed up to look at that damn setup:

MORRIS: At I.H.D. you learn all about firearms, self-defense, arrest procedures—all the best crime-fighters have studied at I.H.D.!

Several things immediately popped into my head:

1. “All the best crime-fighters” is a bit vague. In comedy, it’s best to be specific, to paint a picture so the viewer can instantly “see” the joke.

2. There weren’t a lot of real-life crime-fighters in the world, and the famous ones were old news. So why not use big action stars that everyone knows instead? That’s very specific. And it would make the claim even more outrageous, which could mean a bigger laugh.

3. Much like modern shows South Park and Archer, this series included campy references to dated celebrities and institutions, so could that work here?

4. Remember the mission: This is just a quick hit-and-run joke that’s part of Morris’s big sales pitch, so it mustn’t slow things down by adding lots of dialogue.

It took about a nanosecond for these thoughts to flash through my head. And maybe one second more to come up with a fix.

DENISE: You saved me! With your bare hands!
MORRIS: That’s right. And I still look good. (SMOOTHES HIS HAIR)  Just one of the many skills I learned at “I.H.D.”
DENISE: The “Institute of Hotel Detecting”?
MORRIS: Right again. You’ve heard of Mike Tyson, Clint Eastwood, Steven Segal?
DENISE: Yes!
MORRIS: So have most of our students.  At I.H.D. you learn all about firearms, self-defense

Bam! Mission accomplished! Was this the best joke in the script? No. The biggest? It wasn’t supposed to be. But it provided a quick laugh without slowing down Morris’s sales pitch. And as a bonus, it revealed an important part of Morris’s character—he was such a charmer that he didn’t worry about little things like his claims being outrageous or illogical.

Other lessons from all this? Lunch is a great motivator. At least for me. And though we write from inspiration, mostly, craft is often the thing that saves us when a punchline refuses to cooperate. The next time you just can’t figure out how to fix a broken joke, remember those three magical words: change the setup.

More articles by Evan Smith
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