Wednesday, January 4, 2012

"Sitcom Slang"

I imagine every business has its little shorthand and jargon, some secret patois that the people in that business share with each other, to the exclusion of outsiders. This surgeon I met recently related an acronym, whose gist was, “This guy is so beyond help, the best we can do is to sew him back up and send him home to die.” I’m sorry I forgot the acronym. I was too terrified to retain the specifics. Though I remember his name, so if I get sick, I can ask for somebody else.

Sitcom writers also have slang. I recall, for example, the phrase,” Stabbing the frog.”

“Stabbing the frog” is “Rewrite Room” jargon. Somebody pitches a joke to replace a joke in the script that didn’t get a laugh. The rewrite room cracks up. Then, before the new joke is stenographized into script, someone will suggest a minor adjustment in the line, in an effort to make it more punchy (which usually involves using less words), or clearer, or more logical, and therefore, ostensibly, funnier.

At this point, someone, generally the person who pitched the replacement joke, will claim that the person proposing the adjustment is “stabbing the frog”, meaning that they’re arbitrarily and unnecessarily trying to improve a joke that doesn’t need improvement, the message being, “Leave it alone.”

At which point, I would close my mouth, and we’d move on in the script.

Before I move on, a humble rationalization, that came to me only recently, after years of not thinking about it, though the scars of rebuke remain imprinted on my psyche.

What it boils down to is a difference in writing styles. Some writers “nail it” on the first try. Their original pitch is instinctively the right one. My process requires multiple shots at it. (That’s why writing this posts take a comparatively long time. My first pass is relatively swift. What extends matters is, what others might call “Stabbing the frog”, but I call “Making it better.” Strange thing. When I’m talking spontaneously, I regularly “get it right” on the first try. This somehow, however, happens less often when I’m writing.)

Moving on…

Over the years, in an effort to speed up communication, I invented a few sitcom slang phrases of my own, which speeded up nothing, since, as I had just made them up and, consequently, nobody had heard them before, I was required to stop and clarify what they meant.

I would, for example, talk about “slicing the baloney thin.” This, to me, is a very important concept. If you want your series to last a long time, and you don’t want to run out of story ideas, it is best that the “changes” the regular characters go through be subtle and gradual. If the series “villain” learns their lesson in “Episode One”, the writer has nowhere to go with that character in “Episode Two”, and any episode thereafter. The character’s “journey” is complete, and you’ve lost your “villain.”

A wiser approach is to keep the changes miniscule, possibly explainable, by the character, as not really being changes at all, thus keeping the character’s core characteristics alive and viable, and allowing the baloney as a whole to provide the series with a syndication-worth ( a hundred at least) number of slices.

I also talked about, in the matter of constructing a joke, the issue of “using too much gunpowder.” Here’s an example, not from a script but from real life, in which using “too much gunpowder” renders a joke unfunny.

A friend of mine, close to my age, recently got a regular writing job. The assignment was on a cable network, and knowing I was jealous, he tried to soften the blow by saying that the salary was so low, “It’s almost like I’m paying them.”

Too much gunpowder.

Meaning? He had “overloaded” his statement, making the disparity between the low salary he was receiving and what we were used to receiving on network shows hyper-exaggeratedly greater than it actually was. (“It’s almost like I’m paying them.”) The comparison challenged credulity. The result? No tension-releasing laugh.

Besides, the guy had a job and I didn’t.

I also coined the phrase, going “a joke too far.” This is comparable to a boxer punching his adversary hard enough that the adversary drops to the canvas, then going over and punching him again.

Needless. Diminishes the achievement of the original punch. The fun is all gone. And you’ve lost them. (The audience. And possibly the boxer.)

A final example is a phrase I lifted from a joke my brother once told me that a fellow writer named David Panich told him.

A mad scientist takes a colleague down to his basement laboratory to show him the results of his latest experiment which he’s been working on for years – the two-headed dog.

“It’s amazing” crowed the mad scientist. “You can feed one head, and the other head doesn’t even know he’s eating.”

“Very interesting”, replied his colleague, “but it seems like a long way to go just to fool a dog.”

A writer has to make sure that their story has enough weight to be worth telling. And not over-extend it, thereby risking going “a joke too far” or weigh it down by using “too much gunpowder” or expose too much information at once, thereby “slicing the baloney too thick.”

I have reached the end of this post. It is now time for revisions. Am I in jeopardy of “stabbing the frog”? I hope not. But it’s my frog, and I can stab it as many times as I want.

(Originally, that last sentence read “...and I can stab it as much as I want.” Hm. I wonder if it should be “… and I can stab it as often as I want.”

I have to think about this.)


M@ said...

I love this kind of post, Earl -- hilarious and informative.

I admit I laughed at the two-headed dog story, but I'm not sure what phrase you lifted from the story, or what it means. Are you saying that when someone puts a joke together that goes too far to merit the weak punch line, you'd call the joke a two-headed dog?

I'll never be a sitcom writer, but this is all so fascinating that I really want to understand these little phrases completely.

Philo said...

Another form of "slicing the baloney thin" is "steering the Titanic." When a huge ship needs to change course, they don't just "hang a left" - they come over very slowly, degree by degree, until they're on the new heading.
While the phrase is often used to talk about something you *can't* change quickly (like the economy), I've also seen it used with respect to something that *shouldn't* be changed quickly.

Zaraya said...

Dear Mr. Pomerantz; do you think there's a sitcom idea in a behind the scenes look of a sitcom show? Oh, 30Rock... nvm.

I find your blog more entertaining because it seems to be mostly true. The antics on 30Rock went a bit too far as you covered here today.


Frank said...

If you stab the frog too much does the joke croak?

Tania said...

(Earl, firstly I apologise for my many comments today. I just discovered you and your blog and I'm over-excited. I feel like a psych student who has just discovered Jung and then discovered that Jung has a blog.)

Given what you've written in this post and your views on comedy equalling truth plus ten per cent, what do you think is not working as well as it could be on
Community and 30 Rock? I feel that they are veering off course because the writers appear to be following the gag or funny story idea rather than the character and the character's story/truth. (I call this character abuse). Glee does this a lot with the Sue Sylvester character.

I watched an early episode of 30 Rock (Jack-tor) recently and noticed the comedy was less ridiculous, the gags seemed to be more character based, and though there were fewer jokes the laughs were bigger.

Do you watch these shows? What's your opinion of when it does and doesn't work?