“Not funny,” I heard myself respond to a writer’s joke pitch in the Major Dad rewrite room at midnight, my sensitivity submerged by my impatience to get the job done (and get in my car and go home and lie down in my bed.)
(Note: I never said “Not funny” to the Major Dad staff writers I had hired, only to the man with whom the studio had shotgunned me into partnership for that project, a misguided wannabe who had succeeded in a “banter”-detective show and thus imagined himself “a comedy writer.” Still, borrowing a line from Mr. Saturday Night, I could have been nicer about it.)
I have begun with, what for me at least, is the exception. The only place where “Not funny” is appropriate:
The television rewrite room.
And I shall now explain why.
Every comedy show has a style that differentiates it from every other comedy show. (If it doesn’t, it’s a “copy-cat” demanded by the network to repeat the success of an earlier “hit”, and it invariably fails. How many disastrous Friends retreads have there been?)
A joke pitched in a rewrite room achieving a “Put it in!” – as in “Put that joke into the script” – will only get in if it fits the identifiable sensibilities of that show, as determined by whoever’s in charge of that show, whose word in that particular venue is law.
Such standards unquestionably differ. It is entirely possible – and likely even – that a joke deemed hilarious in one show’s rewrite room will be rejected – and possibly ridiculed – in another.
Employing old sitcoms as examples – as I am an elderly comedy writer – a “scream” in the Three’s Company rewrite room risks of being derisively hooted at in Taxi’s (“It’s too broaaaad!”). Similarly, a successful joke pitched for Taxi might well receive a curled-up-nose reaction at Laverne and Shirley. (“It’s a ‘Thinkah’”, meaning you have to think about it too hard.)
This reality blows the objective “That’s funny” and its Malevolent Twin “That’s not funny” delineation right out of the water. Very little is funny to everybody. (Except, according to my daughter, a man receiving a surprise shot to his nether area causing him to double over in agony. To her, that – and only that – is universally funny.)
The near converse to “Very little is funny to everybody” is arguably, “Everything is funny to somebody.”
I assertively proclaim that the jokes on current sitcoms are funny to the runners of those particular sitcoms. They have to be. Otherwise, how would they determine which jokes to include in the script and which jokes to leave out? As with the sitcoms of yore, every current sitcom conforms to its own differentiating standard. (Even if, paraphrasing the racially uneducated: “They all sound the same to me.”)
“Not funny”? Absolutely. In the rewrite room. Everywhere else? My personal suggestion:
“It’s not for me.”
Moving on. Rapidly.
Question: Is today’s comedy approach as Ken Levine implies “not working” – by which I assume he means failing in the ratings – because it is “Not funny”? Or are the shows not successful in the ratings because the audience for which they were targeted has no interest in watching commercial television? (While an older audience screams at its television, “We’re watching, you idiots! Make sitcoms for us!”)
Maybe it isn’t the strategy that’s not working, but the delivery system itself. (God willing, that was the appropriate use of “delivery system.” I am on shaky ground in that department. Hopefully, you understood what I meant. I have said “aerial” instead of “antenna” and had people just look at me.)
Finally – and I have mentioned this before in the tedious context of “single-camera” sitcoms versus multi-camera “Filmed before a live audience’” sitcoms –
Writers do not write comedy for movies the same way they write comedy for the theater. (Contrasting examples by the same writer – Neil Simon’s written-directly-for-the-screen The Goodbye Girl, whose screenplay was nominated for an Oscar versus his adapted-a-play-into-a-movie Barefoot in the Park, which deservedly was not.)
(Announcement: Two commenters examined this issue in a more illuminating manner than I can. I shall post their observations tomorrow, in case you missed them, thinking “What do they know?” Trust me, he bragged shamelessly, my commenters know.)
Okay, that’s all I’ve got.
Except for this questionable addendum.
You know that schoolyard joke: “You can pick your friends, and you can pick your nose? But you can’t pick your friend’s nose”?
What you think is funny is up to you. My advice?
Stay away from other people’s comedy noses.