Thursday, May 24, 2018

"I Wrote A Joke Once"

And I am quite proud of it.

As iconic baseball announcer Vin Scully, concerning a dribbling single into the outfield would say, 

“‘Tis a small thing but thine own.”

That’s how I feel about my joke.

‘Tis a small thing but mine own.

Classically structured jokes did not come easily to me.   Which is a problem in a business that expects them in busloads. 

Jokes are the “raw meat” of successful sitcomery, particularly those filmed in front of a live studio audience.  And, like the plant in Little Shop of Horrors, the demanding beast is continually ravenous.

I have been in the company of many superlative joke writers.  I marvel at their ability to conjure something – something truly hilarious – out of nothing.  

Great joke writers are comedy initiators.  Their jokes are entirely sui generis– which has surprisingly nothing to do with generous pigs.  (I shall now move to the next paragraph so that the of stench of the previous sentence does not contaminate my subsequent remarks.)

Great joke writers are self-starting machines, in the most awe-striking sense of the word.  They are not “married to the moment”, or any specific joke they come up with.  Their only concerning moment is the practical “reality moment” in the arduous rewrite process.

The moment that needs someoneto come up with a joke.

With their ingenious invention, a once “dead spot” in the script now embeds an exploding canister of laughter.  It’s like they plucked “hilariously funny” out of thin air.  Saving the rewrite night, and getting us home before breakfast.

I was a different kind of joke writer.  (Or, as my first half-hour comedy boss once described it, not a joke writer at all.) Still, I somehow got laughs.

Unlike the “pure” joke writers, my favored M.O. involved jokes rising from a contextual underpinning. Dramatic, emotional, emerging directly from character.  Sometimes, the generating source was a vague knowledge of the territory, laced with personalized silliness.  

I recall a vignette in the Best of the Westpilot.  Daniel, Sam Best’s disgruntled eleven-year old son had just insulted his Dad’s new wife, Elvira, a high-born aristocrat from the ante bellum South.  Sam insists Daniel apologize to her.  And from that we get this:


DANIEL:  “I’m sorry, Mammy.”

SAM “Daniel!”

DANIEL”  “I thought in the South they said ‘Mammy.’”

ELVIRA:  “They do. But not to their Mommy.”

DANIEL:  “You’re not my Mommy.”

ELVIRA:  “Well I’m certainly not your Mammy.”

So there’s that.

By contrast, the only joke I can remember that I both liked and that fit the standard joke-writing template is the following, which comes from Taxi.

Yada-yada-yada – Tony is boxing a far superior fighter.  His supportive friends ponder the encouraging “upside” of this impending lopsided encounter. 

ALEX:  Y’know, playing tennis with ‘A’ players, it somehow steps up my game.

BOBBY:  “I know. Working with more experienced actors, I amazingly rise to their level.”

ELAINE:  “It’s the same thing with sex.”

ALEX:  “You get better?”

ELAINE:  “They do.”

That joke got a pretty good laugh.  Although it’s not what I normally shoot for, sometimes, it takes mimicking others to get by. When there’s no nourishing context to draw from, the “formula joke” is the only available bridging “B”, moving the dialogue from “A” to “C.”  Of course, I dohave my preference.  Or is it my natural proclivity that makesit my preference?  I never know which one of those comes first.

Again from Best of the West, a distraught Daniel runs to his Stepmom for comfort, his nose buried in her voluminous attire.  There is a touching bonding moment.  At the end of which a near smothered Daniel curiously inquires,

“How long has this dress been in the trunk?”

(ALA W.C. FIELDS)  Ah, yes.  “Exploiting the moment.” 

Anyone who understands traditional joke construction can concoct some version of a joke.

But I like to think the foregoing was entirely earli generis.

That’s not me, bragging. I was different and lucky.  

The successful rewrite room combines a variety of writing styles.  

Thankfully, one style they included was mine.

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