A few weeks ago, I watched the Hallowe'en episode of Modern Family - in which Mitchell ends up hiding in a toilet cubicle dressed as spiderman. And acting like spiderman. For good, story-based, character-fulfilling reasons. It's utterly, wonderfully hilarious - the kind of scene which, if I'd come up with it, I'd have thought to myself 'Well done. Take the rest of the day off.'
'Take the rest of the day off' seems to be a fairly standard expression among the comedy writing community, at least. It denotes an over-whelming feeling of pride and satisfaction at a comic masterstroke that it merits time off. It's a joke, or scene, or line, that is the perfect blend of character and story.
The Perfect Line
What I mean by that is this: A sitcom is only half an hour - 21 minutes if you're American. You don't have long. And it needs to be tight because the audience is expecting jokes. Therefore, as many lines as possible should be jokes. Or set-up to jokes. Those that are neither should be expositional - and all of the above should be done in character.
So, as a rule of thumb, if a line of dialogue isn't a joke, or a set up to a joke, or a bit of exposition, or character development, it should be cut without question. It's a waste of words and breath. The best lines are mega-jokes that move along the plot in character. Or they're just show-stopping, scene-topping jokes (eg. 'I'll have what she's having' see here)
The Awful Truth
But what is the implication in 'take the rest of the day off'? The subtext is 'Wow. That is the kind of joke that would normally take several painful, frustrating hours to come up with, but you came up with it just before lunch - so, hey, take the rest of the day off!'
And there's the rub. Those flashes are rare. And they don't just happen. They come through hard work. It would be easy to think that the writer of that Modern Family spiderman scene is just amazingly, effortlessly funny, oozing natural talent. That way, I could always assume that I would never come up with anything so good, because I'm not a genius, and so why try? Just do your best, and leave it at that.
And yet every so-called genius says the same thing: it's just hard work. Talent, yes, but mostly hard work. Thomas Jefferson apparently said, "I find that the harder I work, the more luck I seem to have." These are surely sage words. It's about putting in the hours. The fact is, that the Spiderman scene probably turned up in Draft 4, or didn't quite get the zing 'til then. Stuff that is that neat and clever normally leaves a trail of destruction and devastation in its wake. There's a hard-drive strewn with old drafts and a whole batman/catwoman sequence that should have been hilarious but just wasn't for some reason. Then the flash of genius comes.
There is no substitute for hard work. Redrafting, rethinking and rewriting. Identifying problems and fixing them. And the more we do those things, the more ideas we turn over, the more combinations of words, plots and characters we put together for a brief moment, the 'luckier' we'll be. And we'll say to ourselves, 'Take the rest of the day off', grab a coffee, and then get back to our desks to work hard enough to get lucky again.